Every month, we sit down with transformational HR leaders to discuss hot topics in rewards and recognition, employee engagement, HR, and leadership.

Meet Chester Elton

Chester Elton has spent more than two decades helping clients engage their employees in organizational strategy, vision and values. His work is supported by research with more than a million working adults across the globe, revealing the proven secrets behind high performance cultures and teams.

In this interview, Chester speaks to us about major gaps in company cultures, appreciating remote employees, the future of employee engagement and recognition strategies, HR getting a seat at the executive table, and his new book, Leading with Gratitude.

A few of our favorite takeaways:

Let’s jump into the interview.

Dan Kasper
Tell us about your background as one of the leading voices in the rewards & recognition space. What was the impetus for writing your new book, Leading with Gratitude?
Chester Elton

That’s a great question, and the answer is a long one. Adrian Gostick is my coauthor, and we’ve been working together for 20 years. The book that became our seminal work was The Carrot Principle. We talk about “more carrots, fewer sticks”. What was really interesting, though, was that as we took a deeper dive into recognition we realized that we never came across a great team or a great culture that didn’t celebrate.

So we moved from the focus on rewards and recognition to how do those pieces impact culture as a whole. One of the things I love about what you do at Wishlist is that you give people a way to share little stories that then become a part of the culture. It’s not just about plaques and pins (which have their place), but it’s about the experiences you’ll always remember.

We took the data from our employee engagement surveys on “how do you engage, enable, and energize your people?” Of course, the top cultures always cheered for each other. They had a component of “we value what you do” baked into their culture. In fact, we determined that in the great cultures, people agreed with the statement that “What I do matters, I make a difference, and when I make a difference somebody notices it and celebrates it.”

Then we started to take a look at leadership on a deeper dive. It became very obvious that the way a leader behaves gives everyone else permission to act the same way. If you entered into a toxic culture, 99 times out of 100 it had a toxic leader. The toxicity flowed through the whole organization.

As our work progressed, Leading with Gratitude became a natural extension. It was more than the ceremony or the iconic trophy, it was a relationship. It was an emotional attachment to work. As you know from your work, the biggest thing that will disengage an employee is the relationship with their immediate supervisor. What is it they crave? Recognition. Am I valued? Is my voice heard?

Ginger Kern
When I think about transforming a culture, I always think about the gap, otherwise known as what is missing that must be there in order to create a change. What do you believe most organizational cultures are missing right now?
Chester Elton

Well, we have a database now of over a million engagement surveys. We have our own motivators assessment that clarifies your key motivators in the workplace (and in life!) and we’ve had 80,000 people take it. The gap was always fascinating to us, which we call the “gratitude gap”. If you ask most leaders, “Are you ‘good’ or ‘above average’ in giving appreciation, recognition, and gratitude?” about 70% say, “absolutely”. Then you ask the people who work with and for them, and only 23% agree.

Fact is, there is a perception gap. What I think a lot of leaders don’t realize is that expressing and leading with gratitude is a hard skill and a must-have. It’s not a soft skill and a nice-to-have. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but what we feel strongly about is debunking those very leadership myths in our new book.

The one myth that drives me crazy is, “I just don’t have the time.” I say, really? Covid? That’s the catch-all? Let me ask you something: you don’t have time to call out your employee for doing a great job. Well, if that same employee messes up, how much time do you have for them now? And most people say they’d be on it right away.

You have to flip that dynamic. I guarantee you that if you spend more time reinforcing the contributions your employees are making, there will be fewer opportunities for employees to mess up.

I live just outside New York City, the classic “kill or be killed” culture. They say it’s all about compensation: get the comp right, it solves your problem. But you know what? There are certain leaders where there is not enough money on the planet to get you to work for them. It’s because they don’t care!

Once we got rid of those myths, we looked at how to close the gap. What are the best practices? We went to the data. We looked at the leaders who have created extraordinary results.

The book starts off with Gary Ridge, the CEO of WD-40 (water displacement, fortieth formula). He has created an incredible culture that doesn’t have “mistakes”, but instead, has “learning moments”. It’s even baked into their company name. 39 learning moments to get to WD-40.

If you are a leader, ask yourself: When people make mistakes, have you built a culture where it’s safe for them to talk about those mistakes, correct those mistakes, and move on?

When you allow for mistakes and reinforce effort with gratitude, you create psychological safety at work. Nothing creates psychological safety better than people feeling valued and appreciated.

Ginger Kern
In this time where there are more remote employees than ever before, how can leaders ensure their employees feel appreciated?
Chester Elton

Right now, gratitude is more powerful than ever. Working remotely, the barrier between home and work is a door. There’s no commute to decompress. With a dispersed team, you must first see, then express. What I mean by that, is that as a leader, you have to first be able to see what is going on. And when you see what is happening, you must assume positive intent. You have to assume people are working as hard as they can, and you have to remember they may have an aging parent they’re caring for, or they may be homeschooling 1, 2, 3, or more children!

Take more time to understand what is going on in their lives. Be more patient. Couple this with two more elements: intentionality and discipline. Be intentional in making sure you have the time to express appreciation, and be disciplined in getting to know your team to understand what kind of recognition they prefer and how often they prefer it.

