As CEO of Accenture Operations from 2009 to 2016, I was responsible for 100,000 people globally, and my first year was a disaster. It began with a determination to over-deliver and ended very differently. I promised strong profitable growth and instead delivered a negative impact—not the start anyone wanted.
After a rollercoaster year of being whip-sawed back and forth by the often conflicting demands from customers, the chairman, the board and employees, I realized that only two audiences really mattered: 1) employees and 2) customers.
So I sat down with my COO, CFO, and heads of Communication and HR, and insisted on a people-centric strategy. My team thought I was crazy and many later confided in me that they thought I was going to be the most colossal “flame-out” in the history of Accenture.
My motivation was based on a life-altering event that occurred when my father was diagnosed with a Glioblastoma, a cancerous primary brain tumor. As a result, I received a crash course on how neuroscience explains human behavior, relationships and motivation. It became apparent to me that to effectively inspire people, in my case more than 100,000, my leadership team and their direct reports needed to understand this.
“When people take pride in the business, they focus more on customer needs and deliver innovation.”
The science of inspiring people
According to Harvard Business School professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, each of us is born with four basic drivers that can be incorporated into business management: the drive to acquire, the drive to defend, the drive to bond and the drive to learn and create. As my father’s doctors at Ohio State University explained to me, these behaviors have existed since the beginning of humankind to keep us alive. When any of these four drivers are triggered, chemicals are released in our brains.
1. When you give someone a pat on the back, give them a raise, or otherwise show your appreciation, their brain releases dopamine and they feel excited and engaged.
2. When we are made to feel defensive, our brains release adrenalin and cortisol. Adrenalin compels us to quickly make the fight or flight decision. Cortisol is also released and will shut down the parts of your body that are not required for “survival mode.” This impedes inspiration and creativity.
3. When we have positive social interactions like a good meeting, or socializing and getting to know colleagues outside of work, oxytocin is released. In these instances people let down their guard. They listen and empathize, and trust is established.
4. When you collaborate with a team to learn and create, serotonin is released. When serotonin is high, people are calm and energized. This gives them a sense of well-being and stimulates their creative process.
Applying the science
Perhaps the best way to understand how to inspire people to effect the scientific impact of how we treat them is to think of a second-hand moving around a clock:
12:00: When you focus on your people, you are communicating that you care. When people know you care, it inspires them to take pride in the business.
2:00: When people take pride in the business, they focus more on customer needs and deliver innovation.
4:00: Innovation helps to differentiate your business and sets you apart from the competition because you are actually delivering the products and services your customers need and want.
6:00: When you differentiate your products and services you will win more in the market, and there is nothing like winning to build a team and a business.
8:00: You are winning, and when you win you grow the business in revenue and profitability.
10:00: You are growing, taking market share from your competitors and driving your business to be the market leader.
Back at 12:00: You celebrate and reinforce your success by acknowledging, recognizing and rewarding your people. This inspires them more, and the clock keeps ticking!
When people are happier personally, they make a greater impact at work and are more innovative. They have less personal anxiety and stress and are more excited to be at work. They often work longer because they want to be there, not because they have to; and they have better ideas, because they themselves are better, psychologically and emotionally.
In the end, my team achieved employee engagement that was industry-leading and contributed to Accenture being named to the Fortune “100 Best Companies to Work” list for numerous consecutive years. But this culture change didn’t just improve employee engagement. It drove top line growth, and it is the reason Accenture Operations bounced back from my first disastrous year to posting 20% growth on $7 billion revenues.
So my advice is to prioritize your people and treat them well. It’s more than a nice idea, it’s the key to sustainable success for any growing business.
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