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What’s the one thing that leads to better employee engagement?

Richard Hadden for Progressive Dairy Published on 17 April 2020

A young audience member came up to me at a conference I was set to speak at last year and said (I’m paraphrasing, but not much): “Richard, I’ve read the conference program, and I see that you’re going to be speaking on employee engagement later today.

What’s the one thing – the one thing,” he emphasized, “that creates this engaged workforce that you talk about?”



“I started a new company last year,” he explained, “and we’re growing. I’m having a hard time finding good people, and that’s slowing down our growth. I don’t want to take forever to figure out how to get them and how to keep them. And I’m the kind of guy who likes to get straight to the point. So what’s the one thing?”

Well, I’m a consultant. You don’t think I gave him a direct answer, do you? “What do you think the one thing is?” I asked, in classic Socratic fashion.

“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you,” was his reply. Fair enough. After learning that he’d earned a boatload working for one of those fancy-schmancy hi-tech companies in Silicon Valley, before getting a patent on a cool new process I didn’t begin to understand and launching his own startup, I asked him, “So how engaged were you? How ‘into it’ were you at your old company?”

“Not very,” he said.

“What was it, then, that kept you there as long as it did? The money?” “No.” “Benefits?” “No, they were good. Better than I’m able to provide now. We’re small,” he apologized, unnecessarily.


“Did you get to do cool things?”

“The coolest!”

“Well, didn’t you have great stuff there?”

“Oh yeah. We had nap rooms and free food all day. A daycare and kindergarten right there on our campus. A gym with an indoor lap pool. A great company picnic every year. And we could even bring our dogs to work, if we wanted to.

“The vacation policy was like, ‘Have fun. Just let us know when you’ll be back, but don’t forget you’ve got this project due in a week.’ It was crazy. Just like you hear.”

“Career progression?” I pressed.


“If you knew how to play the game, which I didn’t.”

“So, is that why you left?” I asked. Silence.

And then, “No. My boss was a really awful leader. In fact, most of them were. They hired idiots. Well, sometimes,” he added with a self-conscious laugh. “They took care of themselves, but not the rest of us. They tried to buy our loyalty with the gym and the vacation thing, which was really kind of a joke. Nobody had time to use the gym or take vacations anyway. My boss flew off the handle a lot. And he never once, I mean never once, told me I was doing a great job. And I was.”

“So, I’ll ask you again, what do you think the one thing is?” He confessed that he was looking for something a little more involved, a little more complicated than “good leadership.” Sorry to disappoint him, I told him that if there is one thing – and I’m not entirely sure there is – he’d probably just identified it.

I know the one thing definitely isn’t money. That’s important, but that’s not it. It’s not benefits. Those are important (and may be becoming more so). But benefits aren’t the one thing. It’s not the breakroom or dogs at work. And it’s certainly not the company picnic. You could line up a thousand people who have left their employers voluntarily, poll them as to why, and you wouldn’t hear anything remotely related to potato salad.

My advice to him was pretty straightforward. If your goal is to build a great company, and you’re at all dependent on the discretionary effort of people at work, you have to insist, I emphasized “insist,” that every person in a management position is also a good leader. You also have to:

  • Understand that leadership is the earned consent of followers.

  • Constantly work on your own leadership skills. And practice them, consistently, relentlessly. Get somebody who’ll tell you the truth to let you know how you’re doing from time to time.

  • Populate the management ranks of your company with people who both value and practice good leadership. No exceptions.

  • If you have a manager who’s not a good leader, and is unwilling or unable to develop that skill, you have to remove him or her.

Good leadership. That’s the one thing.  end mark

Richard Hadden is an author, speaker and consultant who focuses on the connection between people practices and profit performance. His latest book is Contented Cows STILL Give Better Milk. Find him online at Contented Cows.

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