Why the Employee Experience at Your Company will Matter in 2021

There is a dangerous myth some businesses leaders are embracing as our economy begins to rebound. It is the belief that, with unemployment still very high, we are in an “employer’s market” when it comes to attracting and retaining great talent. Consequently, too many leaders assume their employees are so grateful just to have a job that they (enterprise leaders) don’t need to worry too much about the kind of experience their people are having at their companies.

It’s a bad assumption…because it’s not true.

A great employee experience is created when you treat your people like growth partners.

Immediately prior to the onset of COVID-19, what were corporate heads saying about the recruiting market? They routinely reported that as they sought to attract great people, they routinely confronted a scarcity of skilled, educated talent. CEOs around the world decried their inability to find the people they needed to fill positions critical to the achievement of their growth plans and goals. McKinsey predicted this outcome in a study it published in 2012 about global talent trends. Its findings indicated that by 2020, there would be about a 23-million-person shortage of the high proficiency recruits companies would need. About four years later, chief executives were already having real life experience with that forecast. Here is an excerpt from an article that appeared in HR Dive in October 2018 that is indicative of what was happening inside businesses prior to our economy being thrown into chaos:

“Nearly 70% of business leaders participating in a new global survey said the current talent pool is shrinking. As a result, the competition for talent has increased, forcing employers to change their recruiting strategies.” (“Study: Shrinking Talent Pool Has Recruiters shifting Strategies,” HR Dive, October 5, 2018, Valerie Bolden-Barrett)

So did the pandemic change any of this? Is top talent less in demand now than it was before?

The answer is no. And if you want more practical and perhaps less academic evidence, look no further than your own company. How many of your key performers—people who you consider catalysts and strategic leaders—have you laid off since COVID-19? With few exceptions, the answer of most enterprise leaders is: “zero.”

Now, add to your own experience the trend that is emerging in our new COVID reality—remote work. Thousands of companies have been forced to have their employees work from home—and a high percentage of them don’t plan to return to the onsite work requirements they used to have. Among other things, this has now expanded their geographic recruiting net. They can hire people from anywhere. Consequently, your competition for talent has gotten bigger, not smaller. And guess what? Some of those employers are coming for the people working at your business.

Therefore, What?

Among other things this means the employee experience you are providing is more important than ever in the “new economy.” Why? Well, think about just a few of the implications of the attitude your people have about your company:

  • Your employees will control the kind of experience your customers have with your business
  • Your employees will be your best source for attracting new talent to your company
  • Your employees will determine whether your business will thrive or stall going forward

The reality is your employees wield a lot of power because they can influence whether your company succeeds or fails in the future. In other words, they can choose to become either growth partners or growth inhibitors—and kind of experience they have at your business will have much to do with which direction they go.

Certainly, no organization can afford a company full of inhibitors as it navigates the uncertain business environment that lies ahead. Any one of the bullet points just listed can be crippling if your employees have a less than enthusiastic view of you as their employer. (NOTE: Net promoter score survey methodology suggests anyone who doesn’t rank their employee experience as eight or higher will become a detractor). And if your employees don’t feel like they are being treated as true growth partners in the business, you won’t be dealing with just one of the issues listed above. You’ll be dealing with all of them.

If that’s true (and it is), how do you create an environment in which your employees want to become your growth partners? And what does becoming a growth partner even mean?

Creating Growth Partners

Your employees will become maximum contributors to your company once they adopt a stewardship approach to the role they are fulfilling for your organization. Among other things, this means they take ownership of the outcomes their role exists to fulfill. They think about the business the way owners do and their decision-making reflects that mindset. They are protective of shareholder interests and are dedicated to the principle of value creation; they expect to create value before participating in value-sharing. This is what a growth partner looks like.

So, where do you find people like this…and how do you transform those already working for you into growth partner employees?

It Starts with Your Mindset, not Theirs

The first step in developing this kind of relationship with your people is to recognize that creating growth partners is not some kind of trick or a gimmick. Neither is it simply a clever term you use because you want to appear different or better than other companies—or because you like to use the latest “hip” business terminology (i.e. “team members” or “associates”). In other words, it is not simply a symbolic gesture or something that you can manufacture or strategize into existence.

In short, employees should only be referred to as your growth partners if that’s how you actually view them. And if you sincerely consider your people to be growth partners, that mindset will influence the kind of experience you create for them. The magic in this is that your employees will sense the authenticity of your attitude towards them and the relationship commitment it implies. Your approach will imply integrity in your intent—and that breeds trust. High trust organizations accelerate success, because there is no relationship friction slowing things down. And when employees sense you respect them and their ability to make a valuable contribution, they want to actually perform like you would expect a growth partner to perform. It’s the law of psychological reciprocity (look it up!).

