I’ve recently started training for a half marathon. Each Saturday—my long run day—I lace up my shoes, stretch, and get mentally prepared to run just a little longer than the week before. When I run shorter distances during the week, I usually take off quickly and try to push my pace, decreasing my mile time, even just by a few seconds. But on long run days, I take my time, allowing my first mile to be up to 20 seconds longer than my average mile time, then ease into a steady pace that will carry me through the hills and heat of the miles ahead.
Much in the same way as this training method gets me through long, difficult, and even sometimes boring runs, setting a slower pace—playing the long game—is the key to success in just about everything we do. Whether athletic training, becoming a musical virtuoso (consider Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours in Outliers), weight loss, financial planning, or building a lasting, successful organization, short cuts may provide short term gain, but lasting success lies exclusively in the hard work of setting a pace over time.
In his book Great by Choice, Jim Collins describes this paced approach as the 20-mile march. Imagine you’re about to set out to hike the Appalachian Trail. Using a 20-mile march approach, each day, no matter the weather, your mood, or what other people around you are doing, you march approximately 20 miles and then stop. Sometimes this means holding back when you could go farther, and sometimes this means pushing through under really tough circumstances. But, as Collin’s research shows, people and companies who subscribe to this approach (Stryker, Southwest, Progressive Insurance) come out on top over and over when their competitors—many of whom may have had more impressive short-term gains—have ultimately struggled, and some even failed.
When considering efforts to measure and improve the employee experience and build positive, engaging cultures, almost everyone has seen the statistics that the current state of engagement is dismal (33% as reported by Gallup in their 2017 State of the American Workplace report). Research also shows that companies are spending millions on their efforts increase engagement (some $720 million/year according to TLNT). But the few organizations who can manage to harness this illusive state experience more success (26% greater year-over-year increase in revenue as reported by Aberdeen, October 2015).
So, how does one go about defying the odds and investing in a culture and engagement program that actually works? Just like Jim Collins suggests with the 20-mile march, and just as Jacob Morgan describes in his article Why the Millions We Spend on Employee Engagement Buy Us So Little (Harvard Business Review, March 2017), you have to play the long game. As Morgan describes, organizations that succeed in creating environments that draw people in and keep them engaged long-term focus on the whole of the employee experience, including the cultural, technological, and physical aspects of work. Further, he finds that these organizations outperform others by 1.5 times in employee growth and 4.2 times in average profit.
Companies who succeed in cultivating distinguished cultures use paced approaches. Rather than relying on short term engagement initiatives—parties, snacks, and swag —these companies engage in the slow and difficult work of attacking the root of cultural issues and creating change from the inside out. Sure, these companies may still subscribe to annual cook-offs, scavenger hunts, and fleece zip-ups, but these things serve as add-ons to the less glamorous but more powerful work happening deep in the organization. As you reflect on your own talent strategy today, have you set the pace that will take you through the finish line?