Kind People Finish First: Building Stronger Cultures Through Connection

By Sarah McVanel, Chief Recognition Officer, Greatness Magnified

Throughout my childhood, I was told that nice girls finish last. I was always given professional advice to let others speak first. When I became a womanpreneur, I was told that no one would hire a recognition speaker. In fact, I was told my entire business was based on a “nice to have,” not a “need to have.” Well, it turns out they were wrong. Good news for all of us: nice people are doing kindness work from the interpersonal level to cultural transformation.

Our Wish for You: Unrivalled Culture Resilience

At Greatness Magnified, we’re on a mission to ensure every person feels valued, seen, heard, and appreciated as the unique, meaning-making, greatness-personified humans they are. At times this means we need to challenge organizations to do better for their people—to invigorate their value proposition to employees and customers by shifting their lens in order to see their people as exceptional and, together, create a scrumptious, thriving culture where everyone belongs.

We believe that truly talent-driven organizations deserve to enjoy unrivalled cultural resilience. That’s why when someone comes to us asking for “help with our recognition program,” we think, game on, this is someone ready to put employees at the top of the list. We have such an allergy to capitalistic business that we reject the standard model of sell, sell, sell, and therefore, don’t just say, “Yes, we’ll do that for you!”. Who are we to say what works in your culture? And even if a recognition program rebuild was needed, is it the most important place to start? Instead, we take a few steps back and explore what’s really going on in the big, beautiful, and complex cultural iceberg.

For all the kind people who were told nice people finish last. Keep going. You are in a race you want to win.In other words, we share this: no matter what you do, what’s going to drive that scrumptious culture where you enjoy that enviable cultural resilience will require a focus on three things: genuine recognition, and enviable loyalty, and engaged accountability. That means organizations don’t usually just need a better recognition program because, after all, does any employee say, “I’m so glad I work here! We have an app where I can give my colleagues points! If I accumulate ten stars, I get a gift card in the mail! In 5 years, I’m going to get a plaque!” (Insert heart eyes emoji here.) Without meaningful recognition every day, no matter how much fun, gamified, swagged and swaggered your recognition system, if it’s not human-centric first with meaningful interpersonal recognition, you’re not motivating, inspiring, and meaningfully appreciating your folks. 

You want your nice people to finish first. These are your raving fans inside and outside the organization.

You cannot outsource valuing people through an app, one annual event, and swag. Nice, engaged, kind, and supportive people need to be appreciated, and you are rewarded with loyalty that you cannot buy.

After all, no one stays at a job for a recognition app, no matter how many free lattes those Starbucks gift cards can be cashed in for.

Essential Elements of Healthy Cultures: The 3 Cs

image of 10 hands spread in a circle with thumbs and pinky fingers touching taken from below with the sky showing in the background to help a female entrepreneurWhat will employees tell all their friends and family about? Connection at work. That’s because they feel valued and recognized, and because they work with engaged, accountable people, there is a shift from exhaustion to energy. As Brene Brown says,

“Connection is the energy that exists when people feel seen, heard and valued; when they can given and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

Everyone needs to matter to someone else, and with mental health challenges, loneliness, and sometimes clumsily executed hybrid work models, we need to do a better job of hardwiring in meaningful connections and ways of working that are good for people rather than deplete them further.

In addition to connection, people want to be committed. We give little reason for folks to be when there are layoffs, lack of communication about the actual state of the business performance, hacking apart development programs, and workforce shortages in some sectors that, if unattended to, lead to unaddressed burnout and disengagement. We don’t give people a reason to believe and trust their organizations, yet how often do we hear complaints about employees being entitled, disengaged, and disloyal?

We are in the business of earning people, not hiring them, and when we do, things that seem effortful become sources of enthusiasm.

Have you ever heard someone say, “I decided to leave my job because I was just too darn excited every day?” Nope. Talk about #goals.

And the third of the three C’s trifecta is collaboration. When people are so loyal, they see a future in their organization, and they and their colleagues have an opportunity to meaningfully contribute and to do work that matters; there is a shift from exclusionary toxicity to empowered performance. You know this when someone looks back on the year before and can say, “I did that, ” “We are better together,” or “My customers love me.”

