Rewarding Behaviors, Not Merely “Victories”

One of the most important aspects of leadership is to foster the right behaviors. You do this by serving as an avatar, of course, but you also do so by rewarding those behaviors whether or not they are immediately successful. That may sound counterintuitive, but it’s vital.

When I was consulting with Calgon, the president and I agreed that to change the behavior of the sales force from product “feature and benefit selling” to more of a consultative, solution orientation, we would have to allow them the freedom to experiment and fail. We knew that the first “victories” might take a while.

So, we inaugurated an award at the annual sales dinner for “The Best Idea That Didn’t Work.” Everyone would applaud as the recipient took the stage, received a loving cup, and explained what the attempt had been. It was clear to everyone that the president wanted people to try new approaches, and that failure was not fatal.

If you only reward victories, people will be highly conservative, trying to seek safe “wins.” That becomes increasingly egregious if the alternative, non-victory, results in someone getting “whacked.” Sooner or later, we expect people will win more than they will lose in most pursuits, but to get there it’s important to reinforce the correct behaviors along the way.

This is a somewhat melioristic view of the workplace, but a well-founded one. When the “wins” are the sole important variable, the result is winning at any cost, and you develop a company of arrivistes. Jack Welch was famous at GE for insisting that goals be met, but that they be met consistent with company values and belief systems—in other words, ethically. (Think of the GE debacles in the artificial gas tank explosion of a Ford vehicle on NBC, the Israeli defense bribes, etc. A lot of people were trying to “win” no matter what rules were broken.)

Behaviors, unlike skills, are not all that easy to learn and adopt, though they can be modified or superceded with other behaviors. That’s why hiring for “enthusiasm” is more important than hiring for “content.” You can teach someone the particulars of your company in anything other than highly specialized fields (law, medicine, etc.), but you can’t “teach” them enthusiasm.

I interviewed a candidate for marketing director job at a non-profit the other day, and she sucked all the oxygen out of the room. She had no enthusiasm, no passion, no presence. I don’t care what her credentials or pedigree may be, I’m not going to put that person in regular contact with me or our donors.

Leaders identify, modify, and reinforce the key behaviors needed to leverage their own talents and accelerate growth toward their goals. And that’s a behavior that separates the best from the rest.

Don’t show me all those initials after your name or the piles of testimonials. Show me something right here, right now, that says you can encourage, influence, and interest others. That’s the behavior that will gain my attention.

© 2008 Alan Weiss. All rights reserved.

5 thoughts on “Rewarding Behaviors, Not Merely “Victories”

  1. Recently went through a similar situation in interviewing for my replacement. I agree with the sentiment that showing something “right here, right now” is valuable, but also recognize that the potential of a marketing candidate is not solely dependent on their ability to “sell” themselves. Many great marketers are not necessarily engrossing personalities (Jobs comes to mind) on a one to one level. Great people come from all walks of life with all different kinds of personalities; deciphering their talent and EQ is tough within smaller time frames such as interviews. Additionally, many people are incredible at selling themselves but aren’t ideal in backing up that sale with actual work.

    Conversely, a marketer’s ability to work within, sell to and motivate those around them based on their knowledge and strategic ideology is an inescapable necessity. The company thrives on the buy in of all applicable sectors, and the marketer must sell the value of an initiative to allow inter-office synergy. EQ is just as important as their technical prowess in larger companies.

    I completely agree that reinforcing the behaviors of a sales team (or any other person at a target touch point) through reward should be done even without an immediate success.

  2. Your comments are well-taken and thoughtful. Personally, just my experience, I’ve seen people who interview well and don’t do a good job, but not the reverse: poor interviewees who do a great job. If you can’t sell yourself, you can’t sell me anything else. I think in an interview that Jobs would knock my socks off. But then again, I use behavioral interviewing.

    And at the risk of invoking the cyberspace demons again, I find that emotional intelligence is way overdone, barely understood, and doesn’t add much at all that we didn’t already know and value.

  3. Few thoughts: great people aren’t always understood well initially. Jobs came to mind because his personality has been lamented as overtly aggressive and uncompromising. “To be great is to be misunderstood” (–Emerson). And greatness knows many parameters and areas, those that possess it one area will not always correctly assess it in others; a great writer may not realize a great mathematician, a great adman may not realize a great manager.

    EQ has become a buzz term, which is unfortunate. The science behind EQ is incredibly important; the development of those principals important to it are still in a stage of infancy, 13 years after initialization of the practice. Although I’m going to school in August and as a precursor they are asking me to take a EQ managerial test, a step forward.

    Take care.

  4. Respectfully, I don’t think there is any validation to your statement, quoting Emerson or not. For every quote, there is an equal and opposite impressive quote, so please don’t do that. You comment about great people has zero to do with interviewing people for jobs every day, which is my point, and I’m unaware the EQ has a scientifically validated or proved basis whatsoever.

  5. Alan,

    Your comments are right on. I worked for Disney for 20-years and I knew we could always teach the skills of operating the rides, checking guests into hotels, or driving a monorail. What we couldn’t teach was passion, approachability, and care. We had to hire for those talents and then train for the skills. We certainly didn’t get it right one hundred percent of the time, but we were much more successful than if we hired strictly for technical skills and then tried to “train in” the people skills.


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