Did Anyone Tell You How Great You Are Today?

Leaders must recognize, value and appreciate their employees, especially as many of them remain isolated, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

To sod or to seed—that is the question.

Years ago, when we bought our first house, we put in a new lawn. Even though I had no idea how, I decided to do it myself: clearing out the weeds, putting in pipes and sprinklers, spreading fertilizer and grass seed, then watering every day.

Each morning, as I left for work, I’d look at that barren dirt and wonder if anything was ever going to happen. Day after day, I was bummed out. But as is true with so many things, even when it looks like there isn’t much progress externally, a lot of progress is happening below the surface. And then I saw it.

One morning, as I drove out of the driveway, I noticed something. I got out of the car, leaned over, and—sure enough—there were the first tiny green inklings. The next morning, more green shoots. Then, before long, we had a lush lawn. Just looking at it gave me a feeling of accomplishment and achievement.

Flash forward several years when we moved into another house. This time I wasn’t going to go through the impatient agony of waiting for the seed, so I invested in sod. It was heavy for me to roll out, but it was quick. By the afternoon—voila—I had a brand-new lawn.

Then I went outside the next morning. Instead of entering Shangri-La, I encountered a muddy mess. Our dog had dug up at least a quarter of that sod. Those big puppy eyes gave me a cynical look as if to say, “You should have known better than to take a shortcut.”

Lesson learned. Sod is instant gratification. Seed is an investment over time. And sowing seed is exactly what we should all be doing these days to make sure our grass is greener—or else risk losing the people who helped get us here. That seed is appreciation.

An executive shared a story with me the other day of her 92-year-old grandfather who made it a habit to deliver a heartfelt message to everyone who made a difference in his life—whether family members, friends, or someone who served him at the local diner: “Did anyone tell you how great you are today?

“I’ve heard this line thousands of times,” the executive told me. “Yet it still snaps me out of whatever mindset I am in and humbles me into a simpler state of mind—of being loved and seen.”

People everywhere hunger to be seen, to feel valued, especially now. They want to be noticed and acknowledged. Who would disagree with that? But, if we’re honest, the challenge for some leaders is the big disconnect—the broken bridge between knowing and doing.

“That’s a challenge, especially for leaders who often are extremely high-performers and tend to be less dependent themselves on appreciative feedback,” Albertina Vaughn, who leads our North America Leadership & Professional Development Solutions, told me this week. “It’s important to be self-aware—and more conscious of showing appreciation to others, frequently and authentically.”

It’s not that managers and bosses don’t care, or that they’re not nice people. All too often, though, the pace of play and the volume of activity get in the way. And that’s true at every level and in every position. However, not recognizing, rewarding, and celebrating others carries a high cost—weaker bonds within the organization. Everyone suffers. “When an emotional connection is missing, people may begin to deliver not only what needs to get done, but also may not tap any discretionary energy left in the tank,” Ron Porter, a leader in our Global Human Resources practice, told me. “And that also makes it easier for them to walk out the door.”

It’s the secret to sustainable success: when people are recognized, they’re happy; and when they’re happy, they’re motivated. And if they’re motivated, they’re more likely to stay—and outperform. Here are some thoughts.

  • Words motivate, actions activate. Many years ago, early in my tenure as CEO, I went to New York to meet with a board member to go over the feedback of my 360-degree review. At the end of our three-hour conversation, that board member gave me invaluable advice that has guided me ever since: “Never forget that your job is to make people feel better after every conversation than they did before.” I certainly don’t always live up to that standard, but sowing the seeds of appreciation starts with words. Thank you. You’re making a difference. You matter. But the greener grass is cultivated by actions—making an investment in truly seeing others—and in the development and advancement of others. People need coaches to develop them, mentors to advise them, and sponsors to advocate for them. The most impactful learning always comes from experiences and from others—especially their boss. We know this from the 70-20-10 rule of thumb: 70% of what people learn is from experiences on the job; 20% is learned from other people. Only 10% comes from formal training. That’s why we all need to think of ourselves as teachers—accountable and responsible for others and what they learn. And that’s the purest expression of appreciation.
  • Put me in, coach. There is no better compliment for anyone—whether a coach or a leader—than someone who wants to play for them. All of us need to create a “put me in, coach” culture where people want to step up and be on our teams. Earning that kind of trust takes time and effort—especially when people are physically separated and without the happenstance interactions that bring them together frequently. As Dan Kaplan, another leader in our firm’s global CHRO practice told me this week, “The pandemic has put a strain on even naturally great leaders, requiring them to develop a new set of muscles to make sure others feel connected, engaged, and motivated.” This is not only about doling out money, titles, and promotions. Don’t get me wrong, money is important. But all our firm’s research shows that while money may be in the top five, it’s never the top motivator. After all, money can’t buy loyalty—it just rents it for a while.
  • Cultivating culture. When it comes to the care and feeding of culture, the leader plays a disproportionately large role. Indeed, culture starts at the top, where it is created and shaped. That’s why our Korn Ferry Institute describes leaders as having two core roles today. First, they are the culture champions—the role models who embody the mindset, beliefs, and desired behaviors. Second, they are the culture architects—who make sure that the right structures are in place to support those desired behaviors. By word and example, leaders ensure that a healthy, inclusive culture takes root and grows. But it takes time—or, as Khoi Tu said in our conversation, “If you shout louder at a plant, it won’t grow faster. It takes the right conditions for cultivation.”
  • “What can I do for you?” Often, all it takes is this straightforward, sincere question. It is appreciation taken to the next level. And when others know they’re being seen, listened to, and understood, that’s a powerful motivator. “Many people hunger for those things that matter—exposure, exciting projects, and great connections,” Naomi Sutherland, who leads the Life Sciences team in our Consulting practice and our Boston office, told me. And, leaders need to make sure those opportunities take root among the many, not just the few. “Leaders can’t open doors for only those who are most like them or who they naturally feel connected to,” she added. “They need to flex themselves to connect with people who are not like them and who do not share those same similarities.” After all, inclusion is a behavior.
  • No assumptions allowed. “Leaders can’t assume they know what each person wants or what their goals are,” Albertina Vaughn said. “They need to ask and then listen. Every person is unique.” The science of human behavior tells us that what motivates one person is not the same for another. Some are motivated by achievement—the mastery of something challenging. Others are driven by affiliation—building relationships and a sense of belonging. Or it’s about power—having influence over others. We need to ask ourselves: What’s our motivation? To motivate others, we first have to motivate ourselves. Only then, can we truly appreciate others.

Even though many of us are still isolated, we have to overcome making it isolating. We each yearn to be part of something bigger than ourselves—we all want to be valued, to be appreciated, to be recognized. We want to be that seed that becomes part of a gorgeous green pasture. If we don’t know what to say, try this with sincerity: “Did anyone tell you how great you are today?”