This Executive Learned the Secret to Productive Meetings While Working in the Kitchen at Pizza Hut Without energy, even the best-planned meeting can fall flat. One surefire way to energize your meetings, whether online or in-person? Recognition.
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I learned one of the most valuable leadership lessons of my life in the back kitchen of a Pizza Hut.
I was new to the role of chief marketing officer of India for Yum! Brands at the time. As a part of my onboarding, I was training at a Pizza Hut to learn about restaurant standards and customer experience (and how to make a pizza well)! But in addition, I got an unexpected lesson in management and motivation.
It was a Saturday night and the smell of fresh-baked dough was thick in the air. Stainless steel countertops were lined with colorful bins of peppers, onions and fresh tomato sauce. The restaurant manager was rallying the troops for the big dinner rush. Though his meeting agenda covered logistical details, delivery targets and inventory updates, somehow, it wrapped up with a noticeable buzz. The team, I saw, was downright excited to get to work.
Afterwards, the manager mentioned something I'll never forget about his approach: "My goal is to leave our team with more energy than they had coming in today."
I realize that energizing is rarely the primary goal of most meetings in the corporate world. Rather, many meetings today fulfill an assortment of functions, such as strategy, review, forecasting or planning. But regardless of a meeting's purpose, energizing our colleagues during them needs to be a key component for our best laid plans to come to fruition.
And let's be real: Meetings are often anything but energizing. Seventy-one percent of workers believe meetings are unproductive and inefficient; a quarter of respondents in a 2018 U.K. survey said they had witnessed someone fall asleep during a meeting. And when Covid hit, and many in-person meetings became Zoom calls out of necessity, teams' enthusiasm and participation were even further diminished.
A better way to have meetings
It doesn't have to be that way, as my pizza guru taught me. And through trial and error (and discussion with other mentors including former Yum! CEO David Novak) I've found there's one critical way to create that energized feeling: by recognizing people.
I'm not just talking about recognition for KPIs or major business milestones, but for things like nurturing a great culture, having customer-first attitude and doing jobs with pride… even for failing forward and taking risks. As important as it is to redirect employees if they've done something wrong, it's even more important to call people out for what they did right. I know this sounds supremely simple — but it's so easy to overlook and can have a profound impact.
Now that we're exploring new ways of working and we have a chance to rethink our habits, here's why energizing and recognizing your team matters more now than ever … and, importantly, how to make it happen.
Why recognition in meetings matters
At that Pizza Hut, everyone was working very hard, meeting tough deadlines, laboring inside hot kitchens and racing to keep up with customer demand. The manager was perceptive enough to see how much commitment his employees brought to the table. He also understood that his role was to connect the dots — to make clear that their efforts mattered (in a way that was bigger than stuffed-crust pizzas and garlic bread) and that he noticed.
As humans, we're hard-wired to value and respond to recognition and acknowledgement. Being paid a compliment actually lights up the reward center of the human brain; it releases dopamine, which makes us happier and less stressed. In the work context, employees who feel recognized for their contributions have higher levels of job satisfaction, productivity and retention. (And there's some real ROI behind those good feelings: engaged teams have 21 percent higher profitability.)
In my current role at Amway, there are no hot pizza ovens, but the employees and the entrepreneurs we work with are showing amazing grit and resilience during this tough pandemic. In meetings big and small, I do my best recognize people who are working hard or creatively. For larger milestone accomplishments that take both innovation and resilience, I'll send an email with a personalized thank you for their work.
These benefits even go beyond the individual. Giving a well-deserved shout-out to one person can have inspiring effects on the whole team, spilling out of the meeting room and into your company culture. Normalizing the idea of praise, celebration and lifting one another up encourages others to share moments of recognition and appreciation every day.
Recognition on the agenda
So, we've established that recognition can be a powerful energizer. The question is: How do you incorporate it effectively into meetings?
This isn't cheerleading or empty "rah-rah" positivity. For me, it's about connecting an individual's role with a larger purpose. And it's about letting people know they're truly seen and appreciated. And that everyone is valued.
Now, I realize that all meetings are different. There are informal team huddles, like the one I learned from at Pizza Hut, and there are formal quarterly business reviews, where financials are the order of the day. There are intimate meetings with close colleagues, and there are presentations in front of audiences of thousands.
Although there's no one-size-fits-all approach for integrating recognition into meetings, I've found these tactics especially helpful in a variety of settings:
Specificity: "You're doing a great job" doesn't cut it. For recognition to truly have an impact, it's critical to call out specific individuals and specific efforts. This shows that you see and appreciate what they do, rather than just their impact on your overall bottom line. Importantly, this doesn't mean recognizing only major achievements. Being specific could mean noticing patience with a difficult client, grace under the pressure of a deadline, or even enthusiasm brought to an otherwise ordinary day.
Story-telling: The best way to share these specifics is to tap into the power of storytelling. Our brains release feel-good chemicals (oxytocin, the bonding hormone) when we hear narratives. So rather than brag about numbers or results, focus on the person and the mindset behind the accomplishment. Set the scene and contextualize their achievement. Include vivid details. Show how they overcame adversity or failed fast and found a way forward. The result will be more memorable for attendees and make the person you're recognizing feel 12 feet tall.
Go beyond direct reports: For leaders, it's important to recognize people at all levels of the organization during meetings, not just your direct reports. When you call out people in this way, it shows you've taken the time to understand your team's day-to-day responsibilities, observe them in action and really absorb all they do on behalf of the business. The takeaway message is, "What I do matters, and everyone is important, whatever level I am at within the company."
Digital tools: Although digital environments can make these human moments challenging, they do offer unique ways of recognizing people. In virtual meetings, I like to express gratitude and admiration with heart signs and handclaps. I'll back channel with others at all levels of the company over WhatsApp or in the chat to compliment a great question or celebrate a win. Internally, we have a platform called Spark where you can send kudos attached with "Spark points" that can be redeemed for gift cards or merchandise. These gestures might seem fleeting, but they leave a tangible record that someone noticed and appreciated an above-and-beyond effort.
How do you know you're successful? Your team isn't just leaving a meeting with a to-do list: They're leaving feeling happier and energized. Big picture, they're continuing their workday — and, ideally, their careers — more engaged and productive than before.