A path lit by words

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What I Learned about Engagement While I Sculpted My Seat


Yes, that seat—my butt, my posterior, my derriere. “Lift, Tone, and Burn” is the mantra of Pure Barre, a high-intensity, low-impact, whole-body workout that has won rave reviews across the United States and Canada. But this article isn’t about exercise. It is about the power of engagement.

I’m not an exercise junkie. I’m health-conscious and more than a little vain, but like the late, great John Pinette  (“I don’t do ups”), I’ve been able to quit this gym stuff any time—until I found Pure Barre. The workout was hard. My muscles ached. Yet I kept going back—500 times. I have the shirt to prove it.

My engagement epiphany came a few weeks into membership, when I was in the middle of crunches and my abs were on fire. I was a second away from collapsing on the carpet when the voice on the mike said, “You’ve got it, Jean. You’re stronger than you think.” I groaned, but I kept going, and as I lay there on the floor, I realized, “This is what good managers do for their employees.”

Engagement is a hot topic in business as leaders discover the positive changes that happen when their customers and workers feel genuine excitement and commitment. Engaged employees are invested emotionally and intellectually in their employer and in their work. Engaged customers, according to Gallup, “love your company …and say that they ‘can’t live without it.’ They recognize that their strategies and your strategies are aligned.”

Almost every Human Resources consulting firm has an employee engagement model; virtually all agree on one thing: the importance of managers and the work environment they create. Although employees perform best when their companies have a compelling vision, a culture of inclusion, and inspirational, trustworthy leadership, the first-line manager has the greatest influence on an employee’s career as well as  his or her satisfaction—or discontent—with day-to-day work life. Good managers set clear expectations and goals, communicate openly and honestly, give frequent feedback and praise, and provide the tools and support employees need to do their jobs. Good managers care.

Granted that Pure Barre isn’t my employer, here are eight ways they practice engagement.

They start with a vision. Clients know what Pure Barre stands for. It’s a place where  “women share a sense of community, in which they are inspired and empowered by each others’ fitness and lifestyle goals.” This kind of transparency attracts and retains the right people—in this case, people who care about their health and about each other’s well-being. They respect each other, thrive on challenge, and cheer each other on while they work toward a common goal.

Their people are authentic. Pure Barre owners and instructors embody the values. They are fit, friendly, and caring. When they aren’t teaching, they often are beside clients at the barre, groaning, shaking, and rolling their eyes. The message is clear: They are there for you and in it with you. They are better at “walking the talk” than any group I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

They train well and maintain standards. Instructors  are rigorously trained and operate as a close-knit team, not a stable of contractors who float from gym to gym, doing their own thing. Choreographed routines vary somewhat, but the core is the same, so that clients always know what to expect.  Classes start promptly and move quickly, with no delays or distractions. Each  is intense, well-organized and focused, showing respect for everyone’s time.

They use a common language. Pure Barre has a mantra and supporting terms: Lift, tuck, and burn. Burning is good, shaking is better. The smaller the move, the bigger the change. The size of the move? No more than an inch, the size of a paper clip. All instructors reinforce the same basic points using the same words, defining and demonstrating techniques and positions until they become second nature.

They provide personalized coaching and frequent praise.  Pure Barre instructors  concentrate on clients, moving from person to person while they call out cues. When they see a problem, they correct it in the moment–straightening a leg, adjusting a hip, or deepening a tuck–but they also love to catch clients doing something right. When your hamstring is cramping and you want to quit, a quick “Awesome focus, Jean” or “Perfect form, Kathy” keeps you going. Praise feels good and hearing others praised motivates everyone to work harder. Veterans appreciate it just as much as the greenest recruit.

They keep work(outs) fresh and fun. I’ve been a clock-watcher through running, step aerobics, spin, and yoga, yet a 50-minute workout flies by. A variety of instructors, upbeat music, challenging and changing moves, and new equipment keep clients interested and involved. We’ve had ’80s Day, when we dressed in Jane Fonda leotards and leg warmers; Diva Day when we piled on the bling; a costume contest on Halloween; and a wedding sendoff for our studio owner, when the whole class wore garters. We worked out just as hard, but we had more fun doing it.