The New KPI Key Performance Indicators Revisited Kind People Include Kind People Intervene Kind People Inspire Kind People Inform Kind People Influence Kind People Interact Kind People Improve Kind People InvolveEvery day, we hold a bigger aspiration for our clients: you can weather whatever external storms pound against your cultural iceberg – inflation, recessions, workforce shortages, supply chain issues, political changes, regulation upheavals – if you become obsessed with nurturing unrivalled cultural resilience. It’s such a farfetched concept that clients who come to us don’t initially ask for it. “Help us with our recognition program” is the smaller ask for what they actually want: the best, juiciest culture where everyone wants to work, everyone belongs, and where everyone leaves work every day feeling a deep sense of satisfaction in how they’ve collectively performed, produced and collaborated at the level of their greatness.

In other words, helping with a formal recognition program alone is generally too small an ask for the responsibility on the organization’s shoulders and the deepest wants of the people who come to work, who want to do great work. 

You may be surprised to know that we have left six figures on the table before when in our early discussions with clients, we’ve found out that they’re okay with keeping employees and middle managers in the dark (e.g., an upcoming merger, pending layoffs). 

We have learned that if the request for a recognition program is to be a diversion from some cuts and chaos brewing, we won’t play ball, and it’s on us to figure this out from the start. We’d rather leave money on the table because it’s not right to make sweeping changes that compromise an employee’s ability to pay their mortgage, to demand they work late so they cannot pick up their kids on time, to inflict urgent deadlines that kybosh any healthy habits. Fortunately, in our experience, this is rare, yet it’s worth mentioning that we hold the space for integrity in this work. It’s just too important not to get it right and too devastating when we get it wrong.

People are not mushrooms. They don’t grow abundantly in the dark. (Not to mention the other product required as mushroom fertilizer.) We refuse to be part of the problem, no matter how profitable it might be.

Honouring our Feminine Energy

image of a chalkboard and a hand writing gender equality to help a female entrepreneurThe work of recognition might seem like “feminine energy.” This is dangerous territory; you don’t get a pass because of your gender, and you don’t have a deeper responsibility because of it, either. It’s gender-fluid work because it’s human work.

Appreciating people, valuing contributions, being kind, and ensuring that people spend most of their waking hours in a work environment that elevates and honours their greatness is good for business and good for the people in the business.

This goes beyond rewarding them with a consistent paycheque. Pay is table stakes. That’s the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs stuff. This is about a duty of care for people. Make sure your people feel they matter to you because they do. You cannot deliver to customers, innovate to stay relevant, or produce your products without people, so honour that by recognizing effort, impact, and heck, even their daily identity.

Too much to ask? Nope. So, with compassion for how busy, overwhelmed, and burdened leaders and business owners feel in today’s ridiculously complicated world of work, we help them recognize their people in various ways, from development programs to people planning to, yes, those organization-wide recognition program rebuilds (when built upon a solid recognition-rich foundation.) The key is to take out the layers of unnecessary complexity, gatekeeping, and artificial barriers that make the average rewards program cumbersome. This leaves room for building connective tissue through recognition and feeling ignited about recognition. 

It might seem counterintuitive that the recognition program doesn’t come first, however, would you build a house with the walls first, or would you pour the foundation? The foundation is not your recognition program; the foundation is actually your people leaders and peer-to-peer recognition. It’s the practice of recognition, and when we have some momentum there (whether you have it already or we help you with that), we can build a program that aligns with the whole cultural iceberg in mind.

So, to come full circle, yes, we are a company of people who identify as she/her, labelled long ago as nice girls, and leverage our feminine energy professionally and personally. We honour the gender fluidity of the currency of kindness.

The FROG Factor

image of 4 frogs painted on clear plastic standing on easelsF.R.O.G. – Forever Recognize Others’ Greatness ™ we are a team of FROG ladies, and our growth trajectory is solid because there is still a lot of ground to cover. We invite you to reflect on your team or organization:

  • Forever – does recognition happen regularly and broadly?
  • Recognize – does recognition align with how people want to be recognized?
  • Others – does recognition serve the person versus just the organization?
  • Greatness – does recognition elevate people’s purpose and identity?

