What Leaders Can Learn From Asking Their Employees About Breakfast Cereal (Yes, Cereal)

The executive director of a prominent nonprofit called iMentor Chicago reached out to me the other week. Her name is Halleemah Nash.

“A question I asked my team a few months ago really caught me off guard,” Nash shared with me.

“I thought it was honestly kind of a silly question — something I’d never answer myself, personally. But I thought, ‘Oh what the heck, let’s ask it and see what happens.'”

The question was: “What’s your favorite breakfast cereal?”

She asked this question to her staff, expecting nothing much to come of it.

The opposite happened. Almost every single person on her staff responded – enthusiastically, humorously. It got the whole office talking, laughing, joking with one another.

Nash took notice. She saw the collegiality it spurred, and wanted to encourage that positive spirit even more.

Once a month, she decided to plan a “Cereal Day,” when she’d bring in everyone’s favorite cereal. She had “Cereal Day” take place on the day of her team’s monthly strategic planning meeting — no doubt a tough, intense day for the staff.

Her staff absolutely loved it. Nash was stunned. “Who knew that cereal would get people pumped for a strategic planning conversation,” she wrote to me candidly in an email.

While it’s endearing to think that breakfast cereal is “the thing” that flips a switch for a team’s employee engagement, there’s something deeper going on here. Nash’s “Cereal Day” works as a means to boost her team’s morale for specific reasons. Here’s what we can all learn from it as leaders:

Great leaders bring levity to a team, not just the load of work.

Let’s be real: Work feels serious a majority of the time. Everyone’s busy, there are deadlines flying around, a thousand decisions to be made — it’s easy to get your head stuck in the weeds of work. We all need a break, at some point.

Nash understands this, and so intentionally chose her strategic planning meeting day as the day to hold “Cereal Day,” as a result. She knew how in moments of stress or intensity, people do better work when they can step away, have a laugh, and just lighten up a bit.

As a leader, yes, it’s your job to press the gas pedal to make sure folks are focused. But you also want to give people permission to be people — to have fun, be silly, be expressive. Don’t get frustrated if you notice your team members cracking jokes during a meeting. Don’t be bitter when an employee takes an extra long lunch with a co-worker. Take it as a sign that they might need that levity. Like Nash, if there is a particularly tense time of year, use it as an opportunity to bring lightness to that meeting or season.

Great leaders find a way to connect everyone, not just some.

“Cereal Day” was effective at bringing together Nash’s team because, frankly, it’s unlike a lot of other team-bonding events: It involved everyone. Think about it.

At a happy hour, typically the same folks congregate and talk to one another. During a one-on-one coffee conversation, you only get to know that one particular person. It’s rare to have moments in the company where everyone gets to interact with everyone else — but that’s what “Cereal Day” did. Nash’s “Cereal Day” is the antidote to the silos that pop up in organizations.

Take an honest look at your own company’s current team-bonding events and see if they’re a common touch point for everyone, or just for some. You may be accidentally reinforcing the silos in your company you’re working so hard to dissolve. You may have to get creative — or even better, ask your employees about their personal tastes and interests — so you can tailor company outings, events, and activities to be a shared, common touch point for everyone.

Even if it’s about breakfast cereal — the fact that it’s something everyone can participate is what matters.

Whether you try to engage your employees as a leader with cereal or not, that’s totally up to you. But “Cereal Day” is an important reminder for us as leaders that employee engagement isn’t just about the big, grand gestures of extending vacation time or big pay raises.

True employee engagement is about caring enough to ask even the seemingly small, trivial questions to your team — and paying close attention to the answers.

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