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4 solutions to create an engaging and empowering 21st-century workplace

Fit in the company's mold or stand out and share your talent?

Two-thirds of the American employees is disheartened in their jobs according to Gallup research’s update. Gallup is calling for a major workplace disruption. What is the root cause and how can we improve our workplace? I interviewed Lori Harris, Senior Director Merchandising Operations at a Fortune 100 company. She is also the creator of a successful employee network, a certified coach and mother of two kids. Besides all these titles and roles, she appears to be an inspiration on how to create an engaging and empowering workplace.

What is wrong with today’s workplaces?

Lots of engagement and potential in the workplace is lost, because our strong tendency to fit into a mold of the ideal employee. Lori:" It is not stated overtly, but it's definitely felt. People are trying to fit themselves into this mold and what I was recognizing, people were sort of shaving off the rough edges to fit into this mold. It’s those edges what makes us unique."

Current workplaces invite us to fit in rather than to stand out. Complexities within a large global company ask for standard procedures to control business execution. Also, the large amount of employees demands standard systems to facilitate pre-defined career paths. But when we put too much emphasis on these systems, the employee has the impression that he or she has to fit in a pre-defined box to meet pre-defined competences. By now we all know creativity and innovation are the top strategic priorities (Boston Consulting Group Research). But how on earth can we avoid standard results within a standardized environment? How can we unleash creativity and how can we enable the diversity to flourish?

Lori adds, “As a large global company the power is in our diversity. If we are all trying to be the same: Fitting in vs. standing out, then we’re losing the power of that diversity".

During our interview, Lori shared how she increases pro-activity and engagement within a large company by facilitating and empowering people to stand out. What can you do as a leader, as an HR business partner and as an individual to create a successful workplace?

1. ‘See’ the people you lead – what is their untapped


“Earlier in my career, I had moments where I felt very unseen. I was just showing up at work but didn’t contribute as much as I could” As a leader you might think your employee is just not performing at his or her best, but you could also look one step further. Lori tells me how one remark hit her out of the blue. Her manager shared his impression that she would be capable of much more than she showed at the moment. He believed in her, even more than she believed in herself at that time. He saw her hidden ‘rough edges’. For Lori’s manager it may have seemed a small remark, but for her, it was empowering and meant a turning point in her career.

As a leader, you can make a huge difference by taking the time to really see your employees and recognize them in what you think their strengths and aspirations are. It seems to be a cliché, but take a few minutes to think about it.

What might be their hidden unused potential? Maybe he or she doesn’t stand out yet, but what would it take to get there?

In Lori’s case, it made her reflect on what her contribution could be. It unleashed a whole lot of unused, worthwhile potential for herself and for her company. People who can name their potential in a few words are extremely

inspiring and vital to their surroundings. When I asked her what her unique talent is, the root of all her skills, she answered instantly: “I am good with puzzles, let’s put it that way. I see connections between seemingly unconnected things. And that is true for business and strategy and it’s equally true in my interaction with people”.

2. Create a systemic approach to recognize individual talent

Lori believes attention for the individual talent should be engrained within the mindset of each manager. Putting another system in place could have the reversed result. But she took her own experience with her own manager a few steps further and decided to put a simple three level procedure in place. The magic probably lies in its intention: enable the employee to make his or her best contribution. It’s the employee who finds out, not predefined career paths.

>> First Level: When I would become an employee in her department, I would enter at the first level. At this level, I primarily focus on mastering the fundamentals of m

y new job. After all, I have to know what it means to fit in before I can stand out.

>> Second Level: Than when I would have succeeded to create efficiencies in my job, I can create the capacity to do more. In this second level, I am being encouraged to lift my head and look around. Wow, this is exciting! Where can I contribute beyond my job description? Where and how can I let my natural talent shine through and really make a difference?“This second level is where your individual development plan comes in. You can discuss this with your manager, but we also don’t want you to ask for permission. If you have the capacity we want you to use it in the way it shows your strength and helps develop you towards the future”.

>> Third level: When I would have made a clear difference, I finally arrive at level three. Now it’s time to think about my next job. I am asked to present my plan in front of the leadership team. Where do I want to head? What is my future ambition? What do I need to develop to be ready? Something you could get nervous about, but the leadership team takes the time to think what they can offer me to achieve that goal – so that I not only going to be the lead candidate but can hit the ground running: by offering me a mentor, letting me follow classes or by giving me a stretched assignment.