Look no further than the headlines about mass layoffs to see that there are more daily excuses for why businesses’ needs must come before people’s needs. What about the survivors? And what did you need to do one, five, or ten years ago to build unrivalled cultural resilience so that you wouldn’t be in such a rock position today?

In a world that is becoming more enamoured by stuff and trends—just look at the obsession with AI—we’ll be here, speaking, training, consulting, coaching, and creating meaningful recognition tools that slowly but steadily raise satisfaction at work so that it’s not the minority but rather the majority that anchor a healthy identity and enriched life because of work, not despite it.

image of the RBC Women of Influence Entrepreneur Awards NomineeP.S. Sarah’s recent Women of Influence Nomination inspired this article. Please wish me luck, and thanks to those who have written testimonials, letters of reference, and provided huge support when I shared my nomination.

Please feel free to check out these past blogs for more inspiration on creating your rock-solid culture:

Disclaimer/Humble Brag Moment: 100% of this content was human-generated (by us folks here at Greatness Magnified). We are committed to authorship integrity and will inform you what percent, if any, is AI-generated.

“There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread.”

– Mother Teresa

Deb Rakonjac

Organizational Development, Purolator Inc.

"Sarah nailed it!  She worked with the planning group to learn about the organization, the audience, the desired key messages and integrated it seamlessly into her keynote. Her energy was contagious! We received rave reviews of this portion of our event and Sarah was able to speak to all members of our organization in a way that motivated them to recognize others everyday. Our executives were extraordinarily pleased and integrated FROGging into their recent board meeting. Purolator is grateful to Sarah for dropping the pebble and we continue to see the ripples from this session across the organization. Working with Tami was phenomenal and the supports were easy to integrate to ensure the session went well. Thanks to you both!!"
Douglas D Swift

President & CEO, Swiftco Inc.

"I have had the Sarah experience in numerous settings: As a keynote, around a table with several other business owners, one on one over coffee, chatting with others at a conference reception, dining with a small group of colleagues. No matter the setting you always get the same Sarah: engaging, attentive, interested, inspiring, motivational, genuine. And always with an infectious smile. Do yourself, your company, your association a favour. Get the Greatness Magnified (Sarah) experience. The payback is priceless."
Judy Kucharuk

Director, Marketing and Special Events, Encana Events Centre

"Funny, full of energy and incredibly motivating – all words to use when describing Sarah and her passionate stage presence. We were fortunate to have Sarah join us as a speaker for Spark Women’s Leadership Conferences and her presentations about leveraging greatness hit the core of our objective at SPARK: “A rising tide lifts all boats”. I would not hesitate to recommend Sarah to other organizations that are searching for a well-prepared, well-organized, thoughtful and passionate storyteller."
Shelley VanVeen

Learning & Development Manager, Libro Credit Union

"Sarah brought so much energy and enthusiasm to our International Women’s Day event at Libro! Her message was uplifting, thought-provoking and truly appreciated by our team. Dealing with Sarah was wonderful – she was open, professional and willing to work with us to customize her message to incorporate our culture and connect to our topic and participants. During the session, she was a pro with a powerful message and a fantastic delivery. We had wonderful feedback from all that attended and can’t wait to have Sarah back for another session in the future!"
Sylvia D’Intino

Executive Director, Community Living Hamilton

"THANK YOU so very much for leading the engagement activities today! You’re a constant professional, with an amazing attitude and always seeing the great in everyone. I am grateful for how you have helped us this year to transform our in-person staff recognition events into virtual and on-location events. Our staff feel more inspired, appreciated and motivated after they hear you speak, and I know our amazing in-house team here looks forward to designing engaging appreciation events with your support."
Melissa Chaulk

Manager of Professional Development

Canadian Dental Hygienists Association

"We work hard at CDHA to give our members a wonderful conference experience, so we were thrilled to have received resoundingly positive feedback on Sarah's opening plenary keynote. It was the highest attended of the entire conference for both dates!"
Jamie Campbell

Director, The Center for People in Organizational Development, Sheridan College

"Smart, challenging, innovative, committed, dependable, and reliable, I highly recommend her for all your recognition needs. I have brought Sarah into my last two organizations to help build a culture of recognition and celebration. The focus on appreciation is more important now than ever."

Some of the Great Organizations We Serve