Kerrying On

The Importance of Intent

When I was twelve years old and William “Pop” Noonan first invited me to operate his corner grocery store while he spent his Saturdays running errands, I quickly accepted the job—and then repeatedly botched it. I took so many missteps that I’m sure he would have fired me were it not for the fact that he was my grandfather.

For example, on the very first day at work, Mrs. O’Malley asked me for two pounds of cheese for the casserole she was making. I cut off a hunk from the bulk slab, weighed it, cut another chunk, weighed it, and continued whacking and weighing until there were two chunks and nine odd-shaped chips and clumps of cheese that came to exactly two pounds—just as requested.

Mrs. O’Malley took one look at the motley stack, shook her head and muttered, “Kids!” I was only a kid, so grandpa didn’t fire me simply because I didn’t know proper cheese-cutting protocol.

He probably should have fired me when I invited a couple of friends to visit me at the store one Saturday, and we produced and distributed our very own candy invention—chili powder gum. Noonan’s Grocery sold hollow gumballs and cans of chili powder, plus there were lots of kids coming and going. It was the perfect storm, and many a neighborhood kid was caught by surprise when he or she unsuspectingly bit into one of our concoctions. Despite the outcries of the neighborhood kids, Grandpa still didn’t dismiss me.

The biggest mistake I made came a couple of years later, when business for corner grocery stores had slowed to a trickle. Because of this, I agreed to help my friend Rick Eherenfield with his algebra during the long breaks between customers. I was a year ahead of Rick in math, and could be of some use to him. By my estimation, I was doing a nice thing.

Rick and I were in the back room noodling over his algebra assignment when the brass bell hanging over the front door rang. I jumped to my feet and ran through the swinging door that hung between the store and the back room and up to the counter. There stood Mrs. Kratz. Uh oh. Not Mrs. Kratz. She was one of those rare customers who still did all of her shopping at the corner store. One look at her resolve and I could tell that fetching and bagging her groceries was going to take a long time. Rick was waiting in the back room. We had algebra to do. And then there was the fact that Mrs. Kratz criticized my every move. The overall effect was to put me in a big hurry to finish the job and return to the back room where the meaning of X was still waiting to be discovered.

Mrs. Kratz was having none of it. “I’ll have a dozen slices of bologna,” she drawled. Next came a carton of cigarettes, needles for her sewing kit, and a package of Rit Dye for a faded shirt she was reclaiming. What did I prefer—dark purple or a slightly less dark purple? It plodded along like this for fifteen minutes.

Finally came the summing of the bill. I looked down on a paper bag that I had used to write the prices of her purchases, added them up, and pronounced the total: “Twelve seventy-three.” Mrs. Kratz made me sum it again. Then again. Eventually, she snatched up her two bags, I opened the front door for her, and the bell rang twice—Ding! Ding!—announcing my escape from her tyranny. I bolted to the back room and continued helping Rick with his algebra.

Three days later, Grandpa summoned Mom, Dad, and me to the store for a short visit. Once gathered, Grandpa explained that I had lost him his longest standing and most loyal customer—Mrs. Kratz. She complained that while serving her, I had been in such a hurry to get her out the front door that it was disrespectful. According to her, I kept looking at my watch and rapidly tapping a pencil. She had never seen such impertinence and would “never darken the door” of Grandpa’s store again. It was then that I learned that even though I had gone through all the motions and had helped a demanding customer, my intent toward her had been evident, and I had failed in my customer service duties. Even though I had been in a hurry because I wanted to help a friend with algebra (a nice thing), it didn’t matter. I would have to prove myself a worthy merchant once more.

The next Saturday, I set about the task of doing just that. First, I swept and cleaned the store—but that clearly wasn’t enough to tip the balance. Then I stumbled on a real opportunity to make amends. Sitting in the sink of the kitchenette was the filthiest frying pan in recorded culinary history. The pan wasn’t just stained; it was pitch black. Gunk and gook had been overheated and chemically bonded into an impenetrable layer that now covered the entire inner surface. Here was my chance to redeem myself. Restore this pan to its original shine, and surely I’d be forgiven for the Kratz disaster.

I grabbed a box of steel wool pads and feverishly scrubbed the pan until my fingers bled. Not to be denied, I donned rubber gloves and scrubbed until I finally uncovered a one-inch patch of shiny steel. Then, for six hours (between customers) I scrubbed the pan until the entire thing looked like it had just come out of its original box.

When grandpa returned from his errands I couldn’t wait to show him his good-as-new frying pan. He took one look at the shining pan, smiled broadly, and gave me a hug. “How did you get off all the black stuff?” He asked. I answered by pointing at a stack of used steel wool pads. Then Grandpa hugged me again.

Time passed, I went off to college, Mom and Dad moved to Phoenix, Grandpa passed away, and I hadn’t seen the frying pan for years until one day, I spotted it in Mom’s pantry. She saw me looking at the pan and came over and gave me a hug.