Carve one hour out of your week, as a leader, to express appreciation to your teams. How do you express appreciation? Do it now, do it often, and don’t be afraid. Just start.

Leaders say to me all the time, “But what if I’m not good at it?” and I always respond, “Well I guarantee you’re not going to be good at it, at first!” But you just have to start. You might come across as insincere at the beginning, but the more you do it the better you’ll get. And the better you get, the more it becomes something you are.

Know your team. Personalize your appreciation. One of the things I love about Wishlist is that everyone can choose something a little different, and your rewards evoke stories. They’re experiences! People talk about experiences!

Tailor your moments of gratitude to your core values, and let folks tell their stories. There is magic in that, because people’s voices get to be heard.

Ginger Kern
Leaders have had to adapt their strategies to drive employee engagement across virtual teams. What are some mistakes you see people making?
Chester Elton

What many people fear in working remotely is that they will be forgotten. They won’t get a single call if their work is great, or even excellent! When there is a gap in communication, what fills that gap is fear, rumor, and innuendo. None of those are going to create greater productivity. So when you get to the point where you think you are communicating too much, or giving too much recognition, you’re probably just right!

Dan Kasper
At Wishlist, we balance the science of recognition with meeting real, human needs. From your perspective, where do you see leadership and engagement strategies going in the next 5 years as companies continue to intertwine data and humanity?
Chester Elton

That’s such an interesting question because I think that once you get to a culture of appreciation, there will always be things you can’t measure. And that’s okay. For example, it’s very tough to measure the impact of a handwritten note delivered by mail to a teammate at just the right moment. There are expressions of gratitude that we’ll never be able to measure.

My hope is that we’ll continue to refine wonderful platforms like yours where we can gather the data to give to the ‘doubting Thomases’ of the world, those who need to see it to believe it. There will always be the human connection whose impact is immeasurable.

When it’s all said and done, we want to know that the work we did matters. That we’ll be remembered for more than just our output. I think that’s really being brought into focus right now, with COVID-19. When you look back in 2 to 5 years’ time, who do you want to be remembered as a leader?

Did you have empathy? Did you blame others? Did you dig in and say, we’re all in this together. What are your ideas? Let’s make this a safe place. Let’s move forward together so when we come out of this, your legacy is going to be something you can be proud of.

That core value of gratitude is needed now more than ever. Leaders who care about their people will see their people begin to really care about them. Those same employees will care about their own culture and they will care more about their customers. They will even take their gratitude home and be happy, motivated, and more engaged with their families!

The ripple effect of what Wishlist does with your platform is immeasurable in the impact that it has on people’s families, their kids, and their communities.

Dan Kasper
You have so much experience in this HR and culture space. What do you see working now that maybe hasn’t worked in the past?
Chester Elton

The history of corporate recognition is fascinating. We used to sell jewel-encrusted lapel pins. But nobody wears suits anymore! Then it progressed to watches… and now people aren’t really wearing watches anymore. After that, it went to catalogs where people could at least have a choice. But now, most people aren’t material. They want to have an experience, go to a restaurant, travel, drive a Ferrari, and be able to tell those stories. Trophies have their place, but I think the generations that are coming through the workforce now are more experiential. And it’s not an experience just for them, either. It’s for their family, for their friends. That’s where I see it going, where it’s tailored to the individual.

One of my favorite questions in recognition is, “If you had a day to do anything you wanted to do, what would you do?” Everybody’s answer will be a little different, and I think that’s where Wishlist gets recognition and rewards right.

Ginger Kern
One of the challenges I see is that HR doesn’t always get a seat at the executive table. What would you say to HR professionals reading this to bolster their confidence in getting buy-in for recognition and appreciation initiatives to be successful?
Chester Elton

In HR it’s true, you’re not necessarily going to get invited to the table. You might have to earn your seat. This is where case studies, data, and research is critical. Become such a subject matter expert on the elements you care about, like recognition, and how those elements impact culture that you cannot be absent from the table.

You know, this might sound funny, but I lived in Italy for a couple of years and got a wonderful insight into the Mafia culture. Every Mafia don has his consigliere, his trusted advisor. In HR, you have to become the CEO’s consigliere. The way you do that is to know your stuff upside down and sideways. You can research case studies and watch videos online to learn exactly how leaders drive culture strategies and how those strategies drive bottom line profit.

Put together your case, present it, and keep positioning yourself as that trusted advisor to your executives.

For more on Chester Elton’s work, check out leadingwithgratitudebook.com for free culture resources, or check out Chester’s Leading with Gratitude live show on LinkedIn, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1 pm EST.

As a company, Wishlist is passionate about people and technology and what we can achieve by blending those two elements. If you enjoyed this interview and are ready to create an employee recognition program that works, download Wishlist’s free employee recognition strategy template now. 

This interview was hosted by Ginger Kern and Dan Kasper from Wishlist. If you are a transformational HR leader and would like to be featured in Wishlist’s interview series, contact hello@enjoywishlist.com.