Volumes of books, papers, articles and dissertations attempt to define effective leadership. In my experience and personal practice, the difference between an effective leader and a disaster revolves around the intangible aspects of leadership. A good leader can check all the boxes: conduct one-on-one meetings, praise in public, criticize in private, and have the right experience and education. However, what propels a leader into the “extraordinary” category is true engagement.

According to Gallup, “People leave companies because of factors that filter through the local work environment. At least 75% of the reasons for voluntary turnover can be influenced by managers.” While departing employees often cite money as the reason for leaving, poor management contributes to turnover far more than a lack of financial incentive. Paying below market is never the right path. But once you pay well, the key to retaining and motivating employees is an engaged management team.

Knowing your employees is not just reading performance metrics and evaluating SMART objectives. Engaged managers take a focused interest in their employees. This doesn’t mean they pry into their employees’ social and personal lives, but it does mean they identify what is important to their employees. For some, that means recognition; for others, it’s sending them to a conference; still others just want a note of gratitude every now and again.

About 15 years ago, the manufacturing company I work for decided to have a team sporting event. We needed to pick a sport that everyone could play, that had minimal required strength and expertise, and that we could play outside during lunch and return to work without needing a shower. We discovered bocce and started playing it out on the side lawn, which was never manicured and full of unseen dips and bumps.  Bocce became the great equalizer; even our expert bocce players (and we did have some) were challenged by the grass clumps that popped up midfield. Each team had to come up with a name and have a minimum of four players. This spring will mark our 15th annual bocce tournament. The tournament has no prizes, but the winning team receives unabashed bragging rights and high-fives until the next tournament.

We picked this activity because we thought it would be fun and that everyone could play. I learned that bocce was all about leadership. Our best team leaders immediately engaged; they put together a team and made sure all their people were on a team. They came out at lunch, cheered on their team and playfully jeered the opponents. They did their best Bill Belichick impersonations. They followed the tournament, participated, and road the rails of the highs and lows. They extended the excitement of the game into daily work.

When I think of the ideal workplace environment, I think of the ability to take the excitement and challenge of non-work-related activities and apply them to the workplace. In today’s work environments, we have a multitude of metrics to monitor. We can look at sales volume, gross and net profit, overhead, full-time equivalents, volume delivered, month over month, year over year, and period over period. We can slice and dice data a thousand different ways, and we should! But if you want to know who is a good manager, see who comes out to play bocce. It’s cheaper than every enterprise system on the market, and I bet it’s a much better predictor of leadership success.