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Nov 4, 2020

Some of the most visionary minds in business over the last hundred years have worked in popular media like film and television. I draw a great deal of inspiration from these leaders who have paved an unconventional path to success. The lessons one can learn from a sitcom or a Tarantino film are no less meaningful than those inside books in the business section at your local bookstore. 

I grew up in a family of business owners and film buffs, and I believe when those paths converge, we can learn some of our greatest lessons.

Star Wars is for me that confluence between visionary ideas and imaginative storytelling. I’ve learned just as much about human nature and how employees engage within organizations from George Lucas as from any book on business I have ever read.

May the Force of Employee Engagement Be With You

Darth Vader, Lucas’ most well-known creation, has much to teach us about what happens when employee engagement goes awry.

For those who don’t live and breathe Star Wars, you likely know that Darth Vader is a fallen Jedi and father to Luke Skywalker, but back when he was Anakin Skywalker, he was a promising member of the Jedi Order who fell to the Dark Side as a result of a series of missteps from his managers and colleagues. His defection from the Jedi sent the organization into a tailspin and created one of the most memorable antagonists in movie history.

I see this play out time and time again in the real world (not the iconic villain part). Companies invest significant time and resources into attracting and training employees, and the last thing you want is a talented team member leaving you for a competitor.

Upon rewatching, I can’t help but see the Jedi making the same fundamental mistakes companies make time and time again when trying to engage talented employees. Here’s how you can avoid repeating one of the worst examples of employee engagement in the galaxy:

Pair New Employees With Experienced Managers

In high-volume work environments, where turnover is common and the competition for good talent is high, new hires oftentimes come into a role under a newly promoted manager — maybe one just promoted from the role they now manage. Learning and growing as an employee is more challenging under an inexperienced boss; yet companies continue to entrust the success of their latest hires to new managers.

The Jedi were no different. When young Anakin Skywalker was first welcomed into the Jedi Order as a child, he was placed under the tutelage of newly minted Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi. Dozens of more experienced Jedi were available, but the Jedi bungled the choice and gave a manager with no experience the task of training the galaxy’s most promising recruit.

Throughout the initial films, Obi-Wan treats Anakin as his brother. They face challenges together as peers because Obi-Wan lacked the job experience to show Anakin much of anything. He’s a caring manager, but an ill fit for Anakin. This is especially problematic given Anakin’s natural prowess as a Jedi. Such an upwardly mobile employee needs an experienced manager, not a rookie.

Training and managing people is a skill that develops over time. Internal company hierarchies lead CEOs and their HR teams to promote good employees into management positions, even if their objective is simply to reward them for their work and challenge them to do more.

Obi-Wan may have deserved his promotion to the role of Jedi Knight, but it needn’t come with immediate managerial duties. It is perfectly acceptable to give employees greater responsibility without assuming they’ll make a great manager. This kind of thinking, though, requires flexibility and a willingness to think outside the box.

Give Employees Options for Career Growth

Employees need to know that there is space for them in higher-paying and more challenging positions. Ambitious employees generally make their intentions for growth known, but deeply engaging an employee is much more than just a title.

Facebook learned that the key to keeping employees was to make sure their work was enjoyable, utilized their strengths, and helped them develop their skills. In the case of Anakin, who quickly showed his skill as a Jedi and a commander, any competent organization would have prioritized his growth and given him greater opportunity to showcase his talent. Unfortunately, the Jedi are uncompromising. 

When Anakin is appointed to the Jedi Council against the wishes of senior leadership, they refuse to grant him the title of Jedi Master. Despite Anakin’s potential, they won’t cede room for him to grow. Failure to engage people in this way leaves them no other option than to look outside your organization for new opportunities. Like the Jedi, you could be blind to the imminent departure of your most promising young employees.

It’s maddening to hit a ceiling at work, especially when you aren’t given a reasonable explanation or even a roadmap you might follow to reach your goal. When companies fixate on a predetermined career path — managers become directors become VPs — they fail to see the many ways you can promote employees sideways to keep them engaged and focused. A pay increase, a title bump, internal awards, and recognition are all ways you can show ambitious employees that their work is not going unnoticed. 

Do Not Lean Solely on Mission or Culture to Engage Employees

Eventually, Anakin Skywalker turned his back on the Jedi and assumed the title Darth Vader. The evil Chancellor Palpatine saw the Jedi’s mistakes in real time and acted quickly to poach their future by promising Anakin a path filled with learning and advancement. What he knew — and what many companies don’t — is that culture does not engage employees. Culture is a product of engagement

No matter how incredible your mission, each employee first judges their company based upon their own experience and values. For example, the Jedi are the literal guardians of light against darkness. They are a clear allegory for righteousness, and Anakin admires their commitment to lofty ideals throughout his time as a Jedi. 

Still, these values are not enough to keep Anakin in place. They simply do not substitute for the employee experience. Companies should be obsessed with finding paths to grow for those who want mobility, as well as provide constant engagement for those content with their role. Talk with your employees about their career goals and work with them on a plan to achieve them.

Chancellor Palpatine spends years getting to know Anakin by talking to him about his hopes and fears (something competing recruiters are trying hard to do on LinkedIn everyday). He heard Anakin’s frustrations with the Jedi and assured him that he was destined for greatness. Most importantly, he offered Anakin a concrete promotion to serve as his right hand. Though Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side takes the Jedi by surprise, they should have seen it coming.

Someone else was offering what Anakin wanted all along — real opportunity to learn and grow. Anakin’s experience with the Jedi was fraught. The Jedi’s failure to communicate or compromise constrained Anakin’s options. Palpatine and the Dark Side gave him a path forward. 

The Jedi commit dozens of errors over the course of the films, and their decisions are so frustrating because these are the same kinds of mistakes I hear companies making every day. Your employees are your business. Investing in their success is paramount to the success of your company. If your HR team happens across particularly promising talent, appoint them a strong manager and do what you can to challenge them without blocking their growth.

Above all, listen to your employees when they express their ambitions — or don’t be shocked if they fall to the “Dark Side” and join your biggest rival.