A Lesson on Engagement From an Unpaid, 76-Year-Old Airport Greeter

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Apr 25, 2014

I returned home from a conference and got off the tram at Denver International Airport and took the escalator up to the top level, where the first person I saw was an elderly gentleman in a cowboy hat who greets arriving passengers with a hearty “Welcome to Denver!” This is followed by an earnest, “How may I help you?”

I don’t know of another airport in the country where passengers are warmly welcomed by airport employees who are proactively offering assistance in helping navigate a large, confusing airport. Makes me proud to be from Denver, but I digress.

I stood and watched this guy for a good 20 minutes and even recorded this video of him and another ambassador on the job.

“A guy who really enjoys his job”

He’s got an immediate response for any question he is asked, “Where can I pick up my luggage?” “Where are the bathrooms?” “How do I catch a shuttle headed downtown?” “I’m in Denver for just two days. What must I see?

Finally, during a brief slow period, I approached him.

“Excuse me,” I said to the elderly gentleman.

He rounds on me with a huge smile, as if he was greeting an old friend.

Yes, sir! How may I help you?

“Well, you look like a guy who really enjoys his job. I’m writing a book for leaders that will provide ideas for engaging employees and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?”

Why of course! What would you like to know?

And that’s how I found out that Roger Gulkinson has been a Hospitality Ambassador for Denver International Airport for six years. Every Friday, Roger puts on his cowboy duds, drives 70 plus miles from Fort Collins to Denver International Airport, where he stands at the top of that escalator and greets visitors with the same cheery attitude and helpful advice.

“A guy who really enjoys his job”

“How much do they pay folks like you to do this job, Roger?” I asked.

“Nothing. Not a dime. All we get is free parking…and a hat,” he quipped with a smile.

Now I was truly hooked, “Then why would you spend your precious retirement doing this?”

I’ve been retired for nearly nine years,” he explained. “But you can only play so many rounds of golf. This job keeps me busy, makes me feel like I’m contributing something to the environment besides carbon dioxide. Plus I enjoy it.

“What did you do before you retired?” I asked.

I was the CFO for First National Bank.”

A banking executive? Before standing at the top of an escalator for four to six hours a day greeting weary travelers, Mr. Gulkinson oversaw the complex financial transactions for a large bank? WOW!

It doesn’t take a paycheck to be engaged

What’s even more remarkable is that my new friend is not alone.

Every Ambassador that I’ve seen while walking through Denver International over the past 21 years is cut from the same cloth. They’re cheerful, friendly, knowledgeable, reliable, honest … and none of them get a paycheck. (It’s really not fair, but that’s fodder for another blog).

Roger’s story is a revealing glimpse into the hearts and minds of workers from a bygone era. It’s about people who believe that work isn’t something to run away from, but something to embrace. Work isn’t a nasty four-letter word to be done by someone else but, rather, work is its own reward.

Sadly, most workers in America do not share Roger’s zest and zeal for their work even when they are getting a paycheck.

In 2013, Gallup surveyed workers in 142 nations to discover who had the most engaged workforce. The good news is that the United States and Canada led the list. Now the bad news:

  • Only 29 percent of workers in the U.S. and Canada say that they are “engaged” at work.
  • Some 54 percent say they are “not engaged,” while 18 percent say they are “actively disengaged.”

This means we can stop patting ourselves on the back for being No. 1. After all, who cares how the rest of the world performs when 73 percent (three out of four) U.S. and Canadian workers either aren’t engaged or actively disengaged?

It’s not the money, honey

Another recent report by the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services showed that only 24 percent of respondents consider most of their employees highly engaged. And mid-level management was much less optimistic about employee engagement than were top executives, an indication that those at the top might be out of touch with their workforce.

Most employers know this. They read the headlines. They attend the conferences. They hire the consultants.

Yet, they remain stuck, rooted to tired, failed ideas that skip off the problem like a Ping-Pong ball from the table. Then they put a Ping-Pong table in the break room and mistakenly believe that will be enough to re-engage their workforce.

Numerous studies like those above report that while most people work because they need a paycheck, employee engagement is rarely tied to compensation. If the only thing that mattered was money, Bill Gates wouldn’t go to work every day. Neither would Warren Buffett. Peyton Manning would be kickin’ it from the Bahamas, and Roger Gulkinson would be out playing the 9th hole that borders his back yard.

About the only thing a nice paycheck will do for a disengaged employee is keep him or her from walking out the door. But regardless of how many zeroes are on the check, it’s not going to keep them giving all they have.

On Point

Do you see that pimply-faced 16-year-old kid taking your order at the drive-thru? He’s the Roger of the future. About 60 years from today, he to will have the choice between doing nothing and making a meaningful contribution.

If between now and then, that kid ends up working for you, how will his perception of work change? Will he see it as simply a means to an end, or will your culture – and your leadership – be enough to ignite a lifelong passion for performance, productivity, and service?

Those people throughout your organization are all going to make that choice some day. And those choices are being strongly influenced by the choices you are making today.

This was originally published on Eric Chester’s blog Chester On Point