Asking Questions

I’ve written at least one other blog on a book by John Maxwell.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with John, he has probably written and sold more books on leadership than anyone alive.  He founded, and still provides direction for, multiple organizations.  When I have a leadership question, John’s books or CDs are still my first visit.

I recently read a book that he wrote in 2014 titled Good Leaders Ask Great Questions.  This book got me thinking about the value of spending less time telling people things and more time asking them questions.  The whole book is great, but the third chapter (“What Questions Do I Ask My Team Members?”) really caught my attention.  I’d like to highlight just a few of the questions that John recommends asking people on your team regularly.  Here they are:

  • “What do you think?” This is probably the most powerful question you can ask another person.  Sometimes it just helps you gather information, or get another person’s perspective (often different from your own).  That alone is incredibly valuable.  But, in my experience, the greatest value from this question comes from the way it affirms and builds up the other person.  You’re asking their opinion!  Their opinion is valuable, and that makes them feel valuable.  When I’ve asked people this question, I’ve literally seen their eyes brighten and their self-confidence grow.  No other question is quite as helpful to both me and the people with whom I work as this one.
  • “What do I need to communicate?” Effective leadership is often about understanding “context.”  Understanding the context you’re in and what other people expect or need from you.  Many times another person can see that better than you, so asking them what you need to communicate to your team (or any group of people with whom you’re involved) can be a lifesaver.  Ask the question “What’s the most important thing others need to know right now?”  You may be surprised how often it’s something you didn’t expect, and you’ll be surprised at how much this question helps you.
  • “What did you learn?” This question makes people evaluate their experiences and reflect on what they can learn from those experiences.  As John says, this question “keeps my staff sharp and growing.  It prompts people to evaluate their experience and make an assessment.”  We all want our team members to be growing.  We can help them develop a plan for personal growth.  That’s great as far as it goes.  But the only way to make sure growth happens day in and day out is to ask them a question like this one.   It forces a person to reflect on their experience, and come up with a “take away” from that experience.  We can all learn something every day, but sometimes we need to be prompted to do so.
  • “How are the numbers?” This question cuts to the heart of the matter.  It’s easy to give opinions or paint a picture.  But, as John says, “Numbers count.  They tell a story.  They let you know what the score is.  They show you where you’re winning and where you’re failing so you can make adjustments.  They show trends.  They reveal weaknesses.  They are tangible evidence of how well you’re doing.”  The numbers show the bottom line.  Enough said.
  • “What am I missing?” I love this question.  First, it shows humility.  It shows you don’t think you know everything.  In general, people love it when you ask them for help.  And this question does just that.  But beyond that, it recognizes that we all have blind spots.  We may see 70- 80% of the landscape, but often it’s the 20-30% that we miss that causes us problems.  This question invites others to help us see the whole picture.  Usually they can and they will.  And sometimes it prevents a catastrophic mistake.

I have to confess that I have not made asking these questions a personal discipline yet.  However, it’s on my list of habits to form, and writing this blog gives me some incentive!  I’d encourage you to experiment with asking these five questions to 2 or 3 of your team members at least once a month for the next several months.  See what happens.  Experience the power of asking good questions!


“A Leader of a 21st century organization is, in part, a cheerleader-in-chief.”  This statement by Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, caught my attention as I began reading his new book The Open Organization.  Jim spent most of his career in fairly traditional business cultures before joining Red Hat, the largest open source software company in the world, in 2007.  In The Open Organization, Jim describes the unique culture he found at Red Hat, and how that resulted in him leading the organization in a much different way. 

Whitehurst’s “cheerleader-in-chief” statement shows up early in the book in a chapter titled “Igniting Passion.”  In this chapter, Whitehurst argues that “people are most fulfilled and happiest when their work is aligned with their own internal passions.”  Well, that may be true, but how in the world can leaders create this alignment and activate their people’s passion?  Sounds like a daunting task.  The key, according to Whitehurst, is having a clearly stated “purpose” for the organization that engages people and sparks their passion.  A purpose that people can relate to, that they can “own.”  A purpose beyond simply making money.  Having a purpose that really sparks people’s passion, according to Whitehurst, is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Things really start happening!  People stop checking their emotions at the door and instead bring them to their everyday tasks.  And generally people end up working harder and better results follow. 

