After a recent workout, I stopped in to say “hello” to Rick, the sales manager at my gym. I found him agonizing over whether to fire one of his salesmen, Keith.

I was stunned. Keith signed me up. He takes care of any customer’s complaint, whether it’s his client or not. “Every time I come into this gym, Keith greets me with a smile and leaves me feeling like I matter,” I told Rick. “Why would you terminate him?”

Rick sighed and said, “He hasn’t consistently met his sales quota for nearly three years.”

“Tell me something else about Keith, Rick.”

“Like what?”

“Where does he want to be in his career in the next year or two? What skills or experiences would he like to gain?”

“I don’t know.”

Lack of ambition, missing the mark with sales, poor retention, lack of collaboration – all these are symptoms of a greater problem. As Libby Sartain, senior vice president of human resources at Yahoo!, says in Herb Greenburg’s book, Success on Your Own Terms, “Most people really want to make a difference. And they want to feel they are a part of a community. Ultimately, they want to add value and … feel valued.”

Yet, according to Talent Management Magazine, only 42 percent [of employees] think their leaders inspire and engage them. There are lots of good leaders who could be great if they just understood that to inspire, they must engage. And to engage, they must know their employees.

I encouraged Rick to have a one-on-one conversation with Keith. “Ask him where he sees himself career-wise in the next six months to a year,” I suggested. “It’s likely he won’t have an answer. And, that’s fine – for a week. Then, insist on an answer to what skills and experiences he would like to gain.” Doing so, I explained, would demonstrate his honest interest in Keith’s long-term success, which would naturally make Keith want the same for Rick and the company.  

Rick seemed doubtful, but he promised to try it before handing Keith a pink slip.

The very next day, a beaming Rick invited me into his office. “I had that conversation with Keith yesterday,” he said. “Just walk by his office. The guy is radiating.”

I poked my head into Keith’s office. Sure enough, he was lit up. I was headed upstairs for my workout, feeling inspired, when it occurred to me that Rick might think, “Job done. Now, Keith will produce.” On my way out, I shared one of my favorite Zig Ziglar quotes with Rick. “While the tornadoes and hurricanes get all the publicity, did you know it’s the termites that do the most damage?” I said. “It’s those small steps, consistently taken, that have the biggest impact.” And I congratulated him on taking his first small bite.

Two weeks later, Keith reached his number.

Just like successful business leaders would never go into meetings with potential clients without knowing something about their companies, successful leaders can’t expect to influence people into greatness without knowing them, demonstrating that they care and creating an environment where employees want to excel.

Rock on,

Misti Burmeister, best-selling author of From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations

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