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A Commitment to Excellence: Getting Buzzed on Volunteerism

August 2, 2010

Updated August 4, 2011

One of the greater mysteries to me is how people who aren’t paid a nickel can outperform the best paid employee. What? Am I crazy? Money’s everything, or so we’re led to believe.

Over 25 years, I’ve contributed thousands of hours of community service. I’m not looking for some form of accolades; in fact many people in Canada and America way outperform my modest efforts. Sure, some of you will say, “Jim, get a grip, volunteers do it for the passion, commitment to their communities, bolstering their resumes, the status, building connections, whatever.” No problem, I accept that.

Yes, it’s a partially loaded question to ask why people who do volunteer work on top of their regular paid jobs shine when it comes to such things as dedication, commitment and customer service.

It’s a sad story that employees working in private or public organizations leave their workplaces feeling disempowered, de-valued and unappreciated, only to sparkle to life when they enter their community service groups. Why is that? Sorry, another loaded question.

How do organizations through their senior leaders effectively engage employees? To espouse “We as a company are customer-focused” is not only a waste of time but actually causes lasting damage over time to morale, serving as a catalyst to cynicism. Put your money where your mouth is, as the expression goes. Create an enabling work environment where people can shine, create new experiences for customers and clients, and exceed expectations. Always under-promise and over-deliver. Anything beyond that is a betrayal to your customers.

When oppressive rules, policies and procedures become the governing dictate to employees on how to carry-out their duties, the result is mediocrity, if you’re lucky. You may as well hire chimpanzees.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. When it seems that almost every organization is claiming to be among the best 100 employers in the country, I find the math intriguing. To state that your company, or even public agency, is a top employer dilutes the real meaning of such a privilege.

For the TRUE top employers, whose senior managements have worked diligently at engaging employees and at creating work environments that spawn self-empowerment, innovation and superior customer service, they must find it incredibly frustrating to see the fakes manipulate top employer clams. Fortunately, the fakes are usually found out quickly, leading to continued employee turnover, low productivity, weak innovation and crappy customer service. The proof is always in the pudding.

My perspective to this point has been at what I’ll call the “organizational” level, meaning that I’ve taken a micro look at how people get engaged within their organizations, whether public or private. However, at a macro level involving an economy, the consequences of indifference, disengagement and lack of meaning in one’s daily work spells disaster when viewed through a competitive lens. When employees don’t give a crap about the quality of their work and the impact this has on organizational performance, then the aggregate of these micro experiences spells trouble.

There are exceptions, however–and, no, they’re not examples of passionate volunteers.

Meet Lincoln Electric. Earlier, I wrote a post on this Cleveland-based company. It’s a fascinating example of employee engagement. Read about How Mutual Commitment Leads to Excellence. One can question the motives of Lincoln’s management, but that would be foolish. This company is fighting for its life against the juggernaut of global competition (read China). If you believe in having posters on the walls exuding team building; premium, organic coffee in the lunchroom; or an employer-sponsored fitness room on site, you may as well roll over and yield to China. Lincoln’s evolving formula has worked for over a century, providing desperately well-paid jobs in Rust-Belt Cleveland.

Also check out this great PBS video of an interview with the company’s CEO and some of its employees. You’ll be amazed at their salaries. It gives new meaning to performing REAL work and being properly compensated.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is retail customer service and how employees at one American chain understand what it’s all about. Seattle-based Nordstrom has been written about for 20 years. I recall Management guru Tom Peters ranting on about Nordstrom. I’ve been in a couple of their stores and the service is indeed impressive. I found this blog post rather interesting, since it involved a Seattle-based blogger who was unimpressed with a Starbucks experience. When employees are truly engaged and empower themselves, they will regularly impress and surprise management.

So folks, my message in the end is that you don’t have to be a volunteer to become totally buzzed in carrying out your work responsibilities. You can get enthusiastic in your paid work as well. In fact, people will NOT involuntarily provide superior service; this can only be done voluntarily.

Reflect on what you can do to influence your senior management to create a space where people come alive in a genuine way to innovate and to provide superior customer service.

So where do you fit as an employee in your organization? Are you buzzed when you enter the workplace? Do you know your organization’s true mission and why it exists? And can you see the bigger picture?

Share your thoughts and experiences.


Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.

– Laurence J. Peter (“The Peter Principle”)


Photo by J. Taggart (singer, New York Hip Hop group Arrested Development)


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