Walter Bond is the author of “Swim!: How a Shark, a Suckerfish, and a Parasite Teach You Leadership, Mentoring, & Next Level Success.” Bond is also a renowned business coach, motivational speaker and former NBA player. His time in the NBA taught him the fundamentals every team needs to be successful, and today he shares his knowledge with global audiences to help entrepreneurs, business leaders, sales teams and employees get to the next level. Bond has keynoted conferences in numerous countries for brands such as 3M, Hilton and Allianz.
Face it: 2022 wasn’t a great year for employee engagement. Gallup reports that only 32% of U.S. employees are engaged, while 17% are actively disengaged. You may have seen these numbers playing out in real time via rapid turnover, difficulty hiring new employees and “quiet quitting.” Wouldn’t it be great to start 2023 with a team that’s more motivated, productive, and connected — and less likely to jump ship?
The key is for leaders to unleash their inner shark — and the close of 2022 and beginning of 2023 is the perfect time to get started.
Sharks are smart, adaptable, discriminating and goal-focused. They also have symbiotic relationships with other sea creatures that benefit both parties. In humans, these qualities create great leaders, the kind people want to follow because it makes for personal fulfillment, professional success and satisfied customers.
Employees won’t ask for engagement as a gift, but deep down, it’s what they crave. And the cusp between the old year and the new naturally lends itself to taking stock of old patterns and leader/employee dynamics and committing to new ones.
Many sharks have a “team” of remoras, or suckerfish, that they tow through the ocean. In return for transportation, protection and scraps from the shark’s meals, suckerfish find and eat microscopic parasites that might otherwise kill their shark. My book, “Swim!: How a Shark, a Suckerfish, and a Parasite Teach You Leadership, Mentoring, & Next Level Success”, explores this relationship in greater depth. Readers learn that in the human world, “suckerfish” are those who need direction, coaching and guidance, and “sharks” are the empathetic, people-focused leaders who provide those things.
The more a shark — the leaders — develops, supports and cares for its team of suckerfish, the more value they’ll bring to your organization. Not only are engaged employees less likely to leave your company, they will be more productive and fulfilled at work, which of course has all sorts of positive implications for performance and culture.
Here are nine ways to keep employees engaged going further into this year. You won’t be able to make all of these changes in the next few weeks, but pick one thing to start, and as time goes on, mix and match what works best for your team.
1) “I want to make your life better!” Tell them what you’re doing and how you’ll do it. Be transparent about wanting to improve your team’s experience. Tell them what changes you’ll be making in the upcoming year and why. Then, ask them for their input. Not only will your intentions earn you some instant goodwill, their feedback and ideas might give you a better understanding of where to focus your efforts. Plus, employees are more likely to buy into a change initiative they had a hand in designing.
2) Have fun not just during special occasions, but all year round. The holiday season was the perfect time of year for casual holiday parties, celebratory brunches and gift exchanges, but don’t stop there. Throughout the year, consider catering lunch from time to time or organizing fun outings such as a happy hour, mini golf, trivia night a sports game, etc. Events like these connect employees to each other and to you. They are building blocks for engagement.
3) Introduce engagement rituals. Shared daily rituals get everyone on the same page and moving in the same direction. In “Swim!”, the main character, Scotty, shares several rituals with his team during morning huddles. For instance, “Goals and Gonnas” gives employees a chance to share their goals for the day and how they plan to accomplish them: “My goal is to finish servicing the Joneses’ unit by noon. I’m ‘gonna’ do it by cleaning the condenser fan and oiling the fan motor.” This allows employees to hold each other accountable and help each other out.
Another engagement ritual is reciting the “Sacred Six.” This reminds employees of six fundamental “shark-like” principles that will help them operate with integrity and success.
4) Create a comfortable work environment. Remember, customer experience is tied directly to employee experience. You might consider replacing worn, uncomfortable office furniture; giving people flexibility to work remotely when possible; providing snacks and coffee in the break room and making sure office supplies such as pens, staples, post-its, etc. are available.
5) Remove obstacles to their success. Disengagement — and eventually, burnout — often happens not because of a big catastrophe or crisis, but due to annoyances and inconveniences that consistently make the workday more difficult than it needs to be.
As a leader, a big part of your job is enabling your people to do their jobs, to serve them by making sure they have the tools, training and time they need. A good place to start is by removing “dead weight” like unnecessary meetings or low-value “busywork.”
6) Invest in your employees’ growth and development. When you help your “suckerfish” develop a skill, mentor them, send them to a conference, or pay for them to get a certification, it shows that you recognize their potential and want to help them reach it. This is a tremendous loyalty and engagement booster. You’re also packing your bench with future “sharks” who will be well equipped to serve your customers.
7) Ask for their input. In “Swim!”, Scotty recalls that his own “shark,” Drew, asked him a lot of questions. Often Drew already knew the answer, but he succeeded in his goal of making Scotty think through a problem or learn a lesson. Having this kind of conversation with your employees builds their confidence and strengthens their relationship with you.
Sometimes, you’ll hear innovative solutions or ideas for improvement that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself. And when employees see their input being put into practice, their sense of ownership in your company will grow.
8) Just say thanks. As simple as it is to recognize employee efforts — via handwritten notes or public recognition — leaders often get distracted and/or stressed out and forget the power of positive reinforcement. This is a huge oversight. Lack of appreciation and acknowledgment often contributes to “quiet quitting”: People feel that their efforts are taken for granted and believe that their leader cares only about results, not the people achieving them.
9) Don’t express anger when they slip up. Mistakes are simply opportunities to “fail forward.” Rather than judging or humiliating employees, support them in fixing the mistake and using it as a launch pad for improvement. If you treat employees with empathy when they’re at their worst, they will want to give you their best in the future. Also, they’ll learn problem-solving skills and feel better equipped to handle tough situations when they inevitably crop up.
There’s one caveat: These strategies work only if you lead by example. Sharks exemplify the behaviors they want their suckerfish to adopt. The more engaged you are — not just with the organization and its customers, but with your employees — the more engaged they will be. C&IT