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The Power of the Popsicle – Leadership and Team Motivation in Practice

Jack Pippin is a manager who specializes in leading change in the leisure sports industry. 

Most of his history is with ski schools, but he has worked in other areas as well.  He has a proven track record of taking over distressed departments and turning them around to create high achieving operations.  He has done this for some of the biggest, and some of the smallest, companies in the industry.  One of the most visible, observable, aspects of his technique is the approach he takes toward team leadership and motivation.  His methods are subtle and unconventional, yet very deliberate and extremely effective. 

One of the tools in his bag of tricks is to buy a few boxes of popsicles and then go around to his team members during the middle of busy, high pressure situations, and hand them out.  His team members gladly accept the popsicles, enjoy them, and then return to work.  If you ask him why he does it, Jack will reply, “Have you ever seen anyone who isn’t smiling when they eat a popsicle?”  This is a small and calculated gesture meant to motivate his staff.  The shift isn’t over and they still have more work to do.  In this industry they are working directly with customers, so a positive attitude is important in order to create a satisfactory experience.  Jack refers to this approach and the result that it achieves as, “The Power of the Popsicle.”

The trick works.  Jack’s team goes back to work with renewed motivation to push through to the end of their shift and to do it with energy and enthusiasm. 

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Positive motivation and creating a personal connection is an important part of team management, especially in scenarios where the industry is filled with competent and highly motivated individuals.  This is often seen in leisure sports industries, but not at all exclusive to this domain.  An approach that is highly effective in such circumstances is Servant Leadership, where leaders work to facilitate the performance of team members to work toward achieving their goals.  An overly simplified, but not entirely inaccurate, description of Servant Leadership is where leaders strive to “serve” their followers, ultimately enabling them to do their best.  Doing this goes beyond seeing that the direct needs of people to perform their jobs are being fulfilled, it also includes looking after the emotional wellbeing of people.  After all, happy people feel better, do better, and are able to contribute more. 

In speaking about Servant Leadership, business guru Ken Blanchard advocates for leaders taking their time to go out of their way to praise team members in a personal way – in a caring way, in his words – for hard work.  According to him, this means, “Walking around and catch them doing something right, then giving a one-minute praising.”   In this context, the popsicle is that praising.  It’s an edible reward. But, just like Blanchard’s one-minute praising it’s the gesture that is most important in this situation.  When done correctly, it works.  And that, is the true “Power of the Popsicle.”

The true brilliance of Jack’s approach in handing out popsicles is how well he has fit the positive reinforcement to the situation.  In other environments, the application of the technique should depend on the location and the specific circumstances.

When leading teams, your ‘popsicle’ can be given out anywhere.  It can be in work groups, project teams, or anyplace where you are in a leadership position and motivation is called for.  The popsicle itself doesn’t always have to be a popsicle.  It can be bagels or doughnuts, it can be a high five, or in a more traditional sense, it can be that verbal one-minute praise that Blanchard suggests.  The key to selecting your popsicle is to know your team.  It is to know what makes them smile and makes them happy.  The gesture itself and the thought behind it is more important that the physical item or action employed.  In some cases, it just might be an actual popsicle. 

One of the metrics on which leaders are often judged is the successful achievement of organizational goals by members of their team.  Knowing how to motivate helps to bring out the best performance from members of the team.  It not only helps to get the task accomplished immediately, but helps to build a good connection and foundation for getting things done the next time as well. 

And remember, everyone smiles when they eat a popsicle.

Mark Romanelli

Mark Romanelli is a full-time lecturer in the Sports, Culture, and Events Management program at the University of Applied Science Kufstein Tirol (FH Kufstien Tirol) in Kufstein, Austria. His curriculum includes courses in Project Management and Strategic Project Development. He is a member of the Project Management Institute and a Certified Associate in Project Management.

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