In my experience, the starting place is a corporate purpose that not only resonates with employees, but it binds them together. Sure, we’d all prefer a moral purpose, such as working for a company that is saving lives or saving the planet. But, that’s not to say that people can’t be inspired by a company vision that thrills customers, pleases people and brings fulfillment.

John Bell

Welcome to our interview with John Bell. John is the author of Do Less Better, a Transformational Leader, Corporate Director, and Former CEO at Jacobs Suchard. You can learn more about John on his blog The CEO Afterlife where he reflects on Leadership, Branding and Life.

Welcome John, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Container13.


Q1: How can we create workplaces where more voices matter, people thrive & find meaning, and change & innovation happen naturally?

I read this question three times before realizing that the answer can be found within the question. Voices will matter, people will thrive, and innovation will become ingrained in the culture if—people find meaning. So if people can find meaning, you can satisfy the question. But that begs another question, “How do people find this elusive meaning in their work?”

Voices will matter, people will thrive, and innovation will become ingrained in the culture if—people find meaning.Click To Tweet

In my experience, the starting place is a corporate purpose that not only resonates with employees, but it binds them together. Sure, we’d all prefer a moral purpose, such as working for a company that is saving lives or saving the planet. But, that’s not to say that people can’t be inspired by a company vision that thrills customers, pleases people and brings fulfillment.

For example, I’ll share my experience with Apple. When you are a tech neophyte like me, you can spend a lot of time talking on the phone to technical support people. When I got my iPhone, I spent a lot of time talking to the techies at Apple. I was blown away by their work ethic and their desire to help. They can’t do enough for you, so I asked one of the reps about their process, “Are you not on a quota because you’re not rushing me here or anything.” The rep said, “No, there are no quotas at all. We are judged by the satisfaction of the customer.” He went on to say that if you do an excellent job, you get a better choice of work hours and scheduling. Now, there’s a voice that matters.

At L.L. Bean, the idea of selling really good apparel and outdoor equipment at a reasonable profit and treating customers like human beings is worth the effort. For Wegmans Food Markets, it’s all about caring, respect, empowerment, and making a difference. Organizations that walk the talk create Work that Matters. And when you have work that matters, you have more voices that matter, and people that thrive personally and professionally.

Q2: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?

Generally, every employee needs to know that the work they are doing, no matter how menial, is meaningful. As an example, what would happen to a restaurant if the floors weren’t swept and the kitchen wasn’t scrubbed? Management’s job is to continually reiterate the importance of cleanliness, reward for it, and ensure that this success factor is shared with everyone. Even though somebody may have a very boring or tough job, there’s a reason for it. We as leaders have to share that, honor it, respect it and make sure everyone in the organization knows it.

Every employee needs to know that the work they are doing, no matter how menial, is meaningful.Click To Tweet

I’ll share a personal example on rewarding performance. When I was a CEO, we had a very lucrative bonus plan in place. But because the company was unionized, half of the employees were excluded and that created a “them and us” wedge. The union didn’t like “variable” compensation because they want to know exactly what they’re getting. There can’t be any variables, it’s a fixed deal. So when it was time to renegotiate the contract, I had to find a way to include a bonus plan. Once we had the regular wage rates and benefits settled, we simply added the bonus element. Even if it was zero, they had a contract they could live with. And the results were phenomenal! The following year, everyone got a bonus because the company was profitable and growing. I’d walk into the plant and employees would walk up to me and say, “John, we’ve got a lot of inventory in the warehouses, are things slowing down?” They were worried because bonuses were based on sales and profits. Because it was the same for every employee, you didn’t have to go through every employee’s performance to pay them a bonus. Of course the payment wasn’t zero, and the “us and them” mindset soon dissipated.

Now, to be totally frank, in our desire to get an employee’s full attention and best performance, one must be very careful in recruiting the right people. I met with every employee before we hired them because I like to start with mindset first, to ensure that there is a cultural fit. If the fit isn’t right, there’s no need to discuss skills. So back to that union example – if you don’t get the right headset from the start, a unionized employee’s tenure could be a headache for a very long time.

Q3: What do people really lack and long for at work?

Some people work to live and others live to work. I think that’s critically important before you even address someone to know which ones you have and to value each of them. Times are a changing. I watch my kids balance their personal lives and their business lives way better than I ever did. My parents came out of the war and their parents were out of the depression so you’re affected by that. Success meant making money and working hard, so we did and eventually we realized that’s not all there is. There has to be satisfaction in the work and there’s an immediate need to pay the bills, so we have to realize that.

Some people work to live and others live to work. You've got to know where people are coming from. Click To Tweet

I got into marathon running in my late 30s and early 40s. So I started running at lunch and some of the employees wanted to run with me. I once asked one of the employees, “Why don’t you run with us?” He said, “John, I’m on my feet all day long!” I said, “Oh gosh, you’re so right. Thanks for clearing my head on that.” You’ve really got to know where people are coming from.

What do they want? I think they want to be appreciated. I think they want to do things that have a purpose. This idea of purpose has been around a long time, but it is so important and was even more so for me running small to medium size companies that were competing against giants. Purpose is such an opportunity to bind a team together and us against them. It’s a very competitive situation and the people I had working with me were the same. Winning is important and business was the game.

Q4: What is the most important question management should be asking employees?

I believe there are two equally important questions. Question one is, “What do you think we should do?” The operative words are “you” and “we” in this question. But this question will soon become meaningless if management doesn’t act on the suggestion or at least take the time to explain why the suggestion might not be appropriate. That said, more times than not there will be something that comes out of the discussion that can be implemented or looked into. So the key to success is engagement, building trust, and inspiring the employee to be a voice within the company.

Question one is, “What do you think we should do?” The operative words are “you” and “we” in this question. Click To Tweet

The second question is, “How can I help you achieve your objectives?” Again, this is an opportunity to engage, to better understand an employee and to determine what motivates them. In some cases, are they motivated by career or by craft? Everybody thinks “career” is the name of the game. I had a lot of frustrated employees who just never got past a certain level. A university professor I had a long time ago said, “It doesn’t always have to be career. Why not craft?” What do I mean by that? One of our employees was a purchasing agent and he was really good at his job, but he wasn’t the greatest when it came to leadership and mentoring. He was thinking about leaving and we said, “We’ll do everything we can to make you a specialist, the best purchasing agent in the country. What would that entail?” Bottom line, he took more courses, joined trade associations, and he’s still with the company some 20 years later… and still in purchasing!

Q4: What’s the most important question employees should be asking management?

I think the answer to this question depends on the situation. If a company is losing money and is at risk, the question will be very different from one that deals with a project or the future of a new initiative. Ultimately, the question is either about the company or about the employee. The common thread is that both questions ought to be about the future of the company or the employee. I believe talking about the future is a great conduit for the engagement that we must have.

Q6: What is the most important question we can ask ourselves?

Is this worth the effort? I’m asking this question all the time. It better be worth the effort. If it isn’t and you are satisfied with mediocrity, you’ll never be happy in your work. Likewise, if you strive for excellence in an organization that blocks your ability to realize excellence, you’ll never be happy in your work. A matter of excellence is a shared responsibility between the company and the employee. The company must create an environment in which achievers can achieve. Then it’s up to the employee to make it happen.

Is this worth the effort? I’m asking this question all the time.Click To Tweet

Note: We also interviewed John on his book – Do, Less Better. You can find it here: What’s Stopping You from Doing Less Better?


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