“I kept the pan as a keepsake,” she said.

“Of what?” I asked.

“Of love,” she explained.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“The week before you cleaned this pan,” Mom explained, “I had given it to your grandpa as a gift. It was a new invention called a “non-stick” pan because it was covered with a special substance called Teflon that stuck to nothing. That’s what you scrubbed off the frying pan that day. Teflon, not gunk.”

“No!” I responded.

“Yes,” Mom explained. “Grandpa was so touched by the enormous effort you put in to redeem yourself that he wouldn’t let me tell you that you had ruined his brand new frying pan. Your intentions were pure and that’s all that mattered to him. He understood the importance of intent, so he honored your good intentions by not saying a word about the frying pan fiasco to another living soul.”

“Really?” I exclaimed. “I kept the pan,” Mom continued, “as a shiny reminder of his love for you.”

“And my love for him,” I added.

The pan itself had no real value. In fact, it’s actually been ruined past its value. But the intent behind my cleaning it, and the intent behind Grandpa’s keeping it have made it priceless to me.

Influencer QA

How to Influence High Employee Turnover

Dear David,

I work as a director for a center that serves children with special needs. We are part of the Department of Pediatrics of a public university/hospital system. I have been the director for two years now and have an issue I am not sure how to solve. We work for a public institution, so the salaries for the caregivers who work in the classrooms are barely above minimum wage and not competitive locally. Because of this, our center is a revolving door for caregivers who are a critical part of our team. I am unable to raise the salary, so how do I keep employees, find new employees on a regular basis, and keep up the morale of the center and myself? I feel so discouraged most of the time because it’s an issue I can’t control, nor will it change in all likelihood. I am seriously considering leaving.

Best Regards,
Turnover Troubles

Dear Turnover Troubles,

Many leaders find themselves in your position. They struggle with turnover within their essential, but low-paying positions. I’ve worked with many of these leaders, so—while my advice won’t be especially welcome, it is truly battle-tested.

I think you need to re-set your expectations of what’s possible. You may not be able to ever “solve” your retention problem. The turnover numbers within your group may always be higher than ideal. However, there is a worse problem than actual turnover: It’s what we call “spiritual turnover.” Spiritual turnover happens when people stop being engaged, involved, motivated, or psychologically present at work. Their bodies may keep walking the halls, but their souls have left the building.

These organizational zombies are far more costly than actual physical turnover. They prevent your team from achieving its mission, and create safety and customer-experience problems as well. I think your goal should be to keep your employees as engaged and positive as possible—even when you know that many of them will only be with you until they find a better-paying job.

Gather Information: Begin by gathering information from two groups: a.) Long-term employees who you value and respect, and b.) Past employees who have been gone for at least three months.

Ask the long-term employees about their motivations for staying. Find out what is working for them. Is it pride in their work? Friendships with other team members? The impact they have on the people they serve? Work to build on these strengths.

Ask the past employees about why they left, what they liked/disliked about the job, and what they are doing now. One of your goals will be to reduce unappealing elements of the job. But, just as important, look for patterns in their career steps. For example, are your employees “graduating” to a better-paying job within healthcare? Within your same hospital? Are they going back to school? Are they really getting better-paying jobs, or are they stuck?

Connect to Values: Employee engagement requires a strong connection to at least one of the following four values:

  • Development: Some find meaning in the growth the job offers—in the way it prepares them for the next step in their career.
  • Job: Some find meaning in the tasks or the craft of the job. They identify with the profession.
  • Customers: Some find meaning in helping the people they serve—in your case the children and their families.
  • Team: Some find meaning in being a valued member of a winning team—in close friendships and being counted on by others.

I’ll suggest a few actions you can take in each of these areas.

Development: I hope your past employees have moved on to better jobs—and that they see their time with you as having helped their careers. One approach you might take is to turn your team into a world-class farm team for your hospital (or for professional schools). Make sure your employees get the training, experience, and coaching that will help them be most valuable to other departments. Create opportunities for employees to showcase their skills and to learn more about opportunities they can strive for. Your employees will value their time with you, because they see what you are doing for their careers. Employees will want to join your team, because they know it’s a great way to enter into a career in healthcare.

Job: My experience is that teachers take a lot of pride in their profession—and are also quick to point out obstacles that prevent them from practicing their profession. Often the best way to tap in to this source of motivation is by removing distractions and disruptions so that your employees can focus on what they do best. In addition, set high professional standards, and involve the whole team in holding each other accountable for achieving them. It’s hard to take pride in your work, if the standard isn’t high.

Customers: My guess is that most, if not all, of your employees take pride in the impact they have on the children and families they serve. Build on this pride by making these connections more visible, more personal, and more frequent. Find ways to track the impact your employees are having, and share and celebrate this impact. Create face time between your employees and children’s families.

