'Just paint the bathrooms': The leadership lesson a Fortune 500 exec swears by to keep her team engaged

'Just paint the bathrooms': The leadership lesson a Fortune 500 exec swears by to keep her team engaged
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'Just paint the bathrooms': The leadership lesson a Fortune 500 exec swears by to keep her team engaged
Joyce Mullen.Joyce Mullen
  • Joyce Mullen is the president of North America at Fortune 500 IT company Insight Enterprises.
  • Her best leadership advice is to demonstrate to your team that you care about their wellbeing.
  • She's adapted this advice over time by listening to employees and finding operational efficiencies.

Sometimes, the best leadership advice comes from the most surprising places.


That's certainly been true for Joyce Mullen, now president of North America at Fortune 500 IT company Insight Enterprises and formerly one of the longest tenured executives at Dell Technologies. She told Insider one of the most valuable lessons she's learned came from a United Auto Workers plant manager early in her career.

It was one of her first days on the job as a plant manager, and Mullen was feeling out of her element. "I said to the other plant manager, 'What should I do? I don't know anything about manufacturing,' and he replied, 'Just paint the bathrooms, Joyce,'" Mullen said.

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Mullen was certainly perplexed by the suggestion, but decided to go ahead and give the restrooms a fresh coat. As she did, she realized that the advice wasn't about the bathroom walls at all - it was about finding ways to demonstrate to the team that she cared about their wellbeing, thereby making them more engaged and more equipped to do their best work.

"If you show that you will spend money to make their environment better, they'll know that you are not just trying to figure out how to squeeze every dime out of them, and they're going to appreciate that," she said.


Of course, now we're living in a world where office perks have become increasingly passé - or where there's no office at all. Here are some of the ways Mullen has adapted this advice over the course of her career to ensure she's taking care of employees in truly meaningful ways.

Start by listening, then follow through

So many decisions about employee benefits are made from on high (or from looking at what other companies are doing), but Mullen said the best way to figure out how to make your employees feel valued is to ask them - and really listen.

"Figure out what is making their job hard, what is making it so they don't feel important, what issues are getting in their way from having a great day," she said.

One way to do this is by giving your team surveys about how you could make their work and lives better - but Mullen said those aren't really effective unless you make sure to follow up with action.

"No one wants to waste their time, so if they're going to take the time to tell you what they need, then you have to tell them what you're doing with that information," Mullen said. She suggested keeping the dialogue going by planning a follow-up meeting or survey to see if the changes have helped.


The other way to find opportunities to better support your team is by getting in their shoes: Shadow them or have them walk you through their days, specifically the challenges they face. Then you can really see firsthand where you could step in and be supportive.

Find efficiencies that help everyone

Mullen thinks one of the most overlooked ways to keep employees engaged is actually great for your business, too: finding operational efficiencies.

"At the end of the day, when it comes to a person's job, there are a bunch of things that are really frustrating," Mullen said, pointing to an example of a sales organization she worked with where teammates had to log into 27 different tools over the course of the day.

By putting in the time - and maybe the money - to remove those frustrations, you achieve a few things that are very powerful for employee morale. Not only do you make it easier for your employees to get their work done, you show that you're willing to invest in helping them do their best work and generally create a more enjoyable (and less annoying) work environment.

"Try to figure out how to speed things up for them, make it more efficient, make it easier for them to deliver a better result," Mullen said. "And those are things like adding new tools or figuring out how to change a process so that they don't have to get seven approvals to get things done."


Don't try one-size-fits-all benefits

Ultimately, the biggest mistake Mullen thinks leaders make when trying to figure out how to make their team feel valued is doling out the same solution for everyone. "At the end of the day, you've got to tailor your programs and your focus to make sure you're doing things that are most valuable to whatever teammates you've got," she said.

While Mullen has noticed a generational divide here - with her Gen Z son being most motivated by clear professional development opportunities, whereas her Gen Y daughter feels more valued when she has flexibility at work - Mullen thinks the more granular you can get, the better.

This could mean going so far as working with individual teammates to figure out how you can best help them with their workdays, their after-work time, and even their life goals.

"I've had teammates who say, 'My goal is to be a peanut farmer.' While that's not consistent with a tech career, we can work together to figure out what they need to be a great peanut farmer and how we can line up those goals and objectives with the company's - because when you do that, the magic happens," she said.