Editor’s note: Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” is what clients value most.  Grace will be writing a regular column for WRAL TechWire. Watch for future columns.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Luanne Welch, the inspiring CEO of Easterseals UCP, related so much to the research in Gallup’s It’s the Manager that she applied the book’s key insights throughout her 2,500 person healthcare services organization. Her team members help families and individuals living with disabilities, behavioral health challenges and autism. Gallup’s study of the future of work found that the quality of managers is the single biggest factor in an organization’s long-term success.

Today’s employees want their work to have deep mission and purpose, to have a good job. They don’t want old-style command and control bosses. Rather, they want coaches who inspire them, are good communicators, and develop their strengths rather than focus on their weaknesses. These quality managers enable their people to enjoy their work, and therefore, achieve their fullest potential.

Traditionally, the purpose of business has been to create shareholder return. The new and future purpose of work is maximizing human potential. Therefore, Gallup recommends that CEOs and CHROs change their thinking and in turn change the way their managers have always operated. The transition is based on Millennials and Generation Z changing what it means to have a great job and a great life. They want a purpose, not a paycheck, coaches not bosses, and ongoing conversations versus annual reviews. They want to be… happy.

Companies used to focus on customers first. More companies now say that their top priority is not their customers, rather their employees. If their people are happy, then they will in turn naturally create a positive experience for customers. Having happy employees starts with having a positive culture. Culture begins with your purpose – why you are in business. While most leaders can articulate their organization’s purpose, most employees can’t. Only 27% of employees strongly believe in their company’s values. This disconnect has a negative impact on culture. And culture determines your brand – how employees and customers view your company.

‘From Strength to Strength,’ lessons in leadership, happiness

Nearly all companies invest time and money on marketing to build a loyal customer base, but it is not as universal for companies to invest in creating an equally strong employment brand to attract the best applicants. Several years ago, we were brought in by the board of directors to work on a client’s employment brand. The company needed to turnaround their image as it needed to embark on a heavy hiring push in order to take the company to the next level prior to their IPO. We crafted a multi-pronged plan to improve their image and successfully turn them into a favored employer.

In recent years, I attended the NC CEO Forum, where Diane Adams led a powerful fireside chat with John Chambers, her boss when she was head of HR and he was CEO of Cisco. She led a discussion on “How to Create a Winning Culture.” Diane is now Chief Culture & Talent Officer at Sprinklr and shared how every manager has monthly direct report meetings where staff tell their manager their “happiness score.” These scores are then rolled up and reported out. This exercise in employee happiness measurement has increased retention by 60%

Good CEOs don’t have silos in their organizations. They are able to bring multiple teams together. They converse as often with an entry-level customer service rep and understand their goals as much as they understand one of their VPs. In recent years, I was engaged to give a motivational talk to a group at Cisco. Denise Cox, Cisco’s former Vice President of Americas Customer Experience Centers, was the executive sponsor of the group which included mostly young people. 

One member of my audience told me how easy it was to talk to Denise who then oversaw 2,500 employees. He sat right outside her office, and she would come out and speak to him as if they were peers. The fact that she cared about what he thought was huge to him, and speaks volumes of the culture that she was creating for those around her. Having gotten to know Denise since my talk and to see her in action, her authenticity is a key to why she has such followership. She is a super friendly, action oriented leader who magnetically draws people to her.

Happiness & leadership: Why happiness is the key to successful leadership

Managers should promote a strengths based culture. In my positive psychology work, I learned about the VIA Institute on Character – over eight million people have taken their free, scientific survey on character strengths to discover with what characteristics they lead. When my son was graduating from UNC, he put his top strengths of Enthusiasm, Kindness, Humor, and Fairness on his resume to help future employers understand what strengths he would bring to them. 

Starting with the CEO, executive leaders should share their strengths and how they use them. Our client, Relias, which serves more than 10,000 healthcare organizations and 4.5 million caregivers, has each employee prominently display their leading colors so that groups can know how best to interact with each other.

