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  • Susan Nicolai

Four Things I Learned about (and from) Highly Engaged Employees.



Over the past 3 years, I’ve had the luxury of personally interviewing hundreds of top-performing employees across a mid-size U.S. industry-leading firm. It provided me with some compelling insights into their hearts and minds, and their workplace-culture wants and needs. Wondering about what it takes to create high-engagement magic-mojo in your business?


Here’s four things motivated employees brought up most often when asked about what fuels their career drive and exceptional day-to-day work ethic.


1. They aspired to reach individual and personal goals. Interestingly, group performance and collaboration rose as employees were supported by people who cared about their individual success and personal happiness.


It seems counter-intuitive. Yet when a company flipped the tables and put individual goals as a priority, the result was an increase in loyalty to the team, and company, goals. Somehow, when peers and mentors focused on helping each other achieve individual goals and dreams, it created bonds that formed a supportive network underpinning the entire work unit. Highly engaged employees felt like they were supported by "everyone."


During my days in the corporate world (earlier times, I admit!), I remember colleagues telling me, “That sounds like a personal problem,” and “Don’t take it personally; it’s only work.” I never liked that 'compartmentalize it' philosophy and the feeling that "work friends" weren’t my "real friends."


It turns out, the high achievers I interviewed thrived because they did take work personally. They valued mentors and teammates who truly cared about them and their success. They told stories of rolling up their sleeves alongside mentors who happily stayed late and said, “let’s help you get this promotion.” In addition, they leaned on their mentors as guides to life issues, like finding an apartment or saving money.


Recently-promoted people said they relied on colleague role-models who functioned as hybrid career-life coaches—people they could trust to steer them down the right path as well as show up for them if they landed in the hospital or faced personal challenges. A foundation of trust led many to say they were quite okay with "tough love" when they need a little push to overcome a hurdle or make a behavioral adjustment. With the knowledge that suggestions for improvement were stemming from true caring and concern, the highly engaged employees embraced feedback and saw mistakes as learning opportunities.


2. They saw value in being presented with a clearly defined opportunity path.


These highly engaged employees were looking for genuine career progress with milestones that could be reached through measured results. They wanted to be the driver of their own destiny, and not bound to promotions limited to annual reviews, occasional vacancies, or office politics. They sought career paths where they could "follow in the footsteps" of other employees. They also were motivated by promotions, raises, bonuses, and new responsibilities that allowed them to make a greater impact on the business.


Often, companies fail to create a roadmap that affords employees the opportunity to see career paths and know what they need to do to get to their desired destination. The more formal and transparent career paths can be, the better. Achievers focused on goals and needed new targets and challenges to energize themselves.


Once the roadmap is in place, the milestones became opportunities to celebrate as a team and recognize individuals. Engagement blossomed as success and 'doing things the right way' became integrated into "the way we do things."


3. They took inspiration from their leaders and multiplied the effect.


When leaders communicated and proactively addressed tough issues and concerns, it didn’t go unnoticed. Successful employees felt that the company and its leaders cared about them; they looked to their leadership to set the example for company values and the tone of the response to issues.


One executive started weekly enterprise-wide video calls during COVID-19, becoming a steady coxswain that inspired his organization to row in unison through the turbulence of the pandemic. This leadership-led event was often referenced by the interviewees I spoke with throughout the long and challenging pandemic months. They spoke about how the CEO eased their fears and motivated them to unite and work even harder through tough times.


When leaders connected the dots from their vision and values to the thinking behind their decisions and strategies, employees felt like part of the "family." They felt needed and cared for.


I was surprised by how touched some employees were when key executives reached out to them after personal life challenges, like the death of a family member. Receiving heartfelt concern directly from the CEO and other leaders was something they weren’t expecting. While many acknowledged it sounded cliché, the typical description of their work environment was happily expressed as, "like family" and "close-knit."


4. Highly engaged employees took time to smell the flowers.


My interviewees recognized that work consumed much of their time, but they spoke about the joy of the journey: having fun with coworkers, sharing encouragement and knowledge with others, and connecting to the work itself as an act of service. They enjoyed the day-to-day, despite bad weather days. For some, the love of the company and their peers took a front seat to their specific role. It didn’t matter what they did, as long as it was here, with this group of like-minded people. For others, the joy of personal success, contributing to team success, and helping the company be successful, provided the greatest satisfaction. They liked what they did and believed in the company’s mission and way of doing business.


Engaged employees had a resiliency that came, in large part, from the culture. They were happy to show up for work each day—even knowing that the job and business could at times be disappointing—because they chose to see what they did, and who they were within the organization, as meaningful and rewarding. They felt their happiness was considered by company leaders. They celebrated being part of the collective thriving culture. They became part of a "business consciousness" that helped their company rise above external challenges.




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