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Their Best Friend at Work
Business Journal

Their Best Friend at Work

How one General Services Administration manager inspires respect, loyalty, and even love from her employees -- while driving bottom-line results

by Jennifer Robison

If you ask Diane Marinacci what her title is, she'll reach for a business card and read, "Director of the Customer Service Division of the Public Buildings Service, Region Two, of the General Services Administration." It's an admittedly long title.

Ask Marinacci how her team scores on Gallup's Q12 employee engagement survey, and she'll think a minute before replying that she isn't exactly sure. But she knows her team scores very high, particularly on the item: "I have a best friend at work."

If you ask why her workgroup has such phenomenally high scores, Marinacci will say that she can't explain, but it has a lot to do with their table -- more on that later.

Marinacci may not have top-of-mind answers to some questions, but she doesn't need them. All she needs to know is that her 10 employees and myriad customers are happy -- and they are. What Marinacci doesn't know is that she may be an almost perfect example of a manager who truly engages and inspires employees.

Hiring for talent

The Public Buildings Service builds and manages the buildings that the federal government uses -- more than 300 million square feet in all. In essence, it is the government's landlord. The Customer Service Division is there for federal workers, of course, but it also deals with Congress and the local citizenry. For instance, if the Social Security Administration decides to close a branch office, the locals are going to be mighty interested in where they are going to get their checks. So the Customer Service Division has thousands of clients, internal and external, and lots of work to do, because it's hard work keeping customers happy with their workspaces.

It takes a special kind of person to work in any kind of customer service, and an extraordinary person to thrive in the Public Buildings Service. The clientele encompasses federal judges to research scientists, and every client has unique needs.

"You need personality to work here," Marinacci says. "I don't want a tiger, but they have to be able to fight for their clients. I want someone who's easily understandable, can grasp a concept, has a good sense of humor, and is a genuinely nice person."

It takes a while to find the best person for any job, but it takes even longer for Marinacci. As one of her employees put it, "That interview is just grueling."

She doesn't define it as such, but Marinacci "hires for talent." She looks for innate traits in interviewees, such as humor, niceness, and quick thinking, which they may not even recognize in themselves. Her methodology is laser-precise, though largely unobservable. She asks questions and writes down answers, but mostly she listens to the interviewees, to what they say and what they don't say.

"I worked here, but not in this office, and had heard about Diane's interviews," says Maureen Lennon, the judiciary regional account manager. "They said 'anything's possible.' You never know what she's going to ask. Those questions are tough, very tough."

Marinacci interviews each person at least three times. In the first conversation, she tries to relax job candidates -- "They're always nervous wrecks, because that's the interview mentality" -- but she admits they're still nervous when they leave. She has two of her staff members join her for the first interview, but Marinacci asks the questions. She rotates one of her employees out for the second interview and has the "brand-new body" ask the questions. By the third interview, the potential hire has been exposed to enough of them to relax and allow his or her personality to show -- and that's exactly what Marinacci is looking for.

"I know they're smart; they've all got 4.0 or 3.8 GPAs. But personality -- you've got to have personality," Marinacci says. "You know, this is a customer service office."

Magna Marcano, a regional account manager, had worked in a different position at GSA for 12 years before she took Marinacci's interview. "I was as nervous as if I'd walked in off the street," Marcano says. "But it shows how well you'll get along, and you learn something."

Those few who make it through the interviews and are hired are the best in their business. And they are among the few employees in America who can say, as Marcano does, "Our manager loves us -- just loves us. And we love her, too."

A table is more than furniture

Years of Gallup Organization research and millions of research dollars have revealed what it takes to keep employees engaged in their work. (See "Feedback for Real" in See Also.) The Q12 survey items point to the fact that employees need to know that their manager cares about them personally, they need equipment to do their jobs right, and they need to feel their opinions count, among other things.

A few managers can't provide any of those items, but most can provide some of them, and a select few can provide them all. But it's the rare manager who has internalized the 12 items on Gallup's Q12 employee engagement survey to the extent that Marinacci has. Though she isn't a "numbers person," as she will tell you, her numbers say a lot. Within a year, her group's Q12 score jumped from Gallup's 47th percentile to the 75th percentile.

According to Marinacci, that's due to the table. Every morning, the employees of Marinacci's division come to work and meet at a round table. They chat, talk about their caseloads, ask for advice, offer help, then head to their desks to start the day. Sometimes, they meet at the table during the day, and when there's an office-wide issue to discuss, it happens at the table.

"More work is done at that round table during the day than could ever happen in a cubicle," says Marinacci. "It really, really brings out some kind of team thing with this crew that is incredible. If you saw these guys, you'd be amazed." When the Customer Service Division redesigned its office to accommodate a growing staff, Marinacci didn't care about the colors or furniture or paint, but she wouldn't let go of the table: "I tell my friends, if you're a boss, you need to get a round table."

If you look at the table through a Q12 lens, it's obvious that the round table is the place to make opinions count, learn expectations, get praise, develop at work, discuss progress, and find opportunities to learn and grow. The table is more than furniture, and any manager can get one. "But you have to use it," Marinacci says.

The materials and equipment they need

Every manager leads differently, and the best, like Marinacci, have a particularly personal style. Nonetheless, all employees need the same 12 things -- the items on Gallup's Q12.

For instance, trying to do without the materials and equipment one needs is frustrating -- one starts to wonder about the value of the work itself. Marinacci won't let it happen. (See "The Second Element of Great Managing" in See Also.) Lennon remarks, "Diane always says if we need training or equipment and if it betters us, we can have it. It's been a bad year for funding, but we've gotten everything we've needed."

Marinacci isn't the sort of manager who considers a training course every few years to be sufficient employee development. When Marcano was hired, she was the only one in the office without a college degree. Marcano says, "Diane said she'd help pay for it. But she doesn't pay up front. 'Bring me an A,' she said. And I did. She's an inspiration and the smartest person I know." Marcano worked, attended college full time, and graduated summa cum laude -- in the same month her son graduated from high school.

It's important to be recognized for doing good work. It's even better to know that the manager is genuinely pleased. But it's incredibly rewarding when one's boss is personally proud of one's accomplishments, as Marinacci often is, and she is happy to tell her employees so.

For example, GSA has a program called the Advanced Leadership Development program for exceptional employees who are being groomed for greater responsibility. In 2003, only 50 employees nationwide were accepted into this highly competitive and rigorous program. Two employees from Marinacci's group applied -- and both were accepted. One of them is Lennon, who says, "When I got accepted into that leadership program, Diane was prouder of me than my mom. That sense of pride she has for you and instills in you is worth more than any monetary reward." Only an engaged employee would find a manager's nice words more valuable than a nice bonus check.

Getting engaged

Gallup's Q12 works because it measures engagement instead of cataloging opinions. Thoughts on the break-room vending machine and attitudes toward the sick-leave policy don't affect engagement the way having a best friend at work does. And Q12 does not ask specific opinions on specific actions -- it doesn't ask, for example, whether people prefer monthly or quarterly reviews -- because that doesn't matter. A manager who engages employees knows what her people prefer. And though every employee needs the same few things, they need them in different ways.

"I think back in the old days, the old management style was sort of drummed into our heads that you have to treat everybody the same," Marinacci says. "But in reality, people don't want to be treated the same; people want to be treated the way they like to be treated."

Marinacci doesn't credit her department's success to herself or her management style. She's sure that it's all because of her people, which is true to a certain extent. Her employees are remarkable -- but they're also remarkably engaged. And that, even if Marinacci is unaware of it, is because their manager makes engagement the first function of her job.


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