Watch any awards show or victory celebration and you’ll notice a common theme: The winners love to give thanks to the people who helped them win. As well they should. We seldom achieve anything of value without the help of others. In fact, I believe we never achieve anything of value without the help of others.
John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach and one of my heroes as a leader, put it this way: “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.”
We all love it when our contributions are publicly acknowledged, but that recognition becomes exponentially powerful when it’s delivered with sincere, meaningful, and unexpected actions.
It’s easy to say thank you to “everyone” and shower a few key people with rewards, but there are times when leaders need to go above and beyond with their recognition. Think of it this way: Sometimes you need to genuinely thank the Zamboni driver.
Allow me to explain.
I live in Denver, and I root for the Colorado Avalanche, but I grew up in Pittsburgh and my heart belongs to the Penguins. It’s a proud franchise that’s won five NHL championships, including back-to-back Stanley Cup victories in 2016 and 2017.
About a week before Christmas, Penguins co-owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux presented Stanley Cup rings to around 150 full-time employees who work at PPG Paints Arena, the stadium where the team plays its home games. It’s customary for some employees who work for a franchise to get a championship ring, but this jewelry went to men and women who aren’t even on the team’s payroll – ushers, custodians, security guards, cooks, and, yes, Zamboni drivers.
My dad spent more than 10 years as an usher at home games for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Pirates, and, as far as I know, he never got a championship ring. But I suspect he would have felt much like Gerry Kienzl if he had gotten one.
“I can’t tell you what this means,” Kienzl, whose duties include driving the Zamboni, told Penguins News. “I’m shaking. I’m actually shaking.”
Leadership experts often preach about creating a shared purpose, and meaningful recognition to genuinely thank your team is one big way to do it. What makes it meaningful? I see three examples in the actions of the Penguins ownership.
It was unforced.
The owners were under no obligation to provide rings to the arena workers, so there’s no question that the honor was given from the heart and with a sense of sincere appreciation for the role the workers play in the organization’s success.
It cost them something.
I don’t know what they paid for these rings, but I suspect they weren’t cheap. And they probably weren’t already included in some championship budget line. Giving the workers something physical and something of value sent a message that their work is, in fact, valued.
It was celebrated.
Sam Adamese, an usher at the arena, said when he heard about the rings, he expected to get them during a quick ceremony. So, he was surprised that the co-owners – and Lemieux is also a Hall of Fame former player – were there to give the rings out, shake hands with each employee, and pose for photos. “To be honored like this,” Adamese said, “it’s amazing. Simply amazing.”
One comment that caught my attention in the story about these rings was from an electrician who pointed out that Lemieux and Burkle have “always” done a great job of making her crew feel valued. In other words, the rings weren’t a one-time expression of appreciation; they were part of an on-going leadership approach that values people. And that says as much about how the Penguins have built a championship franchise as anything they’ve done on the ice.
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