Article: O C Tanner's David Sturt on inspiring great work

#HR Industry

O C Tanner's David Sturt on inspiring great work

In a forthright conversation with People Matters, David Sturt, EVP, O.C. Tanner Institute gives a peek into what inspires great work, modern leadership practices, managing to value creation, and appreciation as a powerful magnet in an organizations culture
O C Tanner's David Sturt on inspiring great work

"Modern leadership practices have changed. They now call for leaders to focus more attention on tapping into the discretionary effort of those they lead and shift towards “managing for value creation,” by helping their team members come up with new ideas, innovations, and a steady stream of improvements"

David Sturt is the Executive Vice President at O.C. Tanner and an employee engagement expert. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Great Work: How To Make A Difference People Love”  and has been a leading innovator in the engagement and recognition industry, helping to pioneer the first-ever web-based recognition programs, and leading how the world's top organizations think about accomplishing and appreciating great work. David holds a bachelor’s degree in human resources and an MBA focused in strategy and marketing. He has been the Vice President of Product Development and Technology at Learning.com and over 18 years at O.C. Tanner, and consults with Fortune 500 leaders and speaks to audiences worldwide. 

At O.C. Tanner, you help and support leaders and organizations to appreciate people who do great work. What are the biggest challenges you have encountered in changing mindsets and behaviors while doing this?

One of the biggest mindset challenges comes from managers. Many managers, particularly older, more seasoned leaders, did not receive recognition as they came up through the ranks. Often these managers feel that appreciation is found in their paychecks. As they now find themselves managing younger employees, they can’t quite understand why these younger employees expect to receive recognition and praise for a job well done. I have found that this requires a mindset change that has everything to do with engagement. In previous decades, where the prevailing management philosophy was based on “managing to compliance,” workers simply needed to do as they were told. Performance reviews assessed whether they were performing to expectations. Modern leadership practices have changed. They now call for leaders to focus more attention on tapping into the discretionary effort of those they lead. They have to shift towards “managing for value creation,” by helping their team members come up with new ideas, innovations, and a steady stream of improvements. This requires leaders to be facilitators, coaches, encouragers, and appreciators of great work whenever they see it, fueling the behaviors and results that move the team forward. Once leaders understand the mindset shift, they can more effectively adjust their behaviors and become better leaders. 

Talking about your book Great Work, how do you define ‘great work’? How do you know when you’ve done something great?

To better understand “great work,” let’s start with what good work is. Good work is about meeting expectations, keeping commitments, and effectively delivering on what was promised. The majority of work people do every day is good work. Good work is valuable and important. However, great work is something different. Great work is doing something better than expected; it is something that delights the customer of the work and is ultimately about making a difference that people love. The measure of whether we have done good work or great work is determined not by us, but by the recipient of the work. They are the ones to who experience the difference and can compare to what they expected. Did the outcome exceed the customers’ expectations? Did it create new value for them? Did it deliver something better than was done before? Great work is usually easy to spot and measure. 

The ‘Great Work’ study defines the five skills people use to make a difference that others love. What are these five skills that are predictors of great work?

 The first skill is something we call “Ask the Right Question”. This entails an intentional and deliberate questioning of what people would really love. Frequently, we found that great outcomes started with great questions — questions that disrupted prevailing assumptions provoked fresh thinking and pointed towards new discoveries about what would truly delight customers.

The second skill is called “See for Yourself”. People who used this skill found ways to get new totally perspectives by actually going and seeing — observing what the customer was trying to do. These new perspectives sparked new insights. The new insights gathered from direct observation shined a spotlight on hidden customer needs and new ways to provide solutions for them.

The third skill we saw people using that lead to great work is something we call “Talk to your Outer Circle”. This skill is about having discovery conversations with people you typically don’t talk to. Most people have an inner circle — a very small network of people they usually talk to at work. The problem with this is that people in their inner circles have very similar mindsets to their own, and are poor sources of fresh, disruptive, innovative thinking. We observed that those who had conversations with people in their “outer circle” (far away from their own knowledge domains) generated much more innovative solutions. This counter-intuitive behavior has also been shown in other research studies to be a vital source for innovation.

The fourth skill we called “Improve the Mix”. This is a skill that involves thinking about your work output as a “mix” of ingredients. This allows workers to consider what new ingredients they may add to their existing mix that could increase the value. Or, likewise, which current ingredients could they remove from the mix to improve the overall experience for the customer. This “ingredient” approach generates virtually limitless possibilities and helps break free from a fixed mindset.

The fifth skill we saw that produced great work, was what we called “Deliver the Difference”. This skill is all about seeing things all the way through until you know the difference was made. Too many people who do good work, walk away from a project when they think it is done, not when they have actually measured the difference made. For those who did great work, they stayed with the project after it was “finished” and they discovered other ways to improve things by gathering feedback on what was working and what was not. 

