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Making A Difference

By Chuck Violand

May 26, 2014

Political commentators Cokie and Steve Roberts wrote an article about a survey Gallup and Purdue University conducted to determine what things have the most influence on successful college graduates who are engaged at work and experiencing high well-being after graduation. (This means being productive workers in our companies). The results showed that it mattered very little what school the student attended. Instead, being a successful graduate appeared to have more to do with their overall college experiences and the teachers who taught them. Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, told the Wall Street Journal “Having a teacher who believed in a student makes a lifetime of difference.” I couldn’t agree more, and the same applies to employers.

When you consider that the companies we run are the only “college” many of our employees will ever attend, and that we and the managers we employ are the professors from whom our workers learn, it sure shines new light on the impact we have on the lives of those who work for us—not to mention our responsibilities.

Much of what a student remembers from their college experience doesn’t have to do with text books or class room learning. Instead, it has to do with relationships and interactions with other people. It has to do with a teacher who recognizes a struggling student and takes a little extra time to work with them.

If you’re thinking this means we need to be soft on our people, think again. It means we should continue to set the bar of expectation high at every level within our companies. In the article, Steve Roberts relates a story about one underprivileged student who came from a broken home and never seemed to have enough time to focus on his class. He was taken off guard when the student asked him “What do you expect of me?” He responded “Excellence, damn it, and I’m not getting it from you.” Apparently tough love was what she needed because she ended up becoming one of his top students.

In the same vane it doesn’t matter if it’s grade school, high school, or college—most of us don’t remember the teachers who let us do poor work and skate through their classes. Instead, it’s the teachers who set high standards, held us accountable to perform, and who got the most from us that we talk about fondly as adults.

How often do we avoid a tough love approach with our people, or lower our expectations for fear they may quit, leaving us with the difficult and expensive task of replacing them? Admittedly, no one wants to go through the anguish of needlessly replacing a worker. But what kind of employment culture are we creating when we don’t set high expectations of our people? If people are drawn to companies by the culture that resides within, what caliber of people will we attract with mediocrity?

The most important lessons people learn about their jobs aren’t learned in training classes, workshops, or seminars. The most important lessons are learned every day—in the field, in the office, and on the shop floor—through the millions of small interactions that take place between people. These are the lessons people remember and that affect their performance in their jobs and in their lives.