This is particularly true with the Millennial generation.  While everyone can be inspired by a thoughtful, well-developed purpose, Millennials in particular want to connect to something more meaningful than simply completing a task and collecting a paycheck.  They want to connect to a purpose that has meaning and significance beyond money.

At Baillie Lumber, we developed a purpose statement over 20 years ago.  It’s simple:  “To Help Others Succeed.”  Although we (I!) don’t talk about it nearly enough, and it would be an overstatement to suggest that it drives and motivates our people every moment of every day, I believe that our purpose has created significant traction for our people in helping them step out of the day to day fray and realize they are involved in something bigger.  Clearly we want to help our customers and suppliers succeed.  And clearly we want to make more money to make the company stronger for all of its stakeholders.  Everyone knows that.  But it goes beyond that.

Let me give one example.  I’ve watched with deep satisfaction as our people at Baillie have applied our purpose to their co-workers.  Multiple times in the last year, when one of our team members (or one of their family) has experienced a significant financial, health, or other need, their co-workers have banded together to provide help for the person in need in very significant, life changing ways.  Usually this involves a financial component, but it often goes beyond that.  It’s gratifying to me when a customer or supplier lets me know that we’ve helped them succeed in some way.  But truly, this example of our people putting our purpose into practice, embodying our purpose, and helping each other succeed, is the example of living out our purpose of which I am most proud.

We’re far from perfect at Baillie, and we have a long way to go in making our purpose real and relevant to all of our stakeholders.  But we’re on the journey, trying to do better each day.  If you haven’t yet, I’d encourage you to identify a purpose that resonates with and inspires the people in your organization.  I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

Thank You

I’m currently reading a book named What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith.  Goldsmith is a world renowned executive coach who has worked with some of the most prominent leaders of Fortune 500 companies.  He commands a six figure price tag for his one-on-one coaching sessions.  Lots of great stuff in this book, but his “20 habits (or behaviors) that most frequently sabotage leaders” grabbed my attention.  Of these 20 troublesome behaviors, one in particular jumped out at me: “Failing to Express Gratitude.”  Goldsmith argues that the two sweetest words to people’s ears are “Thank You.”  They are magic.  People love to hear these words whatever the context.  So use them broadly and liberally.

Goldsmith identifies one specific area where saying “thank you” can make a difference in your leadership, and I’d like to drill down on that a bit.  If your co-workers (or people you lead) feel brave, they may offer you a suggestion about how your organization could be improved.  If they’re really feeling brave, they may even bring you some bad news.  And if they’re feeling super brave, they just might be willing to give you some personal feedback on how you could improve as a leader.  Well, if you’re anything like me, in each of these cases the natural tendency is to immediately begin evaluating the feedback the person gives, and then start telling them what you agree with and what you don’t agree with.  According to Goldsmith, this is a big mistake.

When given any of these types of feedback, two simple words are the correct answer:  “Thank you.”  Is this just about being friendly and nice, about creating a pleasant environment?  Not at all.  In reality, it’s mostly about the impact saying “thank you” has on people’s willingness to bring you feedback in the future.  As Goldsmith says, “… saying ‘thank you’ keeps people talking to you.  Failing to say ‘thank you’ shuts them down.”  Sure, it cuts against our natural desire to be right, to win.  But biting your lip, resisting the temptation to immediately begin debating, and just saying “thank you” opens the floodgates to future information.  People understand that just because you say “thank you” doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them, but they appreciate the fact that you’re considering their point of view.

Goldsmith tells the story of golfer Mark O’Meara playing in a made-for-TV Skins Game with Tiger Woods.  All the golfers wore microphones, so the audience could hear everything they said.  Every time one of his partners said “Nice shot,” O’Meara said “thank you.”  Like 50 times.  Not only was O’Meara being polite, but he was setting the stage for his partners to feel open to giving him additional feedback in the future, some of which might be very helpful to him.

