Note: The following excerpt about celebrating wins is from the book Balanced Accountability: Three Leadership Secrets to Win Hearts and Maximize Performance.
I took my daughter, Carmina, to the golf range for the first time when she was eight years-old. I was excited to share my favorite hobby with her and wanted her to do well. In my eagerness to create the golf prodigy I never was, I coached her hard. I thought, If I stay on her and ensure she learns right from the start, she’ll be in good shape. She won’t have to unlearn bad habits as I did, losing many balls from my ugly slice. So that afternoon, I corrected every swing and told her how to adjust each angle. She hated it. On the way home, she said she’d never go back. She didn’t want to hit balls ever again. I was devastated, as I’d so wanted to play golf with my daughter.
Fast forward three years. My son, Riley, was seven, and he asked to go to the driving range with me. I was determined to learn from my mistakes with Carmina, so I handed Riley the club, gave him the basics on how to swing, and let him go at it. Every time he made contact with the ball, we celebrated. I didn’t coach him at all. We just whooped, and high-fived any time he hit the ball. It was fun for both of us, and the drive home was a lot happier than the one with Carmina three years prior.
That evening, as always, we did our “Family Dinner Favorites.” We go around the table, and each raises a toast to our favorite part of the day. Riley raised his glass of milk and said, “Cheers to hitting golf balls… my favorite part of the day!” Carmina, now 11-years-old, heard this and asked if I’d take her next time. I jumped on this second chance with my daughter and took both the kids to the driving range the very next day.
This time, I did the same as I’d done with Riley. We celebrated all the small wins, every time Carmina made contact with the ball. I was pleasantly surprised by how well she did. We had a great day together, and Carmina stuck with it. She made the varsity golf team as a freshman and played in a variety of junior golf tournaments. We still play together, too. Some of the most special moments in my free time are while playing golf with my kids, and it’s what I always ask for on Father’s Day. It’s amazing how encouraging Carmina’s small wins ended with such big, meaningful results for both of us.
Celebrating small wins at work
I experienced something similar in the work world, particularly when I was working at Sleep Train Mattress Centers (chain of stores on the West Coast). For years, we didn’t have a director of human resources (HR). The various department leaders just shot from the hip on how to manage HR. We did the best we could with what we knew — or thought we knew — about recruiting, managing, and sometimes firing people. But as the company grew, our founder, Dale Carlsen, in his wisdom, saw we needed help. He went out and hired Tracy Jackson, an HR professional with more than a decade of experience.
Now, at that time, we were primarily a “guys” company. In our ignorance, we hadn’t given any attention to diversity. We didn’t know, back then, all the benefits that come from a more balanced workforce. So when Dale announced we’d have to answer to an HR manager, I’m ashamed to say our collective thought was, uh oh. There was a lot of talk around the water cooler. We bemoaned the extra hoops she’d no doubt force us to jump through. We complained about all the red tape she’d surely strangle us with.
In our first executive team meeting, Tracy and I sat across from each other in the board room. I leaned back in my chair, arms crossed, surveying her as she gestured enthusiastically and spoke with real passion. She said there is no template. Human resources is about humans, and we have to stay consistent while realizing no two employees are the same. It’s about people, first and foremost. In minutes, I found myself leaning forward, listening intently, my hesitation flying out the window. I was impressed. Tracy quickly proved herself to be unbelievably good at the job. She won over everyone, and taught us what we should’ve already realized: Having a woman in the room only improves things, and giving proper attention to HR issues creates more engaged employees.
We developed a great relationship. Tracy expertly guided me through many sticky moments and helped me become a better leader. So, 11 years later, when Tracy said she couldn’t relocate her family to move to the company’s new headquarters in Texas, I was gutted. The team understood of course, but we were all sad. Tracy got a new job which would allow her to stay in the area, but before she left, she undertook a small, personal challenge she called Losing My Marbles.
She bought a bag of marbles and set a goal to give each marble to a colleague who’d made a difference in her career. She put them all in a bowl on her desk and said seeing them there held her personally accountable to fulfilling her goal. Only when the bowl was empty would she know she’d accomplished what she’d wanted, and thanked the people who’d meant something to her. A couple of times a day, she took a marble from the bowl, handed it to someone in the office, and spent two or three minutes thanking them for their help. It became very symbolic.
When she brought a marble into my office, she sat down across the desk from me, just as she’d done in that first meeting. She talked about how I’d leaned on her in my career,which was very true, and how that had helped her see the meaning in her work. She said my trust had helped her develop. I’d had no idea! She had done more for me than I’d ever done for anyone else, and it was so encouraging to hear our relationship had benefited her. It was a small gesture that celebrated a mutual win, and it encouraged me beyond measure. That moment stayed with me. And I never lost my marble; it stayed with me, too.
Take 5 and 100 Grand
Tracy’s example reminded me of something I did a few years prior. I’d realized every time I showed up in a colleague’s cubicle, I was asking them for something. I wondered if I could build better relationships by showing up to give. But what would I give? Office supplies? Extra staples? No one wanted those. But there is something that’s almost universally appreciated: candy.
