Fired Up or Burned Out cover

How do business leaders create a sense of connection and shared passion in their organizations? How can you make your employees (and by extension you r company) more productive and more innovative — instead of struggling to maintain the status quo?

These are the questions that Michael Lee Stallard sets out to answer in his book Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity, and Productivity (Thomas Nelson, Inc. 2007; with Carolyn Dewing-Hommes and Jason Pankau). Stallard and his partners are the founders of E Pluribus Partners, a think tank and consulting firm focused on helping companies build connection among their employees and with their customers and clients. In Fired Up, they explain why such a sense of connection is important, and how to create it, offering good advice that would be as useful for small businesses and non-profit organizations as much as for corporations.

The Case for Connection

We live in strangely disconnected times. While the Internet gives rise to new forms of connectedness, in our day to day lives, Americans (among other industrialized peoples) feel a great disconnectedness. This affects us i our homes, our communities, and especially in our workplaces.

In a 2002 Gallup study, only 25% of American workers reported feeling engaged at work. A global study carried out by the Corporates Executive Board in 2004 found that 76% of workers had an only moderate commitment to their employers, and 13% had little or no feeling of commitment.

Organizations with disconnected and disengaged employees pay the price in lost productivity, lost innovation, and ultimately lost money — to the tune of $250-300 million dollars in the American economy as a whole, according to Gallup. On the other hand, corporations that have learned to foster a connection culture enjoy greater success by almost every measure. And employees who feel connected at work find themselves feeling more connected in other parts of their lives.

The Keys to Connection

Stallard identifies three factors that forster greater connection within an organization — Vision, Value, and Voice — and offers suggestions to increase them within an organization.

  • Vision: Having a strong vision that employees identify with and that gives their work meaning encourages engagement across the board. Employees in organizations with strong visions are inspired and feel that their roles are important — from upper management to front-line and maintenance staff.
  • Value: By “value”, Stallard isn’t referring to values in the ethical sense, but to the value of people. Too many organizations fail to recognize or acknowledge the value of their employees, leading to disengagement. Organizations show they value their employees by making sure they’re in the right role for their particular strengths and talents, empowering them to make decisions within their area of expertise, and actively listening to them. Stallard cites the example of David Neeleman, the CEO of jetBlue, who sets aside a day every week to work alongside the crew on the company’s planes.
  • Voice: Vision and value come together in organizations that give employees a voice by fostering knowledge flow from bottom to top and back. Making sure the knoweldge flows both ways engages employees, allowing them to make better decisions, participate more fully in shaping and realizing the organization’s identity, and innovate more freely. Encouraging the flow of knowledge involves more than just putting a suggestion box outside the CEO’s door, but requires a total reshaping of the corporate or organizational culture.

Evaluation

I should say that I’m as far from the corporate world that Stallard and his co-writers describe as I could be. As a writer, I work more often than not on my own; as an adjunct instructor, I am only marginally attached to the two colleges I teach at. Still, I found much of the book exhilarating. I’ve worked too many hours and months of my life for corporations, non-profits, and other organizations that captured knowledge in rigidly stratified hierarchies, all too often leaveing the lower and middle reaches of the org-chart without adequate kunderstanding to perform our jobs, let alone to be more innovative.

Stallard and co. illustrate their work throughout with examples drawn from today’s corproate world, as well as from sports, military history, and elsewhere. The last part of the book, especially, shows Stallard’s ideas in action, with a close examination of the lives and careers of 20 notable leaders, ranging from Gen. George Marshall and Queen Elizabeth I to Frances Hesselbein (CEO of Girl Scouts of America from 1976 – 1990) and neurosurgeon Dr. Fred Epstein. These examples assure that the ideas expressed in Fired Up or Burned Out stay concrete and approachable, never zooming off into abstractions. And the ideas are good — the importance of fostering connection between employees and their organizations cannot be over-estimated.

I did have a few qualms. The first has to do with the repeated use of “leadership” when they mean “management”. I understand that the corporate world lives and dies by the illusion that the terms are interchangeable, but Stallard’s work itself shows that is not the case. What kind of leaders allow their teams to become totally detached from their mission? What kind of leaders need to be told to share their vision, to value their people, and to give their team a voice?

Equating leadership with management creates an important gap in the book — because vision, value, and voice are assumed to come from management, there is little room left for, and thus little attention paid to, the kind of “grassroots” leadership that often rises from below to create vision, value, and voice in the absence of strong management. I’d have liked to see Stallard pay more attention to this — how can employees in leadership-deficient organizations create leadership from below?

My last issue isn’t the fault of the book, really, which is clearly aimed at a business audience. That said, given the ever-thinner line between our worklives and the rest of our lives, I’d like to have seen more attention paid to building connection outside of the workplace. Maybe in the next book… Or, more likely, the next author.

In the end, though, Fired Up of Burned Out is a powerful, interesting read, packed with great examples and practical advice. The information is most valuable to mid-level and higher management and team leaders, but there are lessons here for workers at every level, as well as for entrepreneurs and even the self-employed.

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