A company’s culture is an invisible human operating system that governs how the company runs and what it really values — it is more powerful than strategy and more influential than leadership

In the age of the connected stakeholders (employees, partners, customers and the communities), a company’s culture is its brand. How can organizations intentionally create and cultivate a healthy culture?

A company’s culture is an invisible human operating system that governs how the company runs and what it really values. It is more powerful than strategy and more influential than leadership. Companies are discovering that in order to create alignment across all of their stakeholders, they need to be transparent with everyone about what is valued—what is appreciated. Appreciation serves as a powerful magnet in a company’s culture. Its presence signals to everyone what is truly valued, and it attracts people and their best work to it. If companies want to establish a sustained flow of great work, they need to be absolutely focused on appreciating great work. They need to highlight great work, talk about what great work looks like, celebrate great work, and recognize the people doing the great work. Such clarity around what is appreciated provides direction and alignment for all stakeholders and creates a healthy culture that inspires engagement and fuels differentiation and success.  

We all know the power that appreciation holds. Tell us, why recognition and appreciation are important influencers of great work. And if appreciation is a great teacher, then why don’t we learn? 

Recognition is an essential response to great work. People choose to invest their discretionary and creative efforts in great work if they feel it will be valued, appreciated, and reciprocated. At the outset of every great work endeavor, there is the hope and expectation that the work will actually make a difference. If nothing is said or done to communicate that the difference was in fact made and appreciated, then employees quickly learn to scale back their engagement levels commensurate with the organization’s levels of engagement toward them. When we asked over 1,000 employees what was the single most important thing their leader or company could do to cause them to do more great work, the number one response was recognition. It was higher than autonomy, higher than promotions, and even higher than increased pay. Appreciation is a great teacher to employees of what is valued, why their extra efforts matter, and showcases for all employees the great work that is the life-blood of progress in every company. Appreciation is not a one-time experience. It needs to be a natural, authentic, and consistent response every time great work is produced. When it becomes second-nature in teams and organizations, it fuels the human spirit and sustains the engine of their continued success.

Appreciation is not a one-time experience — it needs to be a natural, authentic, and consistent response every time great work is produced

We have seen a move from standardization of rewards to their individualization. How crucial do you think reward segmentation and recognition is in order to achieve the impact that organizations are trying to make?

Every great reward and recognition strategy begins with understanding what people value and what will best communicate the company’s expression of appreciation to them. This takes a more flexible, individualized approach to achieve. When we take into consideration how people want to be recognized and rewarded for their great work, we must be mindful of the various “ingredients” that contribute to the recognition experience. These include the variety and levels of awards offered, the way technology contributes to the experience, what is said by leaders and other colleagues, how the recognition is presented, and what is done to enable lasting memories of the great work achieved. Ultimately, recognition is about delivering a very personal and meaningful experience, so it is no surprise that the strategies, technology, processes, and tools must be reflective of that level of individualization.   

“Without the cultural aspect, it’s impossible to get engagement.” Please tell us more about this and how organizations can create such a culture.

Too often well-intentioned leaders think that they can “drive” engagement across their organizations. What they clearly don’t understand is that engagement is something that is voluntarily given, not something that can be driven and extracted from people. People choose to engage. They choose to give you their discretionary effort or not. They make choices about their levels of engagement every day. Instead of thinking about trying to drive people, instead, we need to think about what facilitates them choosing to engage. In a recent global study on workplace culture, the O.C. Tanner Institute uncovered six aspects of workplace culture that employees deem vital to their decision to join a company, engage in their work, and stay at their company when other opportunities present themselves. Those six most important dimensions of healthy workplace cultures from the perspective of employees are: Purpose, Opportunity, Success, Appreciation, Wellbeing, and Leadership. When companies go to work on improving these aspects of their cultures, they not only see higher levels of engagement but also better performance and financial results.  

Please tell us about the talent magnet framework that had been developed by O.C. Tanner. How do you think HR professionals could use them to create and shape the culture of the organization

Many HR professionals around the world understand the important role that workplace culture plays in the success of the organization. However, very few have a framework for shaping their culture strategies, knowing what to work on, or for measuring the effectiveness of their culture initiatives. After the extensive research we have conducted around the world in workplace culture, we are confident that the Talent Magnet framework is well-researched and will provide an effective tool for shaping culture strategy, working on the elements that really matter to employees, and measuring the effectiveness of their efforts to improve it. 

How crucial is for the HR to build a marketplace within the organization that would help match the projects with the high-potentials?

Many companies are facing a difficult challenge. They don’t have the same rapid growth trajectory they used to, which means they don’t have the same ability to provide career promotions to their high-potential employees. I have seen several forward-thinking companies innovate in this area by creating “exchanges” or “marketplaces” for high potential employees to find project teams that they can join to give them more opportunity and visibility within the organization. This benefits the company by moving key projects forward with strong teams, as well as providing growth and development experiences for employees they want to develop and keep in the organization. 

Topics: HR Industry, Employee Engagement Ideas, Culture

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