I bought a case of 100 Grand candy bars and started handing them out. I didn’t just dump them in a bowl in the office kitchen, though. I gave them out one by one, with a thank you for a specific achievement. Sometimes, I said something meaningful. Other times, I kept it simple and light, and just said, “You’ve worked so hard. Here’s your payday… one hundred grand!”
It went down well. It’s amazing how much people will help you when you’ve shown up to give. I expanded my efforts and bought a bunch of Take 5 candy bars. In the morning, I’d put six on my desk and challenge myself to give them all out before I could take a break. I continued the cheesy wordplay, and told team members, “Take five! You’ve done a great job. You deserve a break.”
Noticing the wins
My relationships improved, people were more willing to help me, and I felt good for it. Finding excuses to give out the candy bars made me notice all the small wins my team scored. It was encouraging to see. When I shared the moment with a team member, and we celebrated a small win together, they were encouraged, too. The positive experience was contagious.
I took my efforts on the road when I visited stores in my region. I’d always felt store staff were intimidated when head office leaders came in. It was like they put up a wall to protect themselves because they were sure you were there to tell them they’d done wrong. But when I went in and found small wins to celebrate, right off the bat, that wall disappeared. I handed out candy bars, chocolates, and snacks. I’d say, “These are your sales vitamins. When you’re having a bad day, eat them!” Then, they opened up. We had real, productive conversations.
Better than seeing fails
It was such a change from the audit programs I used to do. When I started visiting mattress stores, I wanted to catch the staff off guard. I’d turn up without much notice, put on a white glove, and run my finger over the headboards, looking for dust. I’d review every aspect and, many times, found stores weren’t up to par. They weren’t organized enough, clean enough, welcoming enough, whatever. I’d only get through two or three stores in one trip because it took so much time to audit them fully.
When I shifted my mentality, I decided to give the district leader two week’s notice before showing up. The leader would use the visit to motivate the staff to get the store spotless. Instead of donning my white glove as soon as I arrived, I asked the team to show me the store. They started talking to me, telling me their wins and what they wished they could do better. I got some resistance from higher leaders who thought we should catch what they do when we’re not there. But the results spoke for themselves. In follow-ups, I found they maintained a clean, welcoming store throughout the summer — our busiest months.
I also went home happier and my days were more enjoyable. I knew I’d helped improve our service standards, I’d enveloped so many more leaders into taking ownership of and pride in the state of our stores, and I was able to see more stores in one trip. My top goal was to motivate the staff and get them more excited about our company. Win, win, win.
Small wins in the big picture
Celebrating small wins, like hitting a ball or meeting all your store’s cleanliness criteria, is one thing. Bigger wins, such as exceeding sales targets, are more difficult to reward. Offering a chocolate bar to celebrate six months of long hours slaving over sales numbers just won’t cut it. But the same principle applies: You need to track small wins as you work towards bigger goals.
Breaking big tasks into a series of small ones isn’t a new idea, of course. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. It’s common for annual sales targets to be broken down into quarterly, monthly, and weekly goals per district, and individual branch. The point is that it’s not enough to set these smaller, milestone goals. You must celebrate them, too. You need to use those smaller targets as opportunities to magnify the wins along the way, so your team has enough motivation to make it to the finish line. Without celebration, it just feels like one target comes after another, after another, and no success is ever enough. That’s miserable and demoralizing, and that feeling slows everyone down.
Magnifying small wins with micro-celebrations creates momentum. It boosts morale and motivation, and speeds everything up. It’s a classic tortoise and hare situation. By taking time out to celebrate a small win, you get to your final destination faster. And remember, that time out doesn’t have to last long. Tracy took two or three minutes to thank her colleagues. It took me no more than that to pass out candy bars. High-fiving Carmina took her away from the tee for five seconds.
At Sleep Train, we used weekly sales targets, as your company might. Week in, week out, these numbers helped us monitor our progress towards the larger, annual goals. We also used them, every single week, to magnify our top salespeople. We praised those who hit the weekly targets. We didn’t shame those who didn’t, but we let them see those goals were possible because their teammate was doing it. It helped them understand that hitting those numbers was an attainable goal, and it was the kind of thing that was regularly praised.
Celebrate wins big and small
Celebrating small wins should, quite simply, be a positive experience! Steal ideas, or use any others that honor your employees.
Whatever you choose to do to celebrate small wins, it’s worth it. Rewards — verbal encouragement, symbolic marbles, candy, or anything else — motivate people to reach bigger goals. A high-five when your daughter hits a golf ball can encourage her to put in the effort required to become a varsity golfer. I’m not saying I’m responsible for Carmina’s success —t hat’s all on her. I just realized that, when I didn’t celebrate her small wins, I created a barrier that prevented her from pushing on. I sucked all the joy from the driving range, and who wants to do something that’s not enjoyable?
Recognizing small wins was a habit I had to cultivate, but it’s a habit that snowballs. As soon as you start noticing the great things your team is doing, it becomes easier to see even more. It very quickly turns from a chore to improve your team’s performance, to a fun exercise you enjoy doing, that also benefits your team. As Dr. Teresa Amabile from Harvard Business School said, “Track your small wins to motivate big accomplishments.” And the fun thing is, you never know how big those accomplishments will be!