So next time someone gives you feedback about yourself or your organization, smile and say “thank you.”  You can circle back later that day, or several days later, and discuss the feedback in more depth.  But in the moment, let your response be simply “Thank You.”


I’m not sure if there’s another company in the world that we hear about more than Google.  So when I heard about the new book How Google Works, I was curious to read it.  The book was written by a couple of Google executives named Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg.  In some ways, the book is a typical business book, touching on things like culture, strategy, communications, decision making and innovation.  However, the book includes a chapter on hiring that I found fascinating, and I’d like to share some thoughts from that chapter with you. 

The chapter is titled “Talent – Hiring is the Most Important Thing You Do.”  Not a totally new concept to most of us, but it contains some great insights.  Here they are:

  • Hire people who are interesting and engaging, beyond just the skills required for the job.  Often we think only about whether or not a person has the qualifications for the job.  Obviously that’s important, but being around interesting people, people who have different ideas, challenges us to think, to re-examine our own thoughts.  Being around interesting and engaging people sharpens the whole environment in an organization.  So when you interview a candidate, spend at least as much time asking about their other interests as you do asking about their job qualifications.  Consider whether they are the sort of person that will challenge your thinking on all sorts of matters.
  • Ask the assistants what they think of candidates.  Candidates are generally on their best behavior when they talk to people who they think will make or be involved in the hiring decision.  However, checking with receptionists and other support people in the office who might have interaction with the candidate in an “unguarded” moment can reveal interesting insights.  You want to know what the candidate is like when she is “being herself”, not just when she is trying to impress.  Ask the assistants!
  • Recognize that some of your most valuable potential employees are people you wouldn’t want to have a beer with.  This may seem in conflict with the first bullet point, but it’s not.  You’re looking for people who will challenge you and shape your organization, not for a new best friend.  The idea is not to hire people you like, but to hire people that will be effective in your organization.  Granted, we need to develop common cultures, and, on balance, it’s always more enjoyable to work with people we like.  However, whether or not you would want to spend time with a person outside of work isn’t a good hiring criteria.  Sometimes a person just different enough to rub you the wrong way in a social setting is just what the organization needs.
  • Judge a candidate based on their “trajectory,” not based on where they are now.  This may be the most helpful insight in the whole book.  When we evaluate people our tendency is to consider where they are now, what skills they have now, and what they can do now.  Hiring based on trajectory is all about potential.  It’s about thinking about what the person could be and do 3, 5, 10 and 20 years down the road.  This is how an NFL scout looks at a college football player prior to the draft.  They look at the prospect’s physical frame, how much weight they could add, their natural speed and agility and how much potential they have to develop, not just how they’re performing now.  We should do a similar thing when hiring for our organization.
  • The job of finding people for your organization belongs to everyone, not just department heads, HR people and hiring managers.  Finding good people needs to be woven into the fabric of the company.  Everyone needs to understand the importance to the organization of having “top talent” from top to bottom.  So how do you get there?  Find ways to measure and count referrals and reward people for them.  Publicly and privately praise people for a referral that leads to a good hire.  Daily attention is needed to make this happen, but it ultimately leads to a stronger workforce.

Nothing is more important than hiring.  Not just for Google, but for your organization.  Think about which of these principles you could weave into the fabric of your organization.

The Road to Character

David Brooks is a well-known author, speaker and commentator who is probably best known for his op-ed columns in the New York Times.  A couple months ago I had the privilege of hearing him speak at a small gathering in Washington, DC.  In his quiet, understated manner, Brooks captured the room as he talked about his new book The Road to Character.  After returning from Washington, I couldn’t wait to read the book, and when I did, it did not disappoint.  In my opinion, The Road to Character hits at one of the most important issues facing us today, both as individuals and as a society.

