Employee Engagement Drivers – Insights from a Restaurant Server, Microfinance & Fred

It happened again at lunch yesterday. My friend Russ and I were minding our own business and enjoying our conversation, chips and salsa when we were ambushed by great customer service. Guzman, an enthusiastic 20-year employee of Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant, was the culprit. He inherently understands the key employee engagement drivers.

Employee Engagement Drivers - Guzman Understands

Guzman, a standout, 20-year server at Garcia’s.
Photo Credit: Todd Kemp

That’s not a typo. Guzman, our server, has worked at this Denver restaurant for twenty years, most of them as a full-time employee.

“Twenty years!” I exclaimed.

“Yes, twenty,” he replied proudly.

According to the Nation’s Restaurant News, restaurant employee turnover is chronically high, averaging about 44% in the casual dining segment. Guzman apparently didn’t get that memo. In fact, Guzman would score his employer high on any survey of employee engagement drivers.

It begged my next question. “Why have you worked here for so long?”

Good Manager + Good Team = Employee Engagement Drivers

Without hesitation, Guzman insisted, “I have a good manager and a good team. I like the people here.”

His ready, confident answer reminds me of another conversation with a 60-year employee who attributed her long tenure to serving a great boss and a great mission.

Guzman went on to say that his manager, the owner, has trained employees to take care of all the details. He knows how to handle everything that goes on in the restaurant. He said that while it doesn’t pay a lot, he has stayed here so long because he’s treated well.

What’s Guzman’s insight into employee engagement drivers and employee retention? Social capital.

Microfinance and Relationships

I first heard the term social capital a few years ago when I asked my friend Chris Horst why the microfinance organization for which he works, HOPE International, generated such high loan repayment rates (96%) among its clients. Rated in the top 2% of all non-profits by Charity Navigator, HOPE serves the working poor in impoverished countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Haiti. Its mission is to alleviate physical and spiritual poverty through microenterprise development.

Chris’ answer to high repayment rates was social capital. Clients are personally invested in the lives of their borrower’s group. The group decides who gets to join the borrowing cohort and is responsible for their peers’ repayments if somebody runs into trouble.

HOPE International CEO Peter Greer and co-author Phil Smith, in their book, The Poor Will Be Glad, say that the most powerful aspect of microfinance “may be its ability to form lasting, deep relationships, typically involving the borrower and the loan officer.” Herein lies the opportunity for significant transformation of individuals and communities.

Relationships + Employee Engagement = Extraordinary

Our restaurant server Guzman is friendly, attentive without being overbearing, and engaged. He gave us the kind of service that made me notice. He has a way of being that suggests he takes pride in his vocation. For Guzman, serving customers is his craft.

He provides the kind of service that Mark Sanborn writes about in his books, The Fred Factor and Fred 2.0. Here’s how Mark describes it in his latest book:

What makes anyone – regardless of their position or work – memorable and extraordinary? We are most impressed not just by the quality of a person’s work but also by the way he or she treats us. Relationships are key.

Leadership Insight – Social Capital

As we left the restaurant, another server who overheard our conversation called himself the “new guy,” having worked at the restaurant for only six years! Once again, that’s exceptional for an industry where nearly half the workers turnover every year.

People engage when they’re invested in relationships.

Loans get repaid as microenterprises grow and lives flourish. Good servers stick and help cultivate winning customer experiences.

Relationships are key employee engagement drivers.

Questions: To what extent is social capital a competitive edge for your team? What’s the single, most potent step you could take in the next week to grow your team’s social capital and boost your employee engagement drivers? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Unleashing Creativity – The Leadership ‘X’ Factor for Solving Tough Problems

As CEO of a creative services firm, Steve has lived with the issue for 13 years. It’s the tyranny of continuously generating billable hours. This service business model can be feast or famine as client demand ebbs and flows.

What nagging challenge have you lived with far too long?

On what problem would you love to unleash ingenious creativity?

Creativity Proposition

Every leader can unleash ingenious creativity by embracing one leadership ‘X’ Factor.

Leadership Creativity X-Factor

Leadership X-Factor for Creativity
Photo Credit: Todd Kemp

In a recent coaching session I asked about this challenge. Steve said he’d love to solve this, but how? Where to start? He asked for help. I agreed to facilitate a creative problem solving session for his team.

Thanks to the Creative Problem Solving framework in Gregg Fraley’s book Jack’s Notebook, we helped Steve’s team identify fresh solutions. He said they’ve “reinvigorated” the team and will likely increase performance.

The Leader’s Creativity Problem

As leader, would you like to harness more creativity to solve the tough issues?

Let’s face it: other people solve easy problems. Tough challenges end up at your doorstep because you’re the leader.

That’s why 60% of CEOs in a global IBM study of 1,500 CEOs from companies of all sizes and industries cited creativity as the most important leadership quality.

I see it differently.

Is creativity vital to a CEO’s leadership and company success? Certainly.

They ignore a vital prerequisite for unleashing team creativity, however.

Steve, CEO of the creative services firm, ironically, wouldn’t side with the 60% of CEOs surveyed. Working with him, I see that Steve has the ‘X’ Factor that unleashes greater creativity and other key cultural traits.

Unleashing Creativity – The Leadership ‘X’ Factor

Steve has it. The CEOs who gather monthly in our peer advisory forum have it.

Jim Collins’ research team identified this leadership ‘X’ Factor in his seminal bestseller Good to Great.

Yet 88% of CEOs in the 2010 global study ignored it, ranking it dead last!

