How to Get Top Managers to Model Recognition

By Bob Nelson

Getting top managers to practice recognition sets the tone for all managers and sends the message, “If I can make time to do this, no one else in the organization has an excuse not to.” Following are some effective strategies for getting executives personally involved in using recognition.

Assessing what managers are able to do

You have to determine what top managers are able and willing to do and then help structure a specific plan that keeps them to their commitment.

Steve Wittert, former president of Paragon Steakhouse Restaurant, a restaurant chain based in San Diego, California, said he knew appreciating employees was important, but at the same time, he found that he didn’t do as much of it as he wanted because he was so busy. One day, he concluded that being busy was simply an excuse, and so he decided that, no matter how busy he was, he could always take a few minutes at the end of each day to reflect on the outstanding performances of his people — those who wowed a customer, helped a coworker, or turned in a cost-saving idea, for example — and to jot a personal thank-you note to each of those individuals.

To help keep his commitment to this activity, Wittert bought a stack of thank-you cards and placed them on his desk by his telephone to serve as a daily reminder. Although he didn’t write notes every day, he did so on a majority of days, in part because of the grateful response he received from his employees. He found that, although the notes took just a few moments to write, they were often a highlight of the recipients’ day or week.

Providing choices

Everyone likes to have alternatives and options. So give those in the top tiers of management a choice for their level of involvement. Outline different roles they might play in the recognition program and get their commitment to one or more of them.

For example, Shimadzu Scientific Instruments in Columbia, Maryland, has a simple, but successful way to personally involve top management in its recognition program: Outstanding performers in the organization are “promoted” to special assistant to the president for two weeks! Not only is this a great source of recognition for the employees, who return to their jobs with a new appreciation of senior management challenges, but it also helps the CEO connect with top performers in the company. Communication is improved and misconceptions are minimized.

Here are some other ways you can personally involve top managers with recognition in your organization:

  • Host a recognition kickoff meeting in which your top executive explains the strategy and importance of the topic.

  • Have the CEO or other executives present top individual or group recognition awards.

  • Have your executives discuss recognition with their immediate managers and identify recognition opportunities they can act on with their employees.

  • Include an executive on the recognition committee and have that person introduce the recognition committee members at a company meeting.

Helping them look good

If you want upper management to be personally involved in supporting recognition in your organization initially and on an ongoing basis, you need to find ways that they can look good when they are using or advocating recognition. For example, if you want the CEO to write a letter or e-mail to endorse a new recognition program or an upcoming recognition event, draft the letter for that executive so that the CEO sounds well-educated on the initiative (and you get bonus points for making his life easier!).

If you are having your president present formal awards at a banquet, research some personal stories about each recipient for the president to share at the ceremony, and go over the pronunciation of the names of those being honored prior to the event. Then you might arrange for the senior manager to personally meet with the honorees prior to the awards banquet. If you are trying to get your CEO to be more visible in the office or on the plant floor, escort him or her through those facilities so that you can make introductions (most CEOs don’t know the names of employees they may have seen only on select occasions).

Here are some examples of how top managers got personally involved in the topic of recognition:

  • Scott Mitchell, president of Mackay Envelope in Minneapolis, holds a one-on-one, 20-minute discussion with every employee in the organization every year. During these meetings, the employee is free to discuss ideas, improvements, or whatever is on his or her mind. Mitchell devotes more than 170 hours to this task each year, an investment that he feels is time well spent.

  • Hal Rosenbluth, CEO of Rosenbluth International, now American Express Travel Services, a chain of travel agencies headquartered in Philadelphia, is accessible to all his employees through an 800-number voice mail box. Employees are encouraged to call in with suggestions, problems, or praise. An average of seven employees do so every day.

  • Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay, Inc., made a commitment to meet with every new employee within 30 days of hire. She once even turned down an invitation to the White House because it conflicted with a new employee orientation session she had committed to months before. Mary Kay’s philosophy: “Make people who work for you feel important. If you honor and serve them, they’ll honor and serve you.”

  • Herb Kelleher, CEO and cofounder of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, demonstrates his personal commitment and willingness to be personally involved by helping flight attendants serve beverages to customers when he flies on his airline.

  • Andy Grove, former chairman of Intel, would conduct a half-dozen or so open forums every year at difference Intel locations. Whenever Grove was in his cubicle (all employees at Intel work in cubicles), any employee was welcome to drop in and speak with him. “Management is about organized common sense,” said Grove, “We communicate and communicate and communicate, at every level, in every form. Anyone can ask anybody any question.”