By David Casullo, President

When I worked at furniture retail giant Raymour & Flanigan, I was the member of a senior leadership that that prided itself on its high-performance focus.  The company had enjoyed exponential growth because of the extraordinary quality of our people, at every level.   Yet something was missing.  While the organization’s glass was quite full, our CEO realized that he usually focused his attention on the portion of the glass that remained empty.  This was a mixed blessing: We were always striving to get better, but were we really doing enough to recognize our peak performers?  Not really.  Our CEO realized that failing to do so could de-energize his high-performing team over time.

With leadership team development in mind, we decided to hold an annual two-day event to recognize the top 5% of employees across the company.  They were invited to a luxurious mountain resort along with their spouses.  After a first day of fun and relaxation, the first night featured an elegant gala with speeches from the CEO along with a few surprise guests—often from the world of sports.  The focus was on celebrating the previous year’s big wins.  The CEO put these great accomplishments in context with many terrific stories about the company’s early days.  “I remember when we had a $150,000 day, and we were giving each other high-fives,” he told the crowd.  “This year our single best day was $29 million… That’s more than we sold in all of 1984!”

After an evening of whooping it up over the individual and company achievements, the focus shifted on day two.  Now we drilled into our next steps in leadership team development.  He’d use metaphors to fire people up.  He equated being a top 5% performer to making it onto the Olympic team.  “Last year you were amazing: It’s as if you ran the 100 meters in 9.9 seconds.  That’s the best anyone has ever done here… But now we need you to get that great time down to 9.4 seconds if we’re going to win because we’re facing better competition.”

He proceeded to spell out exactly what that would mean for each function—right from his mouth to their ears.  The CEO really did his homework: He’d ask me to fill him in on his employee’s concerns and questions in advance, and then he’d figure out how he would attack those directly during the event. He was brilliant at that.  Throughout the two days, he’d walk around and talk with everyone.  In addition to offering his personal congratulations, he knew every region and store inside out and could speak directly to the challenges and opportunities that every peak performer faced. He would make connections between his own past challenges and the current obstacles people needed to overcome—a very energizing exchange for a peak performer to have with the CEO. 

Ultimately, those peak performers would return to their own regions and teams, armed with a DVD that captured the CEO’s powerful message.  This helped those performers spread the CEO’s message to fire up everyone who worked for them.  This ensured that everyone in the organization was aligned with the strategy and vision from the top—a crucial step in leadership team development and a theme I explore extensively in my new book, Leading the High-Energy Culture (McGraw-Hill, March 2012).

This focus on celebrating the big wins helped ensure that the best of the best at this organization not only maintained their impressive level of energy; these true believers also became an effective means of cascading communication to the whole company.  When the cascading message was most effective, others  became self-motivated to figure out what it would take to crack that top 5% in the year to come.

If you’re like most leaders, you spend a lot of time thinking of how things could be better.  And that’s great!  Just don’t forget to devote some energy toward celebrating the part of the glass that’s full—and raising that glass to salute those employees who will help it overflow.


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