Innovators at AT&T’s Bell Labs who held the most patents had it.

Executives and associates at IDEO, a global design consultancy, are exemplars of the ‘X’ Factor. (See Harvard Business Review, January-February 2014, p. 53.)

Sadly, the ‘X’ Factor is readily ignored in many leadership circles.

Abraham Lincoln practiced it with aplomb. Consider these words written by the President of the United States to an up-and-coming leader:

When you first reached the vicinity of [your objective]… I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong. (Lincoln on Leadership, p. 104.)

Lincoln penned this letter of commendation to a victorious General Ulysses Grant during the U.S. Civil War.

Leadership Benefits of the ‘X’ Factor

The ‘X’ Factor enabled Steve to ask his team for help. Consequently, he gained fresh insights into long-standing challenges which reinvigorated his team.

The ‘X’ Factor causes like-minded CEOs in our peer advisory forum to seek help. They solve their tough issues and grow as leaders.

Evidence for it wouldn’t be ignored by Jim Collins. It is distinctive of Level 5 Leaders who built enduring great companies.

The ‘X’ Factor helped unleash vast innovation at Bell Labs.

It’s intentionally built into the culture at IDEO and drives innovation for clients.

The ‘X’ Factor marked President Lincoln’s leadership and helped his leaders achieve new successes.

The ‘X’ Factor and You

What problem could the ‘X’ Factor help you solve?

What issue confronts you, that if solved, could be a game-changer for you?

When you embrace the ‘X’ Factor you increase your capacity for exceptional leadership. With it, you harness the innate genius of your collective team.

What is the ‘X’ Factor?


An ancient proverb states: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.

Doug Guthrie, professor of International Business and Management at George Washington University, writes in a recent Forbes article:

 In the end, what we teach about leadership in business schools simply does not prepare students for leading, because we ignore the importance of humility in business and beyond.

Leaders who embrace humility can unleash ingenious creativity – and much more!

In what ways have you experienced authentic leadership humility, or lack thereof, and to what effect? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Team Performance – Leadership Lesson From a Multi Grand Champion Horse

Have you ever met an individual so remarkable, possessing such connection, presence and command that they left you awestruck? He or she, you might think to yourself, is the real deal. A pro’s pro. A true leader. This is one who inspires great team performance. Recently, I had such an encounter with Tomas T.

Team Performance Leadership Lesson

Tomas T, Multi Grand Champion Rocky Mountain Horse
Photo provided by current owner. Regrettably, photographer is unknown.

It was the day before Thanksgiving. Glorious blue skies, mild temperatures and distant mountain peaks garnished with snow reminded me that it was another good day to be in Colorado. A few miles outside of town, we turned onto a dirt road lined with white fences announcing pastures, ranches and a country lifestyle.

Upon arriving at the barn, my friend Stacey greeted us and introduced my kids and me to her horses. She handpicked Tomas T to be my steed for the day, while my teens met Easy Money and Glory, their new equine friends.

For the record, we are horse riding novices from the suburbs. Greenhorns. We’ve enjoyed a few trail rides where horses just plod along, nose-to-tail. That’s about it.

This day would be different.

I would also unexpectedly experience a living parable of great team performance.

The Ride

After saddling up, Stacey gave us some beginner’s instructions on how to ride our respective horses. Each had its own – shall we say – motivational preference. We practiced riding in a small corral then progressed to the bigger arena. Much to our excitement, we surpassed our previous riding experiences, gaining some decent speed in the arena.

After some practice, it was time to head out to the dirt roads of this charming ranching hamlet. Once on the open road, these horses love to run and compete with each other. My kids squealed with delight as each horse challenged the other to gallop faster down the country lane.

The Horse

As Tomas T churned his legs, I became enthralled at his sheer power, determination and focus. As we raced to the top of the hill, I held a tight rein so as to partially throttle back this Multi Grand Champion. Even so, the speed was exhilarating.

Tomas T was on a clear mission: to win the “race” back to the barn.

And yet, this powerful animal was also incredibly sensitive and responsive to his rider. Before we left the corral, Stacey had taught me that verbal cues or a squeeze of my legs would be enough for Tomas T to get his giddyup on. He did not need to feel the heels of my boots in his side.

I also learned how to signal him with a combination of a light touch of the reins and the easy pressure of my foot. This tactic could be used to quickly and completely disengage his forward momentum if needed. Stacey talked about how Tomas T, a Rocky Mountain Horse, was trained to respond to the subtle body position changes of the rider. He attends to the slightest cues from touches to various parts of his body, in addition to the reins.

In a word, this horse has presence.

The Rocky Mountain Horse Association’s magazine profiled this majestic “Rockie” about 10 years ago. The horse’s previous trainer testifies about the stallion: “Tomas T carries himself with great pride and presence.”

As I rode Tomas T, it was clear to me that he was fully on mission and fully present.

The Leadership Lesson for Team Performance

Leaders often find these two dynamics in tension with each other. Like Tomas T, great leaders attend to both. They integrate the practice of mission alongside the practice of presence. Being on mission, Tomas T was full of action, determined and focused on the goal ahead. Being fully present, he was aware, connected and responsive to his team member – me! He had distinguished himself, after all, for his ability to drive high team performance with his rider.

Great leaders are fully on mission and fully present.

Such leaders are able to lead teams with soul, draw out the highest team performance and sustain engagement and team performance.

May we all draw inspiration from Tomas T as we lead!

Questions: How do you practically integrate mission and presence in your leadership? What barriers get in your way? What’s the impact on your team performance? You can leave a comment by clicking here.