Kevin Warren was only 12-years-old when he was struck by a car while riding his bike in Phoenix, Arizona. He flew to the side of the road and landed on one small patch of grass but broke his femur bone. He spent six months in the hospital and had to wear a full body cast, but it was a nurse who kept encouraging him that he would recover, even if the prognosis at the time did not look good. Little did he know that he would later play Division 1 college basketball and spend a career in sports.

"That accident changed the trajectory of my entire life," he says. "People don't always understand the power behind their actions and what they have done."

Now, he wants to do something in return.

Warren made a full recovery and went on to become a successful lawyer and is now the Chief Operating Officer of the Minnesota Vikings. In that role, his leadership approach has hinged on making simple but profound acts that build an organization, one employee at a time. In fact, he is now working on a book that will be published next year that describes the simple acts he experienced in his formative years. Last year, he decided to meet with every non-athlete employee of the Vikings in a one-one-one setting and ask about a simple act that could help them to succeed.

"This was not a check-the-boxes exercise," he says. "I met with everyone in the organization including the receptionists, marketing, finance, and legal. It was a real game-changer. I asked a simple question about what we could do to help the employee do their job at the highest level possible."

Even more importantly, he made the changes. He found out about an employee who needed a new paper shredder in the ticket office, and another who requested the Vikings install breastfeeding pods at the headquarters and training center. Some of the meetings lasted just 30 minutes but others were much longer. The idea was to take what Warren had learned about the simple acts in his life and apply that kind of thinking to his leadership role as an effort to make a difference in their lives.

One of the reasons this approach works is that employees in any company don't always share what is bothering them. It might be some small issue that gestates and becomes a major annoyance. Warren says he learned from his own experiences that it's important to look for ways to do simple acts that alleviate these concerns. He says he learned how to show gratitude and thank the people who have made a difference in his life, and that it gives you a totally different perspective. It means you become a leader that works to provide solutions rather than only making commands.

Warren says this is what it takes to build a great organization, which is good timing for the Vikings as they finish building a major new stadium in Minneapolis. (I recently took a behind-the-scenes tour and will report on that soon; U.S. Bank Stadium opens this summer just in time for preseason games.) Great organizations (and football teams) are built one employee (or player) at a time, and the true measure of success is not on a balance sheet (or even a scorecard) but on the success of each individual.

To build the Vikings internally as an organization at the same time as they build a new stadium required an innovative leadership style. Not many executives take the time to meet with every employee one-one-one and ask about an issue that could be resolved. Not many follow through on those requests. It all comes down to 'one simple act' in leadership that can make all of the difference in the world.

Published on: Apr 20, 2016
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