Inside Out E-Column: Aligning Employee Engagement with Marketing Communications

Getting an A in development.

Prepared employees can completely satisfy customers
Prepared employees can completely satisfy customers.

Many people aren’t aware that Ken Blanchard, author of the classic business fable The One-Minute Manager, was a university professor before he became a renowned author and consultant. It’s not unusual for people from academia to find their way into the business world. What IS unusual, though, is how Blanchard taught his students – or rather how he tested them – and how his educational philosophy has been applied by many organizations in their employee learning and development programs.

It helps to appreciate Blanchard’s thinking if you recall the typical education that most people experienced from their earliest days in grade school. To put it simply, the teacher taught and gave homework assignments along with periodic tests. Then at the end of the year, you took the dreaded “final exam” to see how well you learned the material.

Beginning with an “A” in Mind
Blanchard thought that approach was backwards. He felt it was his duty to ensure the success of his students, and he decided the best way to do that was to give them the final exam at the beginning of the year – and then teach them what they needed to know to ace it at the end. His academic colleagues protested vehemently, but he never relented. Eventually, he left the university and took his way of thinking into the world of business.

One of his business “students” was Garry Ridge, the CEO of WD-40 Company. Ridge was so smitten with Blanchard’s philosophy that he not only adopted it in the development practices at his company – he also co-authored a book with Blanchard on the subject called Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy Called “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A.”

Like Blanchard, Ridge feels strongly that it is a manager’s duty to help every employee get A’s in their development programs. Both men are adamantly opposed to the all-too-common practice of force-fitting employees into a “normal” distribution curve when it comes time for the workplace equivalent of the final exam – the equally dreaded “annual performance review.”  As Ridge puts it, the development process suffers when “managers are forced to sort out their people into a few winners, a few losers, and a lot of average performers. Even worse is when they have to rank-order their people from first to last.”

When People Get A’s, so do their Companies
In the “Helping People …” book, Ridge lays out his approach to development which is not only highly systematic, but also grounded in meaningful human values. One of his priorities is “caring,” which for him means that “I am more interested in serving people than in having them serve me. As a result, I do anything I can to help (people) see and achieve their personal A and, in the process, realize their magnificence.”

That may sound a bit too soft and sugary for a CEO who is responsible for generating bottom line results and shareholder returns. Even though the merits of his development model should be self-evident, it’s still nice to see what it’s done for financial performance, right? So just what kind of impact has his approach had on the business? Ridge reports that since he implemented the A-based performance review method, sales have more than tripled. In that time, WD-40 Company revenues have grown from $100 million to $339 million in 2008 with an astonishing $1.1 million in sales per employee.

Part of that success comes from the dramatic impact that their development efforts have had on employee engagement – and ultimately on customer relations. In the final paragraph of their book, Blanchard and Ridge sum it up this way. “If you help your people get A’s, your performance management system will ignite them to blow away your customers with outstanding service. Why? Because people who feel good about themselves want to return the favor.”

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