You’ve read all the articles about employee engagement. It boosts corporate performance. It creates winners.
Well, maybe. But what if it’s the other way round, namely that improving business results—winning—drives engagement? Before you dismiss this idea as crazy, consider the following.
The annual NCAA college basketball tournament, known as March Madness, came to a stunning close last night, with Villanova winning. Congrats to Villanova—but it was another Catholic university that really caught our attention.
Loyola-Chicago didn’t make it to the finals, only to the semis. But the team’s success, going from the underdog #11 seed to the Final Four, stirred the hearts and imaginations of people all over the country.
At the outset, the odds of Chicago-Loyola making it to the final four were 250 to 1. But the team had some unusual assets. A 98-year-old basketball-mad nun, university chaplain Sister Jean, who became the team’s symbol and inspiration as well as its biggest fan. A standout player, senior guard Donte Ingram, who had to cope with the tragic death of a close high-school teammate as he worked his way to stardom. A couple of heart-stopping games, including Loyola’s first-round victory over Miami, pulled out in the last second as Ingram sank a three-pointer.
The story’s effects were hard to deny. Chicagoans, along with fans all over the Midwest, were talking about little else. Sales of Loyola-related merchandise shot up. Jennifer Clark, the university’s associate vice-president of civic engagement, wrote to the Chicago Tribune that the surrounding community of Rogers Park, a low-income neighborhood plagued by violence, had caught the fever. “It was like Donte Ingram reached through the TV, grabbed a poor kid in an ‘at-risk’ situation and pulled him through the screen, across the court and into college life. It only took one magic three-pointer.”
Maybe you’re wondering what all this has to do with business. We suggest that you think about the early days of Southwest Airlines.
That, too, was a Cinderella story. The airline business was heavily regulated back then, with half a dozen big companies flying government-approved routes at government-set fares. Herb Kelleher and his cofounders came up with the idea of flying only in Texas, which would take the fledgling airline out of the Civil Aeronautics Board’s jurisdiction. Even so, Southwest just barely managed to fight off legal challenges and assemble the capital it needed to get off the ground.
But it did, and its rock-bottom fares and friendly customer service generated a level of enthusiasm that no one had ever seen in the stodgy industry. Passengers flocked to Southwest, and they have been flocking ever since. The airline’s winning record over the last 40 years is unmatched in the industry. Equally unmatched is the level of employee engagement and customer enthusiasm. If you were given a choice between Southwest and oh, say, United, which would you fly?
Or look at Apple. Today it’s the world’s most valuable company, but back in the 1970s it was just a couple of guys in a garage. What set it apart was the technical skill of Steve Wozniak and the imagination and drive of Steve Jobs, who insisted on making its products into something that users would truly love. To be sure, Jobs came to be known as a ruthless competitor and a bullying, demanding boss—maybe not the perfect role model for an engaging manager. But under Jobs, Apple put together one success after another, creating a near-cultlike following among employees, customers, and shareholders.
Not every company can be a Southwest or an Apple. They’re exceptional organizations, created in exceptional circumstances. What every company can do, however, is care about winning—about being the best in its class, about taking the game to a new level, about constantly challenging itself and its competitors to improve. It can celebrate its victories and learn from its defeats. It can pull together to accomplish things that once seemed impossible.
Please don’t misunderstand. We’re not advocating winning at all costs, as Enron once set out to do. We remain fans of things like transparency, clear common goals, listening, aligned incentives, respect, and all the other attributes that are commonly associated with engagement and winning. But if your goal is to win while staying well within the rules of ethics and good sportsmanship, you enhance all these attributes. And the number of people who want to be associated with you—as employees, as customers, and as investors—soars. You create engagement through your victories.