The Importance Of Employee Recognition

Editor's Note: This column, Leadership By Wandering Around (LBWA), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences.

In response to my column in the PRB March issue, I received an e-mail from John Caliri, director of FirstHealth Center for Health & Fitness in Pinehurst, N.C. John is a Marine (no such thing as a former Marine!) who also served under the command of General Al Gray.

General Gray was the intrepid enlisted-man-turned-officer who eventually worked his way up to be Commandant of the Marine Corps, and is the man I credit with the LBWA philosophy. It turns out Caliri also served with the general and shared a story that I believe is well worth repeating. It typifies the type of leadership that causes people to go that extra mile, take one more hill in Marine terms, or mow one more field in parks and rec lingo.

Here’s the story in his words (the parenthetical additions are my explanations of some terms a non-military person might not understand):

“I'll give you my Gen Gray story and share with you how it has impacted me, even 20 years later. While with [the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment], we were in a training exercise in the field at Camp Lejeune [North Carolina].

“I was a squad leader. General Gray showed up, just as you describe, and spoke to us all. Later that evening, he accompanied my squad on a training mission to disable a radar site.

“So here I am, 19 years old, [in a tactical movement] through the woods with my Marines doing a fine job and the Commandant in my hip pocket. When we arrived at our staging location, I set the guys in a defensive perimeter and did a little recon of our target.

“When I returned to the squad, General Gray asked me, ‘What are you going to do Marine?’ Being overly analytical by nature, I gave him about four different options that I thought would work.

“About halfway through my last option, General Gray physically snatched me up by the H harness (torso harness used to carry equipment), looked straight into my eyes and said, ‘What are you going to do Corporal? Your Marines could be dying right now. Make a decision. Now!’ Whew. I made the decision and we carried out our mission without a hitch.

A Shining Moment

“Fast forward to the end of my tour of duty in the Marine Corps. I was TDY (temporary duty) with Division Schools. We were called upon to help with a big ‘dog and pony’ show for some bigwigs from [Washington] D.C. There were Harriers (vertical take off & landing aircraft), tanks, tracks (amphibious tracked vehicles) … lots of good stuff.

“My parents came down to watch and loved every minute of it. The highlight of that day though, was standing behind the grandstand with my Dad. We were just talking about what we had seen and he was asking questions, etc. when out of nowhere I spot General Gray heading our way, with that same swagger you mentioned in your article. I salute, he returns it, then ignores me, walks straight to my Dad, sticks out his hand and says, "You must be Corporal Caliri's Dad. That is a fine son you have there." They spoke for a few brief moments and I was floored.

“Out of about 140,000 Marines, he remembered me, my name (even pronounced it right!) and took time out of the whole thing going on to stop and talk to my Dad. No reason to do that, but it sure made an impression on my Dad and on me.

Lessons Learned

“Fast forward again and I am the Director for Health & Fitness for FirstHealth of the Carolinas. We have six medically based fitness centers that serve 10,000 members with just over 300 employees. I take to heart the lessons General Gray taught me, practice them and pass them on to the employees who now I can make an impression on.

· Make a decision--right or wrong, make it and give it everything you've got to accomplish it

· Spend time with the folks in the trenches--it means more to them than anything else you can do

· Recognize people when you do not have to--everyone likes to know that they have been recognized. If you can do so in the presence of others, it makes it one step better.

Connecting The Dots

Caliri’s story is a great correlation to what I was trying to convey in the March article. It goes back to a point I made with another reader who responded to the column, Greg Johnson, Community Services Director in Westminster, Calif. He observed that the LBWA philosophy reminded him of the One-Minute Manager concept of Management by Walking Around.

I told Johnson that General Gray is a voracious reader, so he may indeed have borrowed the concept, with one key distinction. In the military, we emphasize that we manage assets, but we lead people. This is equally applicable in the parks and rec environment and there are really more similarities than one might at first think.

In both environments, leaders often don’t have tangible rewards that they can give people on a day-to-day basis. Pay structures are pretty restrictive, so extra money normally isn’t a tool leaders can frequently employ. There are generally award structures for service over-and-above (medals, commendations, etc) but day-to-day, what can a leader do?

I think the concepts Caliri cites are simple, and maybe that’s why they’re so powerful. It just costs time to get out of the office and into the field, which makes them attractive in the public sector--and effective--because they center around leading people.

In the March 2008 issue of Public Works magazine, they published results of a national survey they did of public works staffs. What do you think the number one reason for people leaving jobs was? Poor pay? Poor working conditions? Nope, the number one reason was poor leadership. More than half of respondents said a “bad boss” would drive them from their jobs. I suspect that would be true of parks and rec employees as well.

So in the words of General Gray, “Make a decision! Now!” Get out of the chair, into the field and talk to the troops. Ask them questions. Give them answers. Don’t wait for a sunny warm day. Get out there when it’s cold and nasty, or hot and miserable but things still have to be done and they’re out there doing them. I’d be willing to bet you’ll find out things you never dreamed of asking. And, I’ll wager that you will feel good about it. And the troops will love it.

Randy Gaddo was a combat correspondent as an enlisted Marine and later a public affairs officer who retired from the Corps after 20 years in 1996 as a Chief Warrant Officer-4, what he describes as the finest rank in the Marine Corps other than General. He has been Director of Leisure Services in Peachtree City, Ga., since 1997. He can be reached at (770) 631-2542, or via e-mail