When my children Caroline and Tate were growing up, we would hold hands everywhere we went. As soon as we got out of the car, they would race to see who could grab my left hand first. “I got the ring hand!”the winner would boast. They loved feeling my wedding band in between their fingers. As they got older, they agreed to hold my ring hand together. Even years after most kids stopped holding their parents’ hands in public, Caroline and Tate fiercely clutched my ring hand.
I’ve been thinking about those memories a lot lately. Caroline is seventeen and will be visiting colleges this fall. Tate is fourteen and will be leaving for hockey boarding school at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in a week. Both are way too cool to be holding their dad’s hand anymore, but when they were younger, there was something about my ring hand that made them feel safe and loved. That ring tied me to their mom, and it tied us together as a family. It symbolized that the five of us, including their older stepbrother, Anthony, would always be loved and would always be together, even when we were miles apart.
It’s a promise that is especially important for my wife, Jill, and me. My parents got divorced. My grandparents on my dad’s side got divorced. Both my sisters got divorced. Many of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends have been divorced. Jill herself was divorced from her first husband, and all three of her brothers were divorced, too. From the beginning, we have built our marriage on a foundation of love and commitment, determined to break that cycle. Every time my children held my ring hand, I remembered my duty to never stop working on my marriage, and to never stop working on myself.
At the same time, as I’ve built a career coaching and developing heart-led leaders, I realize the same oath should apply in the workplace. Your employees may not be fighting to hold your ring hand at the office, but they need to know you love and trust them. That you would do anything for them. That you have their back.
I’ve spoken to countless bosses and managers who complain about worker turnover these days. “No one is loyal,” they say. “They stay for a short while and leave for a slightly higher salary somewhere else.” Employees leaving for new opportunities—corporate America’s version of divorce—is certainly rampant, but here are some statistics those bosses and managers don’t like to acknowledge: According to recent Gallup workplace polls, half of all workers report being chronically stressed at their jobs. Twenty-two percent are constantly sad, and eighteen percent are angry. The number-one cause of dissatisfaction is “unfair treatment” followed by lack of support from management. A good married couple knows that the hard work does not stop once you slip on that wedding band; you must strive every single day to be better. Likewise, the hard work does not stop in the workplace after that employment contract is signed. Loyalty and trust are earned day in and day out.
I was reminded of this recently by Lauren O’Grady, who is the program manager at the Tommy Spaulding Leadership Institute. She is an exceptionally bright twenty-three-year-old who quite literally keeps our National Leadership Academy (NLA) and our Global Youth Leadership Academy (GYLA) running. I knew her parents back when I was a teenager traveling the world with Up with People and have known Lauren her entire life. In fact, I have a picture at the office with me holding her as a little one. When Lauren was in high school, she was a standout student in our National Leadership Academy. When she graduated college, she got married to an amazing man named Jackson. I’ve never seen a young couple so devoted to each other. They were married on December 21, and Lauren programmed her phone alarm to ring at 12:21 daily so she can say a prayer for him.
A few weeks ago, our GYLA celebrated its twentieth anniversary. We brought forty high school students to Greece, where we spent a week learning leadership skills and forging lifelong bonds. The trip was lifechanging for them—without a doubt our best program yet—and Lauren was there every step of the way arranging travel, scheduling busses, activities, programming and keeping forty mouths fed. She worked exhaustively to ensure the trip went smoothly—and it did, until the very end.
The day we were flying home to the States, all hell broke loose. There were major storms on the East Coast. Airlines canceled hundreds of flights. Some students made it overseas only to miss their connection. Others were stranded in Greece, so we put them up in a hotel. Several were laid up in Baltimore and Newark for over twenty-four hours. On that last day, Lauren was on hold with multiple airlines at once, providing updated itineraries to parents, booking, and rebooking hotels, finding lost luggage, and rerouting it home, and ensuring everybody arrived home safely. Two days later, every single parent called or emailed me to say what a wonderful job Lauren had done. She had somehow managed to turn a nightmare into a growth opportunity for these students.
Every parent thanked her—except one. This particular parent was not happy that her child’s flight was changed, that her luggage was rerouted, that she had to stay an extra night in a hotel—that not everything had gone exactly to plan. Even though Lauren had moved heaven and earth to keep everyone safe, this parent was not kind to her. Lauren was devastated. Even though 99 percent of the parents were thrilled, just one unhappy mom ruined the GYLA experience for her.
When this parent tried to circumvent Lauren and reach out to me directly, I instantly thought about Caroline and Tate clutching my ring hand. I thought about the picture hanging in my office of me holding Lauren as a baby. She needed to know she could always grab my ring hand. And so, I said to that parent if she needed any further assistance, she could continue to deal with Lauren because I trusted her 100 percent. This parent may or may not continue to support our programs in the future but showing Lauren that I have her back is worth more than any amount of income we might lose.
This experience reminded me that loyalty is a two-way street. We can’t expect that our employees stick around for the long haul if we can’t bother to show up for them when it matters most. I knew I had made the right call when Lauren phoned me a few days later. “I don’t want to do a GYLA program next year, Tommy,” she said.
After a pause, she added: “I want to do two!”