Turning Blasé Into Buy-In

It's every leader's job to make purpose come aliveto turn cynicism into engagement

By Jack and Suzy Welch

You talk a lot about passion being the key to success. Is passion innate or can it be ignited at any point in a person's career? — Bob March, Fairfield, Conn.

Every one of us knows a few people (or more, if we're lucky) who are perpetually on fire. They're madly in love with their work, they're wild about college basketball or the hometown team, they go crazy over old jazz or modern art—whatever—they just pour their hearts and souls into life. And, given their unrelenting intensity, you can be pretty sure something innate is going on.

Let's not talk about them. Like people born with blue eyes or high arches, they are what they are. It's more useful to talk about the second part of your question: Can people actually go from blasé to burning hot? The answer is a resounding "yes," as every good manager already knows. Passion can indeed be ignited, but you must draw on your own inner fire, giving your people powerful answers to the questions: Where are we going? Why? And: What's in it for me?

Now, we realize it's probably hard to imagine these questions motivating the glazed-eyed employees who, sadly, populate too many companies, counting the minutes until they are free of managers who don't seem to care or make sense or both. But we've seen passion uncorked in even the most benumbed cubicle dwellers. Consider what happened at a business we're familiar with—let's call it Acme. Three years ago, Acme was an orphaned unit floundering inside an international manufacturer. Its profits weren't growing, and its people were about as motivated as hedgehogs in winter. Enter a private equity firm, which took Acme private. Critics, of course, focus on private equity's flaws, but one of its greatest virtues is that it can, and often does, transform an acquisition through zealous attention to people, rigorous execution, and fresh ideas. That's what happened at Acme. Yes, some employees were asked to move on. But for those who remained, many of them in their 50s and 60s, the new owners offered a vision of the future with a compelling upside for those who bought into it—new opportunities for career growth, financial reward, and just plain fun at work.

Fast-forward to an Acme business review that one of us recently attended. Instead of acting like a dreary collection of clock-watchers, people were exchanging turnaround stories, boasting about productivity gains, and excitedly comparing notes on "attacking" previously untapped markets. The cynicism of the old days was replaced by optimism and genuine engagement. Clearly, employees who had once seemed passionless had learned the game, how they were supposed to be playing it, and how they would benefit if the team won.

Fortunately, you don't need a private equity investor to make that happen in your company. Even if you are managing just three people, the concept applies. Passion gets ignited by purpose. And it's every leader's job to make that purpose come alive. Paint the future in vivid colors. Before long, people who once looked bored may well burst into flame. They just need you to strike the match.

Does the subprime mortgage meltdown have the potential of bringing down the U.S. economy? — Alan Marshall, Plymouth, Mich.

Meltdown is a good word for the unfolding subprime mortgage mess, but the answer to your question is still "no." This is not the savings-and-loan disaster of 1989, which helped send the U.S. economy into a recession. Today's economy is so much more broad-based and global, and its financial markets so much more liquid, that it can handle this relatively small problem without serious long-term damage.

Of course, the problem doesn't feel small to the people living with it. Thousands of families are being forced to move out of their homes and unload their properties, many of them saying they never understood that rising interest rates could destroy their dreams of homeownership. And employees of the companies that made the subprime loans are facing layoffs in a weakened industry.

Even with those disheartening stories, though, it is important to recognize that the subprime mortgage business is just a small percentage of a $15 trillion national economy. Indeed, you can already see the economy's overall resiliency and liquidity in the activities of several investment companies, such as Goldman Sachs (GS ), that are buying up portfolios of subprime loans at distressed prices.

We're not saying the subprime crisis should be pooh-poohed. But even with its spillover effects—diminished consumer spending, for instance—it won't kill the economy. Think big blip, not blowout.

Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to answering your questions about business, company, or career challenges. Please e-mail them at thewelchway@BusinessWeek.com For their podcast discussion of this column, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm

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