Want Results? Engage!

04/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The raw energy of interaction spawns and sparks great conversations and fuels business opportunities and growth. It just takes the decision to engage. In our newly (and accurately) coined recession economy, it's certainly not business as usual anywhere.

It's time to sort for some genuinely inspiring role models.

I recently met Roger Penske at a leadership summit in New York. Penske, an auto racing legend, has built the Penske Automotive Group into a global powerhouse of retailing, leasing and managing automobiles, trucks and transportation. He has served on the Boards of American Express and Home Depot, and he's a long-term member of the GE Board. He's behind the SmartCar introduction in the US.

Roger, now in his early 60's, has more energy than most 40 year olds. All of us who talked to him were inspired by his genuine passion for people and his customers. He loves his businesses, but most of all he relishes his daily interaction with customers and Penske's 20,000 employees. He said, "it's all about the people...we build our people and invest in them," and he calibrates his financial reporting to track employee turnover. He spends 20% of time with customers, and his passion for what he does was infectious.

As I talked with him, I pressed to understand how he "balances" his time. He said he's like a heat-seeking missile that intuits the "hot spots" that need his attention. He listens, he walks around, he does weekly conference calls with his global team, he's in the field with customers, he understands how to leverage his time and attention.

Penske's passion finds focus in the intensity of his attention to mobilize, galvanize, animate his people. He creates meaning through his attention to every aspect of leadership. And, he has great fun doing it all. It's infectious.

Leaders like Roger Penske derive a lot of energy from interaction, from engagement with people and with the rich invitation of learning something new each day.

I've spent time with CEO's who slip into the corner of their success, shielded by tough assistants who are charged with "protecting" their bosses. Many of these leaders lose the "juice" of daily interaction, and instead speak to a small circle of insiders who are often reluctant to challenge their point of view. Years ago I counseled the head of a network television affiliate in a second tier market who retreated into his second floor corner office each morning. He never had any contact with any employees, from talent, cameramen, or his receptionist. He communicated his pleasure (or displeasure) through his assistant manager, who became a distrusted messenger. He was a stranger to everyone.

We see this in our national leaders who appear before carefully screened friendly audiences to recite rehearsed sound bites. No one learns, no one engages, no one feels connected so trust and credibility takes a bashing. People are intuitive and smart. They know when they aren't getting the whole truth. We are all cheated.

Great customer-focused businesses like FedEx, Starbucks and Nordstrom's hire people who like people, who share a passion for connection and conversation, and who understand that responsiveness and service are the essential signatures of their brand. You remember interactions with world-class customer service companies; sadly, we are all experiencing a serious decline in anything approaching basic service or customer connection in most of our daily experiences in stores, airlines, or even health care.

Roger Penske knows how to engage and enroll, the two critical competencies required for anyone to begin and sustain an authentic customer or personal connection. First, you must engage your colleagues and customers with a genuine question or request, and then you must enroll them, by taking the time to listen, to probe, to acknowledge their contribution. You will both learn something.

Just as customer service is a lost art, we can no longer assume that our colleagues and employees are as engaged as we are. Instead, people live in a state of continuous partial attention and conditional commitment. People choose each day to commit. You must re-enroll them everyday and remind them why they are engaged in the work you are doing together. Give them some of your time, push the reset button, and let them know they are part of something larger than themselves. Just as they need context, they also need to feel connection.

This doesn't require an "all hands" rally with bands and balloons. Engaging and enrolling means asking and listening, re-setting context, framing and reframing expectations and acknowledging the importance of their contribution. I know. It sounds simple, even obvious. It may even feel strange as you begin. First, just start to do it. Admit it takes practice. It can take seconds and pay dividends for months. The results aren't always immediate or even obvious. We can do it. We usually don't. And we wonder why they wander off. Acknowledge. Listen. Talk. Invite. Set Context. Share Horizons. Engage. Enroll.