Imagine what this simple procedure could mean for people in your organization? Or for yourself?

3. Create a place where people feel recognized and empowered

Four years ago Lori herself realized what she would want to contribute and created a successful employee network. A place where hundreds of employees can share their unique story. A place where people can identify their unique gift, talent and power. An idea that started with a few people talking in a room has grown organically to a vivid community organizing events with speakers, Lunch & Learns, Lattes with Leaders. I truly believe we’ll see these organic forms of learning and development much more in the future: organic, agile and based on a true demand. Amazing where one person’s aspirations can lead. It pays off to take your employees desires to contribute seriously.

When I asked Lori how she turned this network into a success, she might have been too humble. She knows so well how to play the rules of the game within a large organization – how to fit in to stand out. She was smart to engage aspiring leaders for the kickoff and she gathered information from other employee networks understanding the do’s and don’ts. Then, she just started it, “I kept it under the radar, outside of the official system. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission”. A small idea is easy to suppress, but a community with 850 people on their distribution list is hard to ignore. And of course her organization is grateful - last weeks event gathered 350 people, including 40 leaders. She touches a theme that is very much alive.

People need a place where they can be themselves as the organizational arena not always allows you to be.

People like to be recognized and are eager to learn how they can tap into undiscovered strengths to realize their dreams - even within a large organization.

4. Re-consider the stories you tell yourself

It’s not only the systems or the lack of facilitation by your organization that lead to unengaged or uncreative workplaces. We, ourselves, have the key to a better workplace in our own hands as well. The theme of Lori’s career is that she didn’t limit herself by other people’s expectations or by her job description. She learned to do what she loves best and where she makes the best contribution – She learned to turn the ‘I should…’s and ‘I have to…’s into ‘I want to…’s. In her case: she created a career full of possibilities to unravel complex puzzles. In many cases, we wait for permission to lead the life we want or to have the career we admire. We tell ourselves stories that aren’t true- which are full of limiting beliefs. Let’s dissect a story a lot my ambitious coaching clients tell themselves (secretly):“I have to work hard to have success. I should become as competitive, skillful and business savvy as my peers, but it’s hard to keep up since I also want to spend time with my friends and family. I don’t envy the Vice President positions because they seem to choose between ambition and happiness”

# 1: Working hard?Is it really true that working many hours helps you to become more successful? Wouldn’t it be wiser to change the way you work? Are you working on the right things? Results of course, but how much of it is because of the recognition that comes with it?

#2: Having success?What is success in your eyes? Is it really success or significance you strive for? Along her career Lori found out that being significant is more important than being successful “What I find most important is the differentiation between success and significance. The first companies I worked for it was very much about whatever it takes to get ahead. It has been a journey to recognize that you can be significant and it’s not a competition”.

# 3: Comparing yourself?Is it really true that you should strive to become like your peers? How do you make a real difference? To be the same as your peers, or by adding your unique value?Since I realized my trainers-style was not confrontative like the senior trainer I looked up to, I could make a real difference. Before, I was performing just good with working hard, but since I experienced the value of my authentic style, more compassionate, work became much more effortless. A copy is never as good as the original.

#4: Choosing between career and personal life? Do you really have to make a choice? Or don’t you have the right examples? Lori: “I told myself that becoming a VP wouldn’t match with the lifestyle I aspired. Until I realized ‘Is that really true? It might be a complete limiting belief. They are VP’s out there that have made different choices. We have to put them in the spotlight so that other people can see and start to believe other stories”.

Next time when you hear yourself thinking ‘I should…’ or ‘I have to…or else…’Stop…., Pause….and think what limiting beliefs might exist in your story. Lori: “Let’s tell ourselves a different story that is true that has more possibility attached to it than the limiting one that we’ve been telling ourselves”.

Let’s create and share empowering stories that lead to healthy, happy workplaces where each individual can show his or her true colors, feels alive and can add a unique value. The creativity and engagement that comes with that, together with the standards and efficiency will lead us to thriving results in 21st economy.


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