In the book, Brooks argues that, as a culture and as individuals, we’ve lost our way when it comes to truly understanding and developing character.  He begins by drawing a distinction between “resume” virtues and “eulogy” virtues.  “Resume” virtues generally lead to achieving external success (money, status, recognition, etc.), whereas “eulogy” virtues reflect how we would like to be remembered when we die.  Eulogy virtues are what many of us would think of as the classic, or historic, virtues, including honesty, faithfulness, hard work, kindness, bravery, self-discipline and the ability to build relationships.  In the midst of a culture that drives us to focus on “me and my success,” Brooks challenges us to refocus on the classic eulogy virtues that make for a fulfilling and worthwhile life.  Brooks suggests that through building and developing these virtues we can achieve a rich inner life characterized by moral depth.

Brooks maps out the road to character by profiling the lives of eight people, and how each of them developed one of the “eulogy” virtues.  I’d like to focus on two of these individuals, Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, both military leaders in WWII.  First Eisenhower.  Brooks titles his chapter on Eisenhower “Self-Conquest.”  The last sentence in the chapter best captures Brooks’ take on Eisenhower.  According to Brooks, he led “a life not organized around self-expression, but around self-restraint.”  Today’s culture prizes individuality, self-expression, authenticity, and doing what seems best to us in the moment.  Eisenhower saw things differently.  Brooks describes Ike’s philosophy of life as follows:  “We start out with raw material, some good, some bad, and this nature has to be pruned, girdled, formed, repressed, molded, and often restrained, rather than paraded in public.  A personality is a product of cultivation.  The true self is what you have built from your nature, not just what your nature started out with.”  Eisenhower was restrained.  He created a restrained, disciplined “second self” that didn’t just say and do what he thought in the moment.  He subscribed to the school of thought that “freedom is the opportunity for self-discipline.”  As Brooks put it, Eisenhower was “fueled by passion but policed by self-control.”  Eisenhower’s aim was to be “blessed with a spirited soul [but] also [with] the proper character to tame it.”  A far cry from the hyper-individualistic, “free expression” culture celebrated today.

George Marshall was also a World War II general, but was not in the public eye nearly as much as Eisenhower.  Marshall was not a particularly good student, and was a late bloomer in his military career.  The first couple decades of his military career were solid but undistinguished.  Today many people distrust large institutions and organizations, but Marshall willingly conformed his life to the needs of his organization (the Army).  Marshall practiced self-denial and self-control daily.  The choice of a leader for the Allies invasion of France in WWII captured the essence of Marshall the man.  As the time of the invasion drew near, no overall commander for the operation had been selected.  Marshall secretly craved the assignment but refused to ask for it.  President Roosevelt asked Marshall for his advice, and would have given Marshall the command position if he had asked for it.  However, Marshall refused to self-promote, refused to lobby for the job, and Roosevelt ultimately decided he needed Marshall nearby him in Washington. Roosevelt gave the European command to Eisenhower.  Marshall was inwardly crushed, but no one would know it from observing him.  He did his duty as always, with self-control, integrity and excellence.  Marshall ultimately received his day in the sun when President Truman appointed him Secretary of State, and was subsequently responsible for enacting the Marshall Plan.  But for Marshall, self-mastery and loyalty were always what it was about, not fame and recognition.

Who you are matters more than what you do.  And who you are will ultimately determine what you’re able to accomplish that has lasting value.  Take the time to read The Road to Character.  It will be time well spent.  You’ll love the profiles Brooks paints in fleshing out what it means to have strong character.

Great Managers

Author and business consultant Marcus Buckingham has made a career of urging leaders to focus on people’s strengths.  Last week, I read an article (“What Great Managers Do”) that Buckingham published in the Harvard Business Review about 10 years ago.  As with most of his work, this article encourages leaders to identify and develop their people’s strengths, and then get each of their people in the right spot in the organization so they can best use those strengths.  The article contained two thoughts in particular that I’d like to share with you:  first, the “triggers” that activate each person’s strengths, and second, how each person learns best.