Becoming an effective coach is the most important skill any manager can develop. Gallup discovered the No. 1 reason people change jobs today is to improve career growth opportunities. And that reason is on the rise, especially with younger people. Therefore high development cultures are critical and need to be initiated, driven and monitored by the CEO and the leadership team.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives have grown and broadened in recent years. Jenn Mann, EVP and CHRO at SAS in recent years shared how she was most proud of their coverage in Forbes describing their work in hiring those on the spectrum and how they have developed hiring practices specifically to help neurodiverse candidates. 

Most of us are acquainted by now with the research from Catalyst which points to how boards with a critical mass of women result in better financial performance for their companies. I’ve shared my Mr. Wonderful story of when he acquired my first start-up and why almost all of his returns are from companies run by women. Gender balanced workgroups have a greater capability to get work done and to meet customers’ needs. On average, women are more engaged than men and female managers tend to have more engaged employees than male managers.

Human beings are social animals and work is a social institution. The development of trusting relationships is an important compensation for employees. Having “a best friend at work” pinpoints a critical dynamic of great workgroups. The best employers have loyalty among employees toward one another. One of the most important keys to engagement and happiness at work according to Gallup is having a work BFF. Their research has repeatedly shown a concrete link between having a best friend at work and the amount of effort employees expend in their job. Those who have a best friend at work are seven times as likely to be engaged in their jobs, are better at engaging customers, produce higher quality work, have higher well-being, and are less likely to get injured on the job. 

CEOs also need a “best friend at work.” 

We know just how lonely it can be at the top and when we are told we are a client’s BF@W, my partner and I recognize both the importance and privilege of filling this high return role. I am touched every time a CEO tells me that I am their “best friend at work.” 

In turn, my partner, Rich Chleboski, is my best friend at work, and we are told that adds great value to our clients.  His skills as a Founder, CEO, CFO, and COO at break through cleantech innovators are complementary to my People, Business Development, Sales & Marketing skills developed in a range of industries from consumer products and technology to healthcare and non-profits. 

12 Elements of Team Success

The Gallup 12 Core Elements are derived from 30 years of in-depth behavioral economic research on employee engagement involving over 17 million subjects. The below 12 statements emerged as those that best predict employee performance.

Luanne surveyed the 300+ people managers of Easterseals UCP asking them to respond if they agreed, strongly agreed, disagreed, or felt neutral to these 12 statements:

  1.   I know what is expected of me at work.
  2.   I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  3.   At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  4.   In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  5.   My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  6.   There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  7.   At work, my opinions seem to count.
  8.   The purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  9.   My fellow employees are committed to do quality work.
  10. I have a best friend at work.
  11. In the last six months, someone at work talked to me about my progress.
  12. In the last year, I have had opportunities to learn and grow.

Then, prior to COVID, Luanne led a series of NEXUS events, where she met face to face with small groups of managers throughout all the regions that Easterseals UCP serves. Over several months, through these small groups, she was able to connect with over 300 leaders. In breakout sessions, questions discussed included:

  • Did the results from the survey surprise you?
  • Which of the 3 questions do you think are the most important to improve this year?
  • What can we do to improve those 3 areas?
  • Identify 3 words/phrases that represent our current employment brand.
  • Name 3 words/phrases that would describe our ideal “employment brand.”

She shared the national averages: 30% of managers are great, 20% of managers are lousy, and 50% are just there. What if a company could: double 30% to 60%, cut 20% to a single digit? Company value and outcomes would soar!

Gallup estimates only 2 in 10 workers have a work BFF today.

What can you do,  starting today, to develop a best friend at work?

Only 15% of employees worldwide are engaged at work, meaning they have jobs in which they are developing with a rich mission and purpose. There is much room for improvement. Great managers make the difference. When you have great managers who can maximize the potential of every team member, you have delivered on the new global will: a great job and a great life!

About Grace Ueng
Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” are what clients value most.