Business First Expo & Employee Engagement Keynote

I attended the second annual Buffalo Business First  Business Growth expo at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center downtown yesterday. The event featured 120 exhibitors from a variety of sectors and local franchising booths for QSRs and retail chains.

In addition to gathering local business magazines and association brochures, I also will receive a year’s subscription to Business First as part of the expo registration package. 

The centerpiece of the event was a keynote address by the “Guru of Thank You” Dr. Bob Nelson. There were about 190 attendees for this luncheon presentation and each received one of Dr. Nelson’s books “1501 Ways to Reward Employees” and a “Recognition ASAP” tips on a wallet card for employers to consider.

Dr. Nelson opened with a story about a man seated next to him on a recent flight who was reading one of his many business strategy manuals. In a secret-shopper moment, he asked the passenger what he thought of the book, to which the reply came that it was the shortest of the three options provided by his manager. In another moment of levity, he recounted a joke in which someone was asked, “How many people work at your company?” He responded by saying “about half of them.”

He spoke for 75 minutes and outlined numerous corporate case studies on professional development and the art and science of identifying, rewarding and retaining high-potential (HiPos) employees.

In an intriguing, and challenging, ice-breaking exercise, Dr. Nelson instructed the audience to stand up and meet as many people as you could in 30 seconds while simulating you are in a bad mood. This was then followed by another 30-second exchange with other people you pretended were an old friend you hadn’t seen in many years.

The first part of this was odd as you found yourself meeting a few people grumbling, looking down or proffering an insufficient handshake. For the second simulation, there were plenty of wide feigned smiles and “how have you been all these years?” standard type of greetings.

The ultimate premise of Dr. Nelson’s presentation focused on how to sustain engagement and career advancement opportunities for an organization’s most productive personnel. He noted the three key attributes of HiPos are ability, engagement (are they excited about their positions?) and aspirations (is there active dialogue about the importance of their role and the status of their future with the organization?).

His six main strategies to keep the HiPos that are rampantly plotting their exodus over the next year (25% according to the Harvard Business Review) are as follows:

  1. Start with assessing what the HiPos aspirations are with the organization and their individual career plans.
  2. Align the aspirations with the organization’s mission and strategy (such as Johnson & Johnson’s leadership program with global experience and a multi-year development plan).
  3. Focus on the “real and “important” work, the “crucible roles” so that HiPos feel involved in bigger picture operations and planning.
  4. Emphasize cross-training programs such as shadowing, job swaps and stretch work to further assist HiPos in enhancing their management awareness, versatility and skills set.
  5. Engage in mentoring across units or divisions and with those who aren’t direct reports.
  6. Recognition matters – HiPos seek autonomy (choice of assignments), authority (access to special resources), flexibility (scheduling, telecommuting) and visibility (access to upper management).

Dr. Nelson closed with the widely circulated peppy music video touting the culture and customer service virtues that have come to define Zappos. While I had seen the video and think it is a hokey recruitment marketing vehicle, I recommend reading “Delivering Happiness” by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. It’s full of anecdotes on the Zappos journey and can be consumed in two or three sittings (or one lengthy plane ride).

On the wallet card that was distributed at each seat were the following guidelines for effective praising:

  1. As Soon ~ Timing is important; don’t delay praise. 
  2. As Sincere ~ Words seem hollow if you’re not sincere in why you’re praising.
  3. As Specific ~ Avoid generalities in favor of details of the achievement.
  4. As Personal ~ When possible, convey your praise in person, face to face.
  5. As Positive ~ Don’t undercut praise with a concluding note of criticism.
  6. As Proactive ~ Praise progress towards goals, otherwise you’ll ten to react to the negative – typically mistakes – in your interactions with others.


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