First, Buckingham argues that sometimes a person’s strengths haven’t effectively been activated, and that a leader needs to “trigger” those strengths to turn them on.  Learning to squeeze the precise trigger that turns on a person’s strengths is a key skill for a leader to develop.  A “trigger” might be the time of day that a person works best (night owl vs morning person), it might be substantial time with the boss (you), or it might be just the opposite, the ability to work independently without contact with or interference from the boss.  There are a multitude of triggers, but according to Buckingham the most powerful trigger by far is recognition.  But recognition is a bit more nuanced than it may seem at first.  The specific skill that managers and leaders need to master is identifying precisely what type of recognition each person prefers.  For one person it might be praise in front of their peers, for another praise from the boss one-on-one, and for a third some type of professional or technical award.  It doesn’t matter what it is, but what does matter is that a leader knows which “recognition trigger” each person prefers, and which recognition trigger draws out the best in him.  So know each person’s trigger, and use it with integrity to draw out her strengths.

My second helpful insight from the article was the notion that people have different learning styles.  I’m a reader and I absorb information easily from books and magazines, so I tend to assume everyone learns that way.  Bad assumption.  Buckingham identifies three primary learning styles.  First, some people learn best through analyzing.  These people love information, love data, and best understand a task by taking it apart, analyzing its elements, and reconstructing it piece by piece.  The best way to work with an analyzer is to give them time to prepare, and then to role play with them.  Help them fully analyze and understand the task.  These people hate making mistakes, so giving them time to see the component parts of a task and master them sets them up for success.

The second learning style is the “doer”.  Unlike the analyzer, this person learns best by jumping in and trying something, learning by trial and error.  They could care less about failure or mistakes.  After all, that’s how you learn, isn’t it?  This person will laugh about the mistakes they make on their way to learning by doing.  The sooner they can start doing the better.

The final learning style is watching.  These people don’t want to analyze or role play, and they don’t want to “do” in order to learn either.  They learn best when they can watch the total performance in action.  This person best learns how to sell by watching the star salesman perform for two days.  He can watch the total task being performed, and internalize it just by observing.  So, in other words, get this person out of the classroom and let them ride shotgun!

Consistent with all of Buckingham’s material, learning a person’s triggers and identifying their learning style are not about changing people, but about recognizing people’s strengths, learning how they naturally perform best, and tailoring their environment to those strengths.  Each person has certain strengths, and they probably won’t change very much, so it’s our job as leaders and managers to identify those strengths, get the person in the right role and in the right environment, and then let them use their strengths to the fullest extent.  It sounds like a full time job, and in fact it is.


I recently read the book Well Being:  Five Essential Elements by Tom Rath and Jim Harter.  It’s a quick read, focusing on five different aspects of our lives that the authors believe most significantly contribute to our wellbeing as people.  The five different aspects of wellbeing they identify are Career, Social, Financial, Physical and Community.    

When we think about our lives, most of us tend to emphasize one of these areas above the rest.  For one person, it might be Financial, for another Physical, and for a third Social.  However, the most interesting part of the book for me was how these five aspects of wellbeing interact and influence each other.  In this blog, I’d like to highlight a few of these interactions, and how they can help us become better leaders and managers.

Most bosses want what’s best for their people.  In that regard, I found two insights about Career Wellbeing particularly helpful.  First, people who rate high in Career Wellbeing are more than twice as likely to be thriving in their lives overall.  This probably isn’t surprising, but clearly Career Wellbeing influences every other part of our life.  So a boss who wants to improve an employee’s life overall need look no further than improving the employee’s job fulfillment.  Second, and probably more interesting, people with high Career Wellbeing view the same amount of pay much more favorably than those with low Career Wellbeing.  In other words, given the same salary, people that feel good about their job are significantly more content with their pay than those who make the same amount of money but are unhappy in their job.  Again, maybe not surprising, but helpful information for a leader who wants to retain good workers at a fair wage.

I also found helpful the authors’ comments about helping employees focus on and operate within their strengths.  The research showed that if a manager helps an employee focus on their strengths, the chance of them being “actively disengaged” in her work is just 1%.  In other words, an employee who is able to focus on their strengths almost always feels engaged with their work.  In addition, employees who get to focus on their strengths are six times more likely to feel engaged with their jobs, and three times more likely to report an excellent quality of life than those who don’t get to focus on their strengths.  So, if you want to help a person who works for you have more overall wellbeing, overwhelmingly the most important thing you can do for them is to help them function in an area of strength.

