Timothy R. Clark: Highly engaged employees look for connections, meaningful return on connections

Published: Monday, May 28 2012 6:14 a.m. MDT

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Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the newly released book, “The Employee Engagement Mindset,” published by McGraw-Hill.

On a spring day in 1978, 15-year-old Britt Berrett was in his backyard. As he had done many times before, he struck a match and leaned down to light the barbecue. That’s the last thing he remembers. A ball of fire engulfed Britt, leaving him severely burned over much of his face, neck, shoulders and arms. His family rushed him to the burn unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Wash. The prognosis wasn’t good: He would be badly scarred for life.

In the hospital, a team of highly skilled doctors and nurses attended to Britt. He began to heal, but it was a slow, painful process. During those first days in the hospital, Britt developed a special connection with the members of the clinical staff who was caring for him. He could tell the staff had taken a special interest in him. He was deeply touched by the personal and genuine concern they showed.

In fact, it puzzled him. He decided he wanted to do what they did. After two weeks in the hospital, when the pain had finally become bearable, Britt started walking the halls of the hospital burn unit, popping into the patient rooms and introducing himself to other burn victims. After a few days, he had befriended every patient in the unit. He wanted to comfort and encourage the other patients and their families. As he connected with them, Britt found that he was healing faster himself.

After many weeks of excruciating pain and endless therapy, Britt returned home fully healed. The miracle of it all was that he took with him one small scar on his left arm — a tiny reminder of the terrible accident. More important, through his experience, Britt discovered the power of connecting with other people. Connecting with the patients brought him a sense of satisfaction, purpose and fulfillment he had never experienced before. Through it he gained a deep and powerful sense of engagement, something that was new to him.

But the story doesn’t end there. Britt’s hospital stay became a turning point in his life. Before the accident, his family had just moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, and the experience of being uprooted as a teenager was tough on him. Britt felt very much alone at school. When he returned to school after the accident, however, he decided to reach out to the other kids the way he had learned to reach out to the patients. He shifted his focus outward and began connecting with nearly everyone. It soon became a habit. He made it a point to reach out to students who were having a hard time fitting in, those he could tell needed a friend.

The next spring, Britt was voted class president. The following year he became the student body president of Centralia High School. Britt has moved on to pursue an education and career. Perhaps not surprisingly, Britt is back walking the halls of a hospital, visiting and connecting with patients and clinical staff. He has served as the CEO of three major hospitals in the United States and now runs the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas.

What makes Britt’s story important is that his life could have been different. He didn’t have to reach out. Learning to connect and having the motivation to do it was his personal choice. To his credit, he learned at 15 years of age what many adults never learn — that connecting is a fundamental driver of engagement. When we connect with each other — and not merely transact — the impact is felt in both directions.

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