Team: Make sure your employees feel like a valuable part of your team. Find ways to have them work with partners or in small groups. Create opportunities for them to get to know each other—and discover similar interests beyond work. Make sure each person knows that others on the team are counting on them, and value their contributions.

I hope these suggestions will help. Again, I think employee engagement is a better measure than turnover for leaders in your position.

Best of Luck,
David

Change Anything QA

Changing Behavior in the Classroom

Dear Steve,

I teach a class of eight- to nine-year-olds in church. They are high in energy and enthusiasm, but low in self-restraint. How do I encourage and teach and inspire them while keeping order? I’ve thought about helping them establish class rules of conduct, but am short on ideas for rewards or consequences.

Sincerely,
Bouncing Off The Walls

Dear Bouncing,

It seems like you’re experiencing that age of wonder, inquisitiveness, curiosity, and wild, unbridled enthusiasm (i.e., wall bouncing). It seems that eight to nine is a magic number because just a couple of weeks ago, I was working with a group of eight to nine executives who suffered from the same problem. I think I have a couple of ideas that will work with high energy kids . . . and executives.

It’s not uncommon to want to move immediately to rewards and consequences when faced with this type of challenge—it’s both easy and fast. However, it’s often not as effective as you would hope. You also spend a lot of time wrapped up in discipline rather than teaching and inspiring. My suggestions will require a little more patience, but should yield better results over the long-term. Here are three big ideas to add to what you’re currently doing:

  • Focus on practice.
  • Build some wiggle room into your rewards.
  • Create audibles.

Focus on practice. Focusing on practice in this case means practicing to focus. Kids come from a variety of different home environments, each with their own set of norms and expectations. Some children will come to your class more calm and with a higher capacity to focus. Others—not so much. The difficulty is that those with a higher capacity to focus will soon conform to the norm set by those that don’t. Many children simply don’t know how to focus, so you will need to help them develop those skills. Take time in your class to deliberately practice paying attention.

Start with shorter time periods and work your way up to longer ones. Let them know that you’re going to practice and allow room for them to fail as they practice. They will need help and coaching throughout the process, and probably won’t get it right the first time they try. Make sure to use a large timer in the process so they can get a sense of how long they need to focus. If necessary, give them something to focus on, and keep track of their progress so that they can see their improvement.

With this approach, you’ll want to introduce challenges to make it fun. Things like, “Our record is two minutes. Let’s see if we can do two minutes and ten seconds.” Or, “Let’s start off with the quiet game. The first person to make a noise makes the timer start over for the whole group.” If you make it a game, they’ll find it’s more fun to practice. Then, you’ll get the group involved in encouraging one another in the process.

Build some wiggle room into your rewards. Let’s be honest. We’re talking about eight- to- nine-year-olds—they are inherently wiggly. And when pent-up for any extended period of time, they will eventually explode in a fit of flailing arms and legs (and that’s the mild version). So a smart approach is to create opportunities to let it all out. This can actually be a great reward for good behavior. I became familiar with a church class run by a neighbor of mine who had music she used to allow the kids to “go wild” to for the duration of the song. Another teacher would choose a child that had demonstrated good focus during the class to lead his or her classmates in a series of wiggle exercises of his or her choosing. There is a movement (pun intended) being championed by Nike and others to get kids active in the classroom for short bursts to break up some of the longer teaching segments. I think similar to them, you’ll find that these types of breaks will be a great reward for the kids, and help them focus by providing an outlet for their need to move.

Create audibles. Along with the previous two ideas, you’ll want to have a strategy to deal with the times that the class falls back into old behavior patterns. And it’s not a matter of “if,” it really is a matter of “when.” The Boy Scouts of America have a great way of dealing with kids when they get too rambunctious. To bring attention back, the leader holds up his or her right hand with three fingers extended straight up. When scouts see this, they are supposed to stop talking and respond by making the same sign. Everybody recognizes this sign and knows what to do when they see it.

With younger kids, I’d recommend something similar, but adding an audible command. Something like, “If you can hear my voice, pat your head.” You can use all kinds of variations on this such as clap your hands, stomp your foot, pull your ear lobe, make the high-five sign, etc. So mix it up and be creative—the kids will love seeing the new things you come up with.

Something like this will allow you to see who’s responding and who still needs help. If you find some are not responding as quickly, you may want to add some additional information to your audible. Something like, “If you can hear my voice, pat your head. Okay, it looks like we’re still waiting for so-and-so, and what’s-their-bucket.” It usually takes a couple of rounds of commands before you’ll get the entire class, but with practice, they will get better at it.

Hopefully, implementing these ideas will help bring the bouncing under control . . . or at least reduce it to a manageable dribble. Remember, consistency is the key in these situations. Good luck and carry on with the impactful teaching assignment you’ve undertaken. I’m sure there are many grateful parents associated with those kids.

Sincerely,
Steve