My final takeaway from this book may be the most important.  According to the authors’ research, the one factor that determines job satisfaction more than any other is whether the employee perceives that their immediate supervisor cares about them as a person.  If an employee’s direct supervisor cares about him as a person, he is more likely to be a top performer, more likely to produce high quality work, and less likely to change jobs.  Seems like a relatively simple way to improve performance in a business, while at the same time making employees happier.

So what’s the take-away from all of this?  If you want the best for both your company and for your employees, work hard at making your employees’ jobs rewarding and meaningful.  Don’t just throw money at them.  Of course people always like receiving more money. But, at the end of the day, feeling appreciated, feeling cared for, and operating in one’s strength zone makes the biggest difference in how people view their jobs, how well they perform and how much overall wellbeing they experience in their lives.



This blog is a little different from other blogs I’ve written.  Typically, I try to draw a practical lesson from a business or leadership book I’m reading.  This blog follows that pattern (it is based on a book I’m reading), but it’s also more of an intersection between business and faith.

Back in my December blog post I mentioned the pastor of a New York City church named Tim Keller.  Keller has written several books, and his most recent book, Every Good Endeavor, focuses on the topic of “work.”  Specifically, Keller takes on the question of what was work designed for, and how can we find meaning and purpose in our work.  Both employers and employees face this question.  Employees want their work to be meaningful for obvious reasons.  Employers know that satisfied workers are better, more fulfilled workers, and therefore want their employees’ work to be meaningful.  Today’s millennial generation is asking the “meaning and purpose in work” question more than ever.  In this context, Keller draws on the book of Genesis, part of both the Christian and the Jewish sacred texts, in search of answers to the question of how our work can be about more than just drawing a paycheck.

Keller focuses on two passages from the book of Genesis (Genesis 1:28 and 2:15) in developing his thoughts about work.  These passages come directly after the creation account.  One contains the instruction to “fill the earth and subdue it” as well as to “rule over the fish … birds … and every living creature.”  The other exhorts Adam to “work and care for” the garden in which he was put.  Sometimes the words “till” or “cultivate” are used instead of “work and care.”  So what could these passages from a book written a few thousand years ago possibly have to do with us today in the 21st century, in the world of Apple, Google and Mixed Martial Arts?

Keller has a very interesting take on what it means to “work and care for” (or till and cultivate) the garden.  According to Keller, this text calls us to “rearrange” the raw material of creation in a way that helps people around us to thrive and flourish.  The materials we’re given to work with on this earth are good, but not complete.  Our job is to shape these raw materials into things that enhance people’s lives.  We’re tasked with serving others through building things that make their lives better.  Considered this way, we end up with a totally different perspective on our work, one that brings meaning and dignity to any type of work we do, particularly physical work.

Let me try to make this as practical as possible.  In Genesis we see God as a gardener; later in the scriptures we see him as a carpenter.  Both of these jobs involve physical as well as mental labor.  The fact that God engages in these physical jobs infuses them with meaning and dignity.  In the hardwood lumber industry, we can think of what we do as cutting logs and processing boards, or instead we can see our work as rearranging the raw material of creation (trees) into useful products (chairs, tables, cabinets, floors) that help people to live better and more productively.  For me, viewing our work as rearranging creation’s raw materials is more motivating and inspiring, and brings dignity and meaning to all kinds of work.

So do you think of your work as just a way to draw a paycheck?  If you’re an employer, do your employees think of it that way?  Regardless of your faith background, the first few chapters of Genesis provide a framework for making your work, and the work of your employees, meaningful and full of purpose.  This is eminently modern and practical for a generation that craves more meaning in their work.  Follow this blueprint and it will make your work, and the work of your employees, more meaningful and purposeful.

Meaning and Significance

The Small Big.  The title caught my interest a few months back as I was reading a business magazine.  So I read this book through the holidays, finishing it a few weeks ago.  It’s an easy read, focusing on small things we can do that will make a big difference in how effectively we persuade and motivate people.  I liked a couple things about the book.  First, it contains 52 really short (3-6 pages each) chapters, which makes it easy to read in “bite size” pieces.  Second, it is eminently practical, dealing with topics like how a company can make its sales people more effective, developing simple strategies for negotiating more successfully, making small changes in the work environment to encourage creative thinking, and how fundraisers can convince donors to give more to non-profits.

