My 3-year-old son kept running up to a big boulder in our back yard. He wanted me to chase him; he wanted to play. Two minutes earlier we had a completely different plan in mind – two minutes earlier he was immensely excited about helping me water our vegetables in the greenhouse.
I've learned by now that he quickly gets distracted even from things he is passionate about. So I gently reminded him, "Remember, let’s play with water in the greenhouse!"
"Oh yeah!" He shot a look to where we were headed and started climbing back down to the path.
A minute later, a tree – a climbing tree – tugged him away from our mission. So I reminded him and we stepped a bit closer to our goal.
I must have repeated this sequence four times before we were finally able to sate the plants. It hit me then how like children we remain. How true leaders understand this while the rest of us just grow frustrated.
On Tuesday, I was with a peer group of strategy heads I organize – people from noncompeting firms, most Fortune 500 – that focuses on CEOs and setting strategy. One of the attendees is the former chief people officer of Pepsi, Michael Feiner, who wrote a great book called, "The Feiner Points of Leadership".
Everyone was concerned with how companies can keep employees motivated in a downturn, especially when you can no longer bribe them with bonuses. Feiner talked about "building the cathedral," and said that some employees are just laying bricks while others – the excited ones – are building the cathedral.
Great innovators – people who have really made an impact on the world – understand that to keep people seeing the cathedral requires repeated reminders. Just as I needed to remind my son four times about watering the plants, great innovators remind people of the cathedral they are building perhaps hundreds of times a year.
"People want meaning," Feiner said.
Meaning comes, I believe, from seeing yourself in a story that has an end that matters.
Great military leaders and sports coaches have understood this principle and mastered its application for centuries. For people to win, they have to see the win as possible. For this to happen they must see themselves in a story that wins in the ends.
So ask yourself the questions below to see how you can remind your employees that they are part of something bigger and better than themselves.
1. What story am I living – and telling my people – right now?
2. Where is that story leading? Is it leading to a cathedral? If not, rewrite it.
3. How can I make my story more exciting and inspiring?
4. How can I give my people enough encouragement to continue to give their best performance?