Maneuver and Values-Based Leadership in Business

Interactive forum for the exchange of ideas pertaining to: the experiences of the change management consulting and hands-on leadership training firm, Santamaria & Martino LLC and the message of our book, The Marine Corps Way, which applies military strategy and leadership to business

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Monday, September 05, 2005

Recognizing Superior Achievement

This posting on recognizing superior achievement in an organization is the third in a three-part series on how we helped a consulting client effect major cultural change. Our previous two postings (July and August 2005) described how we helped our client improve downward communications and create a meaningful set of core values.

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Many managers dismiss the recognition of superior achievement as "touchy-feely" or "nice to have . . . if I weren't so busy." But in those companies that are widely heralded for having high-performing cultures - such as Southwest Airlines and FedEx - recognition of superior achievement remains a top priority for managers at all levels. Below, we describe how we helped a 300-member organization revitalize a program for the tiered recognition of achievement, which not only bolstered morale but also served as a powerful means to reinforce desired behaviors, such as initiative, creativity, individual responsibility, and cross-functional cooperation.

The Challenge

Despite numerous "individual acts of brilliance" that enabled the organization to succeed in spite of considerable resource constraints and corporate "involvement", individual contributors and junior managers were not receiving their due recognition for "going above and beyond the call of duty." Although two formal programs existed, recognition was simply not a priority for senior managers, who were preoccupied with their own day-to-day responsibilities, and HR, which was focused on enforcement of corporate policies and regulations.

How We Solved It

Questioning the sustainability of an intense working environment where people did not feel appreciated, we challenged everyone - particularly senior managers - to make recognition a priority.

Revitalized the two existing recognition programs. The first existing program - "Gem Cards" - enabled peers to reward each other for relatively small achievements; Gem Cards could be redeemed in sets of 5, 10, 15, etc. for gift certificates or dinner vouchers. The second existing program - "Extra Effort Awards" - enabled managers to recognize individual contributors for more significant achievements; one Extra Effort Award could be redeemed for a team dinner, where the manager would often praise the individual contributor in front of the entire team. Curiously, both of these programs had "fallen by the wayside" over the previous four years, as the organization's work environment intensified in the face of deteriorating market conditions. Realizing their value and not feeling the need to "re-invent the wheel", we "dusted them off" and added a third.

Created a special award for behavior that exemplified the organization's core values. For the most noteworthy achievements, we asked the general manager of the organization to recognize a select group of individuals in front of all 300 employees at each quarterly "all hands" meeting. Two weeks before each meeting, we solicited nominations via a special e-mail address that IT created for us. We then reviewed the nominations and categorized them as "yes - pending further investigation", "maybe - pending further investigation", or "no." When we agreed that a nomination warranted a "yes" or "maybe", we conducted follow-up, in-person interviews with the submitter, the nominee's manager, and the nominee's peers; the follow-up interviews were always necessary to provide the additional color we needed to complete brief (300 word) narratives for "yes" nominations or make final decisions on "maybe" nominations. When we did not deem the achievement commensurate with the highest level of recognition (which was approximately 50% of the time), we encouraged the submitter to nominate the individual for an Extra Effort Award or Gem Card. Then, before each quarterly "all hands" meeting, we asked the general manager to 1) read the narratives that we had completed and 2) present the selected nominees with personalized plaques and mounted copies of the narratives. While these "Core Values" awards carried no monetary compensation whatsoever, they were embraced at all levels of the organization and proved to be a highly effective source of motivation.

Communicated the details of the three tiers of recognition to the entire organization. At the first quarterly "all-hands" meeting of 2004, we provided both verbal and written descriptions of the Gem Card, Extra Effort, and Core Values awards and their corresponding criteria. And prior to subsequent quarterly "all hands" meetings, we reminded all members of the organization to submit nominations via e-mail.

Formed a special committee to institutionalize the recognition process. The repeated use of "we" in the above paragraphs was intended to highlight the participation of a cross-functional committee of dedicated volunteers, who individually investigated "yes" and "maybe" submissions and collectively decided on nominations. Ensuring that the right people were being recognized for the right achievements in the right manner was a time-consuming and (ironically) thankless endeavor, but the volunteers' dedication ensured the program's ongoing success - even after the initial novelty wore off.

Lessons Learned and Prescriptions

Employees who witness their peers receiving recognition for superior achievement say to themselves one of two things: "I sure would like to be up there" or "this is bogus." The narrative is absolutely critical: the effectiveness of the recognition is absolutely dependent upon who is recognized for what and why

  • Who: be sure to double-check the submission with the nominee's supervisor and peers. In one instance, we failed to solicit input from a recipeint's peers, and the "Core Values" award actually had a damaging effect because the recipient, who always managed to maintain appearances with supervisors, was actually notorious for failing to follow through on commitments to teammates
  • What: thorough research begets tangible, illustrative examples that resonate with audiences infinitely more than do flowery words. Many of the cryptic or incomplete written submissions we received required us to conduct follow-up inverviews in person
  • Why: you must explain the linkage between the recognized achievement and your organization's core values, strategy, or business needs in the clearest and simplest terms possible; what may be obvious to you may not be as evident to others, who lack your perspective

Making recognition of superior achievement a priority is a time-consuming endeavor that you cannot abandon after the initial novlety wears off

  • Don't initiate a recognition initiative unless you are prepared to "stick with it" over the long haul

Similarly, the degree to which you are able to encourage nominations from "busy" submitters depends on the amount of work you are willing to do. In an effort to avoid dissuading potential submitters, we allowed "free-form" nominations via e-mail, but these nominations invariably required significant follow-up research and refinement on our part

  • Consider creating a simple template of required questions that submitters must answer

Presenting an award for the sake of presenting an award is tempting

  • If the achievement is not commensurate with the award, do not present the award; you will undermine the credibility of the recognition program. From the outset, we made it very clear to the entire organization that there could be quarters when no one would receive an award

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