Whenever I pick up The New York Times' Arts section, I see a picture of a performer whose face I recognize even though I don't know his or her name. More often than not I will have seen these actors in bit roles on TV or in a movie; lo and behold, they are now playing leads in Broadway or Off Broadway productions. If we were to judge these actors' careers by their celluloid screen roles, it would diminish not only their accomplishments but their craft. Such actors are known and regarded with high esteem as working actors.
So it is for many of us. Only a select few will ever be "big stars," such as our company's next chief executive officer or president. We are nonetheless valued employees. Like working actors, we are good at our jobs. We apply our talents and skills and through our efforts, projects succeed. Indeed, without such efforts, the enterprise would fail.
Organizations require sound leadership at the top. That constitutes much of what I write about, but leadership is essential at every level of an organization. So it's necessary to find ways to emphasize the roles that lesser leaders play. You may call them "working pros" or "salt of the organization" types, but what they are most is employees who make things go. One company for which I consulted used to say that managers didn't do the work, employees did. That was not said as an excuse for managers to go on holiday, but rather as a challenge to managers to appreciate the efforts of those under them.
Rather than offer three, four, or five steps for recognition, l'll pose a better alternative. Here, I am borrowing from the wisdom of my friend, Marshall Goldsmith: Let employees know how you feel about them—sincerely.
A matter of how you express thanks
This is not an excuse for squishy talk or group hugs, merely honest and sincere appreciation. You can express it in any number of ways. A shout-out at a staff meeting. An e-mail affirmation. A pat on the back. An appreciative word in the hallway. A heartfelt thank-you.
It does not matter so much what you do as how you do it—with a sense of appreciation and gratitude for a job that's not only well-done, but will continue to be well-done. These people are the heart and soul of your organization and need to be recognized as such.
Just because some employees do not have starring roles today does not mean they will never have one. Referring back to the actor analogy, you can't assume that an actor who isn't a star lacks talent. Your employees who haven't yet gotten starring roles but nonetheless show potential are the ones in whom you want to invest. You want to put them in positions of increasing responsibility so they can prove their mettle. People with potential love such challenges. Give them stretch assignments that push them out of their comfort zone so they can learn to think, plan, and act for themselves. Evaluate their progress regularly. And always—always—see to it that coaching is provided by their immediate boss or by someone higher up in the organization.
Becoming a superstar seldom motivates most actors, or at least those who stay in the business. They simply want to apply their craft and earn a decent living. The same applies to valued employees. Unlike the environment actors face, jobs (despite our current recession) are more plentiful for employees who like to contribute. Honor their contributions. Your organization will be better for it.