An unexpected meeting with an ex-ballerina showed me what really motivates people.


7.00am Friday morning and I walked into my office to find the HR Director from a well-known phone company (I would mention them, but I don’t want them to think it’s a ploy for freebies) who shared residency on the same business campus.

I thought it’s a bit cheeky headhunting me on the company’s territory, but then I thought maybe this is the guru’s guru of HR coming to deliver a message on behalf of the whole of the HR community – I wish I hadn’t complained about stereotyping people from Yorkshire by only serving Fish and Chips in the canteen every Friday. Everyone knows this is normally Saturday lunch!

“Morning Gary, I was told that you might have two 100 watt speakers and a sound system”, she said. To be honest, I had to pinch myself a couple of times just in case I had fallen into a deep sleep about 6.10am and this was a very weird dream.

“Yes, I still have all the sound equipment in the garage, along with 2 guitars and a keyboard” I replied. I was now of the opinion she had spotted a gap in the music market for a HR group who could be unique, delivering policies and procedures through the medium of music.

“Could we borrow them for the day? We will need them set up and working in about 2 hours, if that’s okay? We have a charity day, and the supplier of the sound system has let us down. I’ll send Geraldine over to help you and explain where we need to set them up”.

10 minutes later and Geraldine, in full ballerina dress, is climbing into my car. Not the start to a Friday morning I expected. Friday morning was thinking time, although it quickly became action time, recalibrating my sound system for a ballerina and the Human Resources super group.

Geraldine started to tell me more about the event. She had trained to be a ballerina 18 years ago, but injury had closed that door. She had come out of retirement to do one last performance. Solo work from “Swan Lake & Sleeping Beauty”. Thank goodness, I was starting to have concerns that their Friday dress down code might spread across the whole of the campus!

She had volunteered to do one final performance. The charity benefiting from the day was close to her heart, in fact, she had already lost a family member and friend to cancer.

The office was surprised she had such a specialised talent and had rallied round to find a portable stage and specialised floor covering, all free of charge for the day, thanks to Ashleigh.

She had been rehearsing between her shift work to bring her performance to something worthy of the day. Nine weeks of solid practice and having her friends film her moves at the strangest of hours, so she could watch and improve her technique. Geraldine reckoned she had been surviving on 5 hours sleep for the last 16 days, but she felt more motivated and enthusiastic than ever.

I asked her about her job at the phone company. She told me she worked in Customer Services and her day was full of complaints, apologies and achieving targets.

“It’s a job and pays the bills, at least I don’t have to work weekends and the holidays are generous”, she said. I thought I better change the subject back to the charity day and her ballet performance.

I asked her what other events were happening at the other side of the campus. She told me about the girls designing & making some casual clothes. One of the team started off life as a designer and had a friend in the industry who had loaned them 6 sewing machines. They had planned sewing hours in between shift cycles and volunteers from the office were amazed at how easy it became to produce such trendy t shirts and lounge wear. The Lord Mayor was dropping in for lunch and would be saying a few words.

I picked up the sound equipment with the help of my ballerina friend. As we loaded the car, the children on the school run were a bit confused to see “Sleeping Beauty” lift a 50-watt speaker into the boot. I didn’t exactly have the Prince Charming look and now at least 20 children think Sleeping Beauty is a roadie for an 80s pop band.

After 30 minutes of setting up the old equipment and a quick sound check with the music streaming, the stage was set.

Back in the office, I encouraged the different departments to support the event in between juggling calls about, “Why our world should start and end with the Customer?”

I managed to give myself a couple of hours off to support the event and hopefully see Geraldine’s performance.

There was an immense buzz about the place. The stalls and decorations must have taken hours to prepare. I went to look for some lounge wear at the clothes stall. I spoke to Jamie who was chief salesperson for an hour. He had also pitched in making some of the garments, 18 gruelling hours on the sewing machine at the expense of playing in 4 games of rugby.

The Lord Mayor made a very nice speech and then introduced Geraldine.

After 1 minute the crowd fell silent and it stayed like that for the next 14 minutes. Absolutely breath taking, I had never seen anything so graceful, emotional and controlled.

Her colleagues ran on to the makeshift stage and gave her the biggest group hug I had ever seen – those were the good old hugging days before Covid 19.

I went to congratulate her and make sure my makeshift wiring could last an encore.

She introduced me to Heather from Supply Chain who had organised, planned and co-ordinated the event. Heather told me this was her full-time job for 3 months. Her kitchen was like a military operation covered in flip charts, post it notes and a picture of her friend who had succumbed to cancer.

After loading the car back up with the sound system and some very nicely made lounge wear, courtesy of the nimble Jamie (rugby and sewing), I headed home.

Wednesday of the following week, I was in a leadership meeting and the topic was on how to motivate people to a higher level of performance, to ensure that our key plans were delivered on time?

The conversation turned to incentives and ensuring parity across different teams, although these do have a place in an organisation, my thoughts turned to my unexpected meeting with the ballerina and the conversations I’d had with her colleagues last week.

I’d watched individuals willing to take on any challenge and take personal responsibility to ensure they contributed to the common goal. They were encouraged by their team to step up and utilise their skills. A team so flexible, that small important changes to the scope were embraced and not seen as a big challenge. No issue was insurmountable as their collective skills speedily solved any problems. Empowered individuals who were accountable for their actions and offered real support to their colleagues. All this, fuelled by constant motivation, that no short-term incentive could compete with. The one factor that drove this level of incredible performance was:

A Sense of Purpose

How do you rate your sense of purpose in your organisation?

Is it on posters, PowerPoints or ALIVE IN PEOPLE?

If you need that extra support in building that flexible, adaptable and high performing organisation, get in touch with me for a chat.


Gary Cox 9th June 2021