How to Overcome Adversity in Business and Life
There are 3,280 miles between Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Rob Bryant knows them well. In 1990, he spent 117 grueling days driving across each mile on a land rowing machine.
The effort raised a lot of money for charity and earned him a Guinness World Record. But that’s not why he did it. His real motivation was to inspire his kids. He wanted to demonstrate that anyone can overcome adversity with passion and determination.
Today, Bryant serves as vice president of quality and Six Sigma for CSC and is a recognized employee engagement authority. He spoke on the subject this year to more than 2,500 executives at the American Society for Quality’s annual Quality and Improvement Conference, the largest quality conference in the world. In addition to his triumphant ride, he’s authored four books and become a highly regarded motivational speaker. But his story has one important footnote.
In 1982, Bryant survived a tragic oil rig accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. With grit and determination, he overcame his disability. Now, he uses his life experiences to motivate audiences around the world.
One of Bryant’s books, Walking Through Adversity (HCI Books, 2001), stresses the importance of building a strong foundation, setting goals and visualizing success. Drawing strength from his family and faith, Bryant applies his personal principles to improving corporate quality.
In recent years, he has expanded his efforts to finding the best ways to improve employee engagement, and he has discovered that keeping employees engaged translates into making customers happy.
How do you use your life experiences to help managers deal with adversity?
Bryant: Thirty days after my injury, a young doctor came into my room and ran some tests on my legs. Then he said, “Rob, based on the tests I just ran, it’s my duty to tell you that you’ll never walk again.” To his credit, I could see the pain in his face. He had a tear in his eye.
If we are going to be the managers we need to be, we need to have a tear in our eye as we tell our employees or we tell our clients, “We’re going to go through a rough time, but I’m in it with you.” That doctor was there with me, and as managers, we need to walk with our employees through hard times.
What makes employee engagement important?
Bryant: Engaging employees and thereby engaging clients is worth billions of dollars. We need to engage employees in order to engage our clients. If we put our employees first, they will take care of the client in ways that we never could without an engaged workforce. Managers that do that all the time have groups of employees that shine.
In trying to find the best ways to increase employee engagement, what have you learned?
Bryant: We keep hearing over and over what’s wrong with companies that are not engaged – they are putting the client so much in first place that it’s to the detriment of their employees. So in other words, if there’s a problem at a client site, we rally around the client in such a way that it adversely affects the employees.
So the push in employee engagement is to put the employees first, give the employee the tools and equipment, the rewards and recognition, the incentives, whatever they need to satisfy the client. Those that do this are companies like Southwest Airlines. Southwest has never had a red year, even in 2001.
The reason for that is they put employees first and say, “Satisfy the client.” So there are companies out there like Southwest where employee engagement is bar none. It’s because they take care of their employees, and their employees take care of their clients.
What can managers do to engage employees?
Bryant: We need to have one-on-one sessions with our employees. They need to be meaningful, engaging and encouraging. Those employees need to see that you care by the sound of your voice and the look in your eye. They need to see in our face that we understand how hard it is, and they need to be motivated and encouraged.
Also, you can engage your employees by being a good example. Care about them, and they’ll know you’re sincere. If you want to change the lives of employees, if you want to engage employees, they have to know you care, and they’re going to know if it’s real. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated we make our employee engagement program; what’s important is that it’s obvious that we care. Our employees will do anything for us if they know we care.
In addition, what can managers do to engage clients?
Bryant: You can begin by building customer confidence in your group. First, deliver what you promise. When you do that, you have an engaged client. Also, you should encourage successful deliveries and replicate that. Build integrity with the client by being ethical and playing by the rules.
If you have a service failure, inform the client immediately, acknowledge the problem, but have a solution ready in the other hand. Finally, build pride and passion in your company and treat every customer with respect. Also, partner with your client, so it’s no longer ‘us’ and ‘them,’ it’s ‘we.’
A client can give you high satisfaction ratings through the life of a contract and not renew. Why? Well, because they are satisfied, but they’re not engaged. You have to engage with the client.
How can overcoming adversity define an outstanding manager?
Bryant: People are watching you when things are hard, not when things are going well. Anyone can be successful when things are going well. It’s when you succeed when things are falling apart – that’s the measure of a true leader. That’s the measure of someone that’s going to drive their employees to success by example.