All Articles Leadership Management The answers are on the company floor

The answers are on the company floor

3 min read


While I wouldn’t go so far as call it a fun drinking game, it seems that many leadership brainiacs still like to amuse themselves by drawing the best distinction between managing and leading. Here’s my contribution to the discussion.

Managers find success in extracting the best job performance from direct reports. Leaders find success in inspiring those same people to contribute to the actual business.

If this feels like a one-hand-clapping kind of intellectual challenge from someone with too much time on her hands, consider this great story from Jim Shaffer, a management consultant who helps clients achieve their goals by — gasp! — giving employees a chance to weigh in with their solutions. While working with a heavy-industrial company, this was the question posed to him and the internal team of engineers: “How can we reduce waste by 20%?”

A worthy question, of course. And the engineers pored over their spreadsheets to see whether solutions would come alive, emerge from the grids and dance before their eyes like in a Harry Potter movie. Nothing. Not even a hint. After a lengthy silence, much consideration and deep reflection, the group soberly concluded: “Hmm.”

To which Shaffer suggested, “Let’s put the question to your employees.” To which they responded a considered “No.” Then they adjourned for a well-deserved coffee break. Shaffer took advantage of the break to walk the production floor and casually put the question to workers: “Do you think you could reduce waste by 20% if given the chance?” Their answer was also “No.”

But they also said, “Conservatively? 60%.” These people were finally given a chance to share with leadership ideas and suggestions they’d been sharing among themselves for months, if not years. That 20% goal was smoked as they met, and even exceeded, the 60% goal.

Who else is better equipped and informed in solutions for making your workplace safer, more productive, less wasteful, more innovative and more popular among your customers? In the world of employee engagement, it’s not only discretionary effort you’re looking for. It’s discretionary genius. And we’ve all got at least a little bit of that going for us daily. The question: Are our leaders smart enough to be willing to tap it?

It’s been said for centuries that “no man is a prophet in his own country.” So here’s a way to bring out the genius in your people. Stifle it so they will go to your competitor. Then you can see from a distance how brilliant they are!

Or, you can ask them what they think. Now.

Martha Finney is a Santa Fe, N.M., journalist and consultant specializing in employee engagement. The creator of team-building workshop Career Landscapes, Finney is also the author or co-author of 18 books. Her revised, expanded edition of best-seller “The Truth About Getting the Best From People” will be released this year. She can be reached at [email protected].