They set—and celebrate—challenging goals. Every new Pure Barre client has a goal from the very first day—complete 100 classes.  Milestones matter, recognized by rituals like “signing the barre,” segments of ballet barre mounted on the lobby wall solely for that purpose. Clients can expect their photo on Facebook, a congratulatory message on the mirror in class, and a pair of sticky socks in Pure Barre red—the only color that must be earned. Similar celebrations mark 250, 500, and 1,000 classes. It may sound silly, but it works.

Although engagement has a reputation for being complicated and time-consuming, these techniques are simple and can be adapted to motivate any workforce. All you have to do is substitute “manager” for “instructor” and “employee” for “client” and then identify goals and activities that fit your environment.

A clearly communicated vision and challenging goals; standards, and values that show respect; and an approach that incorporates coaching, fun, and recognition have as much power in the workplace as an exercise studio. In fact, the next time you need an engagement refresher to “shape up” your managers, consider sending them to a Pure Barre class. They will experience first-hand the ways good managers build exemplary teams.

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Doodle your way to creativity

A recent LinkedIn post described how teachers are encouraging doodling in the classroom to increase information retention and recall, and to deepen comprehension. It reminded me of a blog I wrote some years ago, after the New York Times ran an article titled Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price. Multiple studies quoted there suggested that juggling email, texts, phone calls, and all the other information that bombards us destroys our ability to concentrate and focus. Electronic multitasking, it said, “inflicts deep cuts on creativity and deep thought.” That is a problem not just for schoolchildren but also for executives and managers, since creativity has long been considered and remains a critical leadership competency.

Back then, I asked how we might reverse—or better yet, avoid—the damage and, in its place, foster creativity. One answer I found was surprising. Before we could text on our phones or check email (or our brackets during March Madness), when we were distracted or bored, we doodled. Doodling is good for us. It helps us remember things because it forces our brains to expend enough energy to stop us from daydreaming but not so much that we don’t pay attention.

Dashe & Thomson, purveyors of change management, training, and communication services, suggest that drawing has three benefits: It makes you a better thinker, as it aids recall while allowing you to see things from different perspectives; a better explainer, using pictures and stories to enhance communication; and a better information processor because drawing requires you to engage multiple senses.

Take that, electronic gadgets! Or not. Because if you look up doodling today, you will discover that the very instruments we demonized in 2010 have been put to use to help us doodle…electronically. There are stand-alone gadgets and many apps that work on your smart phone or tablet.

If doodling has changed, the importance of creativity has not. According to Joel Basgall in 5 Reasons Innovation is Crucial to Staying Ahead of the Competition, creativity is integral to innovation and innovation is what keeps a company competitive. As long ago as 2008, the Conference Board and the Americans for the Arts conducted a survey on workforce readiness called Ready to Innovate.  It asked three major questions:

  • Are U.S. businesses and K–12 school systems making the link between creative skill sets in the workforce and innovation?
  • Are businesses finding the creative talent they need to generate the innovative solutions and products demanded by the marketplace?
  • And what efforts are both of these groups making to train employees in the needed creative skills?

It concluded that educators and executives were not wholly aligned on the creative readiness of the U.S. workforce, based in large part on the limited availability of high school courses that help develop the creative skills employers seek: creative writing, music, dramatic arts, and studio arts. Most school districts offer them as electives, if at all.

Is it any wonder that reports in the intervening years indicate that creativity and innovation have not improved, or that businesses that seek creative talent are hard-pressed to find it? As funding for the arts diminishes ever more rapidly, shouldn’t we be worried that current and future employees will have no organized way to develop the creative skills that will keep our economy robust and our businesses successful?

Encouraging doodling in our schools is a meager solution, but soon it may be all we can afford. Fortunately, it doesn’t cost much to stimulate your brain the old-fashioned way: Pick up a pencil and doodle.