Engagement: An Idea to Get Behind

This teddy bear is on his way to a new life in New Jersey – with lots of hugs from Texas!

I witnessed an amazing example of engagement in action last week. In less than 48 hours, a teacher at my daughter’s school rallied the entire community to donate truckloads of supplies and more than $10,000 for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, and then personally drove the donations over 1500 miles from Dallas to families in need in New Jersey. His example of servant leadership has inspired and energized his colleagues, students and their parents in a way I haven’t seen in the entire four years we have attended this school.

The real engagement story, however, occurred before these events, during the lead-up conversation the teacher had with his supervisor about his idea. While I was not present during this conversation, I imagine it went something like this:

Teacher: “I have an idea about a way our community can help Hurricane Sandy victims.”

Supervisor: “Mmmm … sounds interesting. Tell me more.”

Teacher: “Well, I thought we could collect donations here at the school, then use the school vans to drive them to a church I have been talking to in New Jersey whose families need help.”

Supervisor: “Wow, that’s an ambitious plan. I can see you are really excited about this. What can I do to help?”

Teacher: “I am probably going to miss a few days of work, because it is a long drive to New Jersey. Oh, would it be OK if I take the big trailer too? We could use the camping supplies in it to cook and serve a few meals while we are there.” (Note: they served more than 700 meals in 48 hours – so awesome!).

Supervisor: “I don’t see any reason why not. Why don’t you talk to the PE department about using the gym to collect and sort the donations? And take a few of those guys with you, so you don’t have to drive alone.”

The key to engagement here is not only the way the supervisor – our wonderful Head of School – got behind this teacher and supported his idea, but also the things she did not do, such as:

  • She didn’t blow the idea off as a pie-in-the-sky, doesn’t-have-a-chance-of-happening, nobody-has-time-for-this thing. Instead, she let the teacher take the idea forward while demonstrating her visible support by forwarding his email request for donations to the entire school community – less than 48 hours later!
  • She didn’t ask a gazillion questions. Instead, she trusted the teacher to figure out a plan to make his idea work. While questions can sometimes be important for shaping ideas, too many right away convey that you don’t fully trust your employee to do the right thing (or to do anything right). The feeling of not being trusted will kill an idea – and any positive engagement it generates – very quickly. I used to work with someone who described her boss’s questions as, “Death by a thousand pin pricks.” OUCH!
  • She didn’t take any credit for the teacher’s great idea. In fact, when the TV crews came around to get the story – and they came three different times! – she stood off to the side, tacitly encouraging the teacher to handle the reporters’ interview questions and directing all the recognition and high-fives to the teacher and his team.

The next time a member of your team brings you a great idea, how will you use the opportunity to build engagement?

Your response and actions may set the stage for something larger than life, like we saw at my daughter’s school. The events of the past week have illustrated for me how one person with a good idea and the passion and support to bring it to life can motivate and inspire an entire community. How amazing would it be to get all that for your team – from just one idea!?

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults. You can reach her at hnelson@www.people-results.com or on Twitter at @HeatherGNelson1. Sign up to receive the PeopleResults blog at Current.