Find your everyday superheroes

Revenue was low. There had been layoffs, several rounds.  The industry everywhere was struggling. And morale? Really, really, really low. The executive team was working toward a vision they believed in, but engagement was slipping badly. They sat in a meeting, trying to figure out how to use next week’s all-staff retreat to boost morale in a meaningful way.

What do people need?

In a moment like this, “What do people need?” is sort of a trick question. What they need is hope. They need a win, a reason to believe, the burst of confidence that comes from succeeding (they may also need a good vacation). Their leaders are working nights and weekends to make all this happen, but haven’t fully pulled it off yet. And it’s a Catch-22, because success begets success. When people have hope, belief and confidence, it’s easier for them to do the things that bring them more.

Enter: Superpowers

What sparked my interest in superpowers (besides wanting a few myself) was a global HR leadership panel my colleagues and I helped arrange a few years ago as part of a client’s internal conference. We brought in a colorful range of HR leaders from crazy-different industries – footwear, movies and film, technology – and asked them to talk openly about their gleaming triumphs and miserable failures.

One speaker with big impact was Andrea Robb from Lucasfilm. Andrea was bright and clear and fearless. A gem she shared that really stuck with the crowd, also stuck with me: at Lucas, they’d revamped job descriptions to include superpowers. The impact on team members was instantaneous. People puffed up with inspiration, ripped off their street clothes, and started doing extraordinary things. Daily.

Right now, take a moment. Imagine going to work and having “Superhero” hang right above your open-plan desk space. What do you notice? What do you feel? How do you approach your priorities for the day? Your colleagues?

I was inspired enough to run my own Superhero experiment; I set out on a quest to define, find and hire one. (It’s been a super successful quest, too, but that’s  a different post).

What does this have to do with the all-staff?

In their work on human development an change, brilliant colleagues Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey of Harvard University (who are superhero thinkers themselves) stress the importance of cultivating a culture of appreciation, including calling out specifically – in front of others – what someone else has done that helped you do your own work better. They view an authentic culture of appreciation as the substrate on which productive conflict, risk-taking, and personal growth and development can thrive.

Now: When what employees need is a sign that success is on its way, and that they’re capable of doing something truly great, it may seem counter-intuitive to show them they already have.

But that’s what we decided to do. And it was amazingly powerful.

Nominating everyday superheroes

After the executive team of the low-morale organization welcomed everyone to the all-staff, they announced a few key promotions. They described a superhero power each was bringing to their new role, as well as a specific contribution they’d made over the past six months and how that’s helped the organization progress.

“We also know there are everyday superheroes contributing to each other and the work, and we want to have an opportunity to recognize them.” The execs handed out beautifully designed Everyday Superhero award cards, and asked everyone to:

  • Take a silent 4 minutes with your award card. Capture:
    • I hereby recognize… (name)… with the Everyday Superhero Award
    • Your superhero powers helped me do better work!
    • What you did:
    • How it helped:
  • Break into diverse groups of 6-8, and over the next 10 minutes:
    • Share the story of your Everyday Superhero – what they did and how it helped you
    • As a group, choose one that really inspires you

One by one, the executive emcee had groups announce their pick. As an Everyday Superhero came to the stage, their nominator shared the story of what they did, and the Superhero received a gift and an ovation from the whole company.

What came next? An all-play, of course, with a full 10 minutes of Superhero chaos. The exec emcee invited everyone to:

  • Find your Superhero
  • Tell them what they did and how it helped you
  • Thank them! And give them their Superhero Award card

The room went wild. There were tears, there were shining faces, and a lot of, “I had no idea that made a difference for you!” They group decided to keep a stack of Award cards on hand in each office, and make Everyday Superheroes an everyday thing.

Feeling seen changes how you see things, and what you do

In our debrief afterwards, the executives described that at the end of the all-staff, after reviewing a few successful projects and initiatives, they walked through their six-month priorities. As they talked, they noticed a shift in how people listened. People leaned in, nodded, took notes. At the closing wine reception, team members continued the conversation, talking animatedly about what they wanted to do to move their projects forward.


So here’s my invitation: Take 4 minutes over the next few days to recognize one of your Everyday Superheroes. Make sure you let them know what they did to make a difference.

What happens? I’d love to hear. Please hit comment and let me know.