December 3rd, 2018

Does your company retain talent? Do your employees love and adore their jobs? If not, all you need to do is this one little thing.

Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve known and coached thousands of business owners. And if I were to make one categorical observation about us as a group – about the way that we behave instinctually, before we learn to redesign the way we think – it would be this:

We stink at celebrating victories – at seeing and actually feeling the progress that our companies and our teams make. And, on the rare occasions when we do acknowledge our victories, we caveat them: “Yeah, we did this, but…”

We worry that if we ever express satisfaction – if we ever stop and say, “Well done” – people will become complacent.

Does this sound familiar? When your company has big victories, do you take time to celebrate them? Or are you always chasing the horizon, thinking about all of the ways that your company still needs to grow?

Because let me tell you, if you don’t think there are victories to celebrate, you’re wrong: I’m willing to bet that a year ago or ten years ago, you would’ve killed to own the company that you own today.

And, you know, as much as I’d like to frame this as a problem that other people have, the reality is that I still catch myself making this mistake all the time.

Last summer, I took my leadership team to Salt Lake City for a one-and-a-half day planning retreat.

We kicked off the retreat the same way that we kick off all of our leadership team meetings: by discussing the last quarter and putting a list of key victories up on the whiteboard.

But I noticed that we were all subtly undermining the spirit of the exercise by qualifying our victories.

“Well, gosh, our revenues are up by 28%, but…”

“Hey, we just had the largest number of new coaching client enrollments ever. But, of course, we also had two special events this quarter.”

It was almost like we were intimidated by or anxious about sharing victories without noting the challenges we still faced. Perhaps were so focused on all the work left to do that we didn’t feel comfortable basking in our victories – even if it was only for five minutes in a closed-door meeting.

When I pointed that behavior out to my leadership team, we all had a good laugh about it.

And since then, we’ve made a point of sticking to discussing victories during the kickoffs of these biweekly and quarterly leadership meetings. No qualifications allowed.

Then, once we’re done discussing victories, we can get to work on the challenges ahead and the future victories that we’d like to create. Because you can’t create new victories until you celebrate the ones you’ve already had.

This recently came up with one of our business coaching clients. When he first started his manufacturing business, he was operating out of his garage in Florida. Today, his company is a leading manufacturer of industrial production control units. Some of the largest businesses in the world use his company’s parts in their production lines.

Not only has his business made it out of the garage, but they’re now bringing in $15 million a year.

And, sure he has big ambitions for the future. He plans to double his company’s operations over the next three and a half years. But if he’s not careful, he could lose sight of his progress — take it for granted and let those victories sink into the status quo. In the long run, that mistake could seriously jeopardize his company’s potential for growth.

Because part of going further is appreciating how far you’ve come.

Why is that?

Well, for one thing, owning and running your business is a lot more enjoyable (and, therefore, sustainable) when you can see all the progress that you’re making.

But celebrating victories is also important because…

Celebrating Victories Inspires People

Do you think it’s inspiring to your team if they feel like they can never please you – like nothing they do will ever be good enough?

I’ve seen first-hand how harmful that kind of leadership can be. For a while, I was that kind of leader. For years, I struggled with giving myself and the people around me permission to celebrate progress.

During those years, I had an employee named Steven. Steven was one of those guys who called it like he saw it – he’d always tell you the truth about what he thought, consequences be damned.

That’s actually a really helpful quality. Sometimes I wouldn’t appreciate the value of that truth-telling in the moment because he’d bring something up that was painful to hear or that I didn’t want to deal with right then and there. But his insights were always valuable in retrospect.

One day he said, “David, you know what? You’re training all of us to be completely reliant on you. Whenever we take initiative, it’s never good enough for you.”

I asked him what made him think that I didn’t approve of the team’s work and he said, “You never tell us that we’ve done something well. Or, if you do, you caveat your praise with five or six things we could do better next time.”

As I thought about what he said, I realized that he was right. I praised people for their work all the time, but I always threw in suggestions about how they could keep improving. Nothing was ever good enough – I always showed them how it could be better.

What I learned from Steven was that qualified victories don’t really feel like victories. It’s good to coach your team on ways that they can improve, but you need to do that outside of victory-celebrations. Otherwise you’re watering down your praise and mixing your feedback.

I also learned that leaders, good and bad, set the tone for how their teams handle victories. If you can’t take five minutes to enjoy a victory – if you can’t set aside an evening to celebrate with your staff or even just a moment to stop by someone’s desk and say, “Well done,” then your team can’t celebrate either. If you’re always caveating your praise, then your team will feel like they don’t have permission to take pride in their progress.

You want your team to be proud for three reasons:

  1. Celebrating Victories Improves Team Engagement

A little while back, I saw a horrifying series of polls in Gallup. They said that fewer than 40 percent of businesspeople are engaged at work. And that engagement correlates directly with earnings. That means that disengagement costs companies billions of dollars in aggregate.

One of the best ways to get your team engaged and improve your company’s performance is to help your employees feel like they’re playing on a winning team. And you can do that by emphasizing that the team does great work.

Remind people how successful they’ve been and they’ll think of themselves as winners.

  1. Celebrating Victories Reinforces Positive Behaviors

We all crave and enjoy praise. So when we get praise for certain behaviors, we take note. And we try to replicate those behaviors in order to earn more praise.

Although business owners often assume that praise leads to complacency, the opposite is actually true. If you give your team unqualified praise for their successes, you’ll start to see more successes.

  1. Celebrating Victories Improves Employee Retention

If you’ve got someone really good on your team, you better believe that recruiters, competitors, and other businesses outside of your industry are looking to poach them. Because, while there’s no shortage of people to hire, there is a dire shortage of talented people to hire.

One of the key strategies for retaining these all-stars is to give them praise. When employees feel appreciated, they develop a line of reasoning that says, “I’m making progress and I’m feeling good about what I do. I like what I do. I like the people I do it with. I like what I do it for. I want to keep doing this.”

What Are You Waiting For?

I’d like to leave you with one last case-in-point: One of the gentlemen we coach has an out-of-home advertising company. One of the things they do is they’ll have one or two or three crews at a time getting leased land space to put up outdoor ads.

When he was first starting out, this client was getting up at four o’clock every morning to do phone check-ins and troubleshoots with his field teams. After all, these teams were working with thousands of dollars-worth of materials. He wanted to make sure that they had clear marching orders.

But I challenged him. I said, “Why are you getting up at four in the morning to do this? Isn’t there someone else who could handle it?”

Over the course of about six weeks, he was able to let go of that job function. He handed it off to one of his key managers and established a new process whereby they could do those check-ins the afternoon before the next day’s work. Today, his company has completely eliminated those 4 a.m. phone calls. (Here’s how you can eliminate late-night communications too.)

This change worked wonders for his company and his life. His manager felt empowered by the new responsibilities. His field teams also felt empowered by their new responsibilities. My client got to stop doing those crack-of-dawn phone calls and his wife was finally able to sleep through the night without being woken up.

When my client told me how great everyone was feeling, I asked him, “Well, have you celebrated that with your team?”

He said not yet.

I said, “Well, what are you waiting for?”

So many of us are afraid of celebrating victories. We worry that our teams will become complacent or ask for raises.

But the reality is that people want to feel like they’re playing for the winning team. They want to feel like they’re making progress.

Every time you celebrate their victories, they’ll fall a little bit more in love with the work that they do.