Sir Alex Ferguson said that the two most powerful words in his vocabulary when managing Manchester United were “well done”. But how often in your career have you felt that your hard work and achievements haven’t been properly noticed? One of the most common complaints we hear from teams who are stressed and fragmented is that their leaders don’t pause to recognise and celebrate success. This feeds a cycle of demotivation, dissatisfaction and, ultimately, can cause good people to leave their jobs. From a simple “thank you” to grander gestures of recognition (and perhaps financial reward), taking time to celebrate success is an essential leadership skill.

Time to reflect

I was reminded of the importance of this last week when I took time off work to attend our son’s graduation. It was a lovely day acknowledging his achievement over a three-year period, but this graduation in particular really made us think about the full implications of what he and his fellow students have achieved. His cohort, who finished last summer, have had a university experience like no other, having navigated all their studies through the Covid pandemic. Perhaps more than any other year group, they’ve had to be self-disciplined, self-determined, self-energised and self-responsible to achieve their goals and ambitions. Much of their work was self-guided and they had to support each other remotely through a hugely difficult time.

As a result, it’s my prediction that this cohort of students will thrive in the modern workplace and, because of their experiences will, in five or ten years, be the designers and creators of a new, better-balanced and more fulfilling working life. Their time at university – while far from ideal in many ways – will have given them a unique perspective from which we can all benefit.

Delivering against the odds

When a goal is reached in spite of difficult circumstances (as with my son’s graduation), there is a wonderful opportunity to learn as well as celebrate. Disruption, distraction and even situations where delivery does not meet expectation are all chances to improve for the future. What’s more, the pain of getting through those bad times dissipates the moment someone recognises what you’ve been through to get there.

When we as leaders take the time to think about what our teams have done and go to some lengths to recognise and celebrate success, it’s important to notice individuals’ contributions to the overall achievement and be sure to spell it out to them. Giving people the chance to shine among their peers, and for them to know that their hard work is appreciated, gives an enormous boost to their self esteem as well as to their energy and commitment.

In my career as a leader I have never underestimated the power of saying “thank you” and meaning it, and at iTS Leadership we build recognition into our monthly team meetings as a simple way to celebrate success and ensure that even the smallest achievements are acknowledged.

It’s about them, not about you

Our job as a leader is to inspire others to be at their best. Treat them as they wish to be treated (not as you wish to be treated).  Openly credit them for their triumphs rather than allowing other people to think that their success is somehow down to you. As Harry S Truman once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Just as in parenthood, leadership is about providing guidance and opportunity but ultimately letting your team (or children) reach their goals all on their own.

So, above all else, I’d like to say well done Paul for a great personal achievement!

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