There was one chapter, however, that I found the most helpful by far.  It provided some fascinating advice from University of Pennsylvania economist Adam Grant on how to improve employee productivity.  Grant argues that if employees are reminded why their job is “significant,” why it has “meaning,” they become more highly motivated and ultimately more productive. To test this hypothesis, Grant conducted a study of employees whose job was to contact alumni of a university and persuade them to make donations to the school’s scholarship fund.  Prior to contacting the alumni, one group of employees read stories about the financial benefits of their job and the opportunity their job gave them to develop their personal skills.  The other group read stories from students who had received scholarships which described the hugely positive impact the scholarship had had on their lives.

The results were nothing short of amazing.  After hearing the stories, the employees who read about the financial benefits of their job raised the same amount of money as they had raised before hearing the stories.  In other words, no change.  However, the employees who heard stories about the impact the scholarships had on students’ lives raised more than twice as much money after hearing the stories!  The power of making sure employees understand and don’t lose sight of the significance of their job at work!  Understanding the meaning and significance of their work surely energized these employees, and elevated the results of their work to new heights.

For those of us in business, how can we follow this advice and get these results?  One way is to collect and prominently display stories of how customers have been helped by our products and services.  Maybe post them on a bulletin board.  Maybe read them aloud.  Or even have team members pick out their favorite stories and read them aloud to their colleagues.  Regardless of how you do it, not letting employees forget the real significance of what they do will lead to better results for your business.  I’m confident it will also result in more fulfilled employees.  This is just one example of how making a small change can have a big result.

Barely Getting a Leaf Out

Recently I read a Wall Street Journal article about a New York City Presbyterian minister named Tim Keller.  The article described the dramatic growth in Keller’s church (Redeemer Presbyterian) from a few families in 1989 to over 5,500 parishioners today.  Quite a success!  However, at the end of the article Keller makes a surprising admission.  Keller admits he often feels like he hasn’t accomplished as much as he should have, and that there is so much more to do.  He uses an image to describe his feelings that captured my imagination.  He says he feels like he has “barely gotten a leaf out.”  As we take time to reflect during this last week of 2014, I believe Keller’s image of the single leaf can provide us with comfort, solace, inspiration and encouragement as we look toward 2015.

“Barely getting a leaf out” is phrase used by J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in a short story he wrote about a painter who spent his whole life trying to paint a very beautiful tree with snowcapped mountains and forests behind it.  In spite of his continual and diligent efforts, when the painter dies he has finished painting only one leaf.  The painter is disappointed, but when he goes into the afterlife he sees something in the distance that quickens his heart.  As he approaches more closely, he realizes that there is the completed tree he was trying to paint all along!

Tolkien’s point in this story is that despite our best efforts to make a significant contribution to our societies, our workplaces, our families, our friends and our churches, we often accomplish a lot less than we hope for.  We have high expectations, and often find ourselves disappointed, discouraged, even disillusioned, at how little we’re able to accomplish.  We feel like there’s so much unfinished, so much still to be done.  We’ve failed to make a meaningful dent in the work to be done.  Like the painter, we feel like we’ve completed little more than a single leaf.

The story, however, provides us with encouragement.  In fact, the one leaf that we paint often goes together with leaves that others paint to create a beautiful tree.  The tree wouldn’t be complete unless we did our part.  As a person of faith, Tolkien believes that our vision of what we want to accomplish is often inspired by God, and that in the end God can weave our leaf together with the leaves of others to create the beautiful tree.  Tolkien’s story encourages us that, together with others and the help of God, we can in fact make a difference.

So this Christmas season take comfort and satisfaction in “barely getting a leaf out.”  It’s not so much the size of your contribution, but rather the fact that you’re making a contribution at all.  Make the best leaf that you can.  Continue to make your own small mark, and together with others you may be surprised at the beautiful tree that emerges.