Here is the secret of enterprise leaders who create a positive employee experience learn. Their success is a byproduct of how they view and treat their people. Their people want to help the company succeed because their contributions are valued and their talents are esteemed. In these companies, the employee experience is not the result of any single initiative or marketing effort (although many of these organizations do promote the unique culture they have created—so they can attract more great talent). They operate under a different philosophy than those for whom the concept of a growth partnership with employees is a foreign idea. These employers view and treat their people as growth partners because it is an organizational value. They genuinely feel responsible for the people who have trusted them with their time and talent and recognize the social contract implied in the employee-employer relationship. As Simon Sinek has said: “The leaders who get the most out of their people are the leaders who care most about their people.” Why? Because you cannot fake concern and appreciation—and your people will break down walls to help you achieve your ambitions, as they feel you have as much interest in their success as you do in your own.

4 Characteristics of a Growth Partner Employee Experience

No special training is needed to learn how to turn employees into growth partners. Instead, if you will learn and commit to the right principles and practices, that outcome will occur naturally. These principles fall in four categories.

1. Market a Compelling Future

The term “market” in this context is not intended to suggest you communicate to present or future employees about the future of the company in a way that is overly idealistic just to sound good. What it means is you must infuse your people with the same level of passion about the purpose and potential of your enterprise as you possess. The way you do this is by making sure your employees can picture themselves in that future—and believe that you also see them there. This is not difficult to do when you actually view your employees as true growth partners. If it is not how you view them, then your efforts in this regard will be seen as clumsy and insincere.

To be compelled by the future of your company, here is what an employee needs to believe:

  • The vision of shareholders is achievable
  • The good accomplished through the company’s success is worthy of pursuit
  • Company leaders believe the achievement of their vision is not possible without the talents and contributions of that employee
  • Company leaders have confidence in that employee’s ability to rise to the occasion and create enduring success

This is not about standing up in a meeting and giving a rousing speech about where the company is headed and the great things it is going to accomplish. Instead, it implies you are willing to do the work associated with thinking carefully about the roles being performed by employees, the unique abilities those individuals are bringing to those roles and the outcomes you are relying on them to achieve so the company’s growth goals can be realized. Employees will act like growth partners if they sense you have a deep understanding of those things and a respect for their stewardships. They want to view you and other company leaders as coaches and mentors, not supervisors. If you violate that relationship, your people will revert to acting like employees doing a job instead of growth partners fulfilling a role. They will become growth inhibitors instead of growth partners.

2. Align Roles with Unique Abilities

No major league baseball player wants to be acquired as a relief pitcher only to be asked by the team manager to play first base—no matter how badly a first baseman is needed. The player is frustrated and it ultimately hurts the team. And although it may fill a short-term gap, it is not a good formula for sustained success. At a minimum, it will discourage the player—and a disgruntled player can poison an entire team.

It’s no different in business. Winning teams and organizations are created by leveraging the unique abilities of every individual. In an enterprise that wants to develop growth partners, employees must be placed in roles that leverage their unique abilities and be teamed up with others who are similarly positioned. Both the individual and the team need to know the strategic significance of the outcomes they are responsible for and what their overall “charter” is.

When employees are treated as stewards in their roles and given the freedom to use their unique abilities, they act as growth partners. In turn, they deem their employee experience to be a good one.

3. Provide Opportunities for Personal and Professional Development

Companies made up of growth mindset people end up with a growth mindset culture. That typically means it is also a high-performance culture—because it is made up of people who are ambitious and motivated. Why is this true? Because, by definition, a growth mindset implies you believe there is always room for improvement—so you are constantly looking ahead, creating new opportunities, pursuing excellence and success, and finding ways to win.

Organizations build growth mindset employees by enabling their personal and professional development. While this can include things such as great training, paying for conferences, subsidizing education and providing effective coaching and mentoring, it goes beyond that. It implies something even more fundamental.

Employees thrive in environments where their distinct abilities improve as a result of the nature of the work they are doing, the quality of the people they are associated with, the resources to which they have access and the leadership responsibilities they are given. This is what makes employment “sticky” at some organizations. People don’t want to leave because the experience they are having is too rich. If they sense they are growing—personally and professionally—in their current role than they won't look somewhere else.

So, if you want your people to become growth partners, think about the kinds of development opportunities they will need to maintain and leverage their growth mindsets.

4. Provide a Financial Opportunity Worthy of a Growth Partnership

No, this doesn’t mean you need to give stock to your employees—although in some circumstances you might determine that’s the right thing to do. What it means is that employees who create value should expect to participate in the value they help create. That is the essence of a financial opportunity worthy of a growth partnership.

You create that opportunity without violating the interests of shareholders. And you must, because employee and shareholder financial interests are interdependent, not competing. The way to create a secure link between those interests is by having a clear, written compensation philosophy. Here is what such statement should include:

  • A definition of value creation for the business (the threshold of profits, sales or revenue that must be achieved before value is shared with employees)
  • A definition of how much value will be shared (once the value creation threshold has been reached), who will participate in value-sharing and what form it will take
  • An explanation of the balance that will be maintained between guaranteed compensation (salaries) and variable pay (value-sharing)
  • An explanation of how the company will balance rewards for short-term vs long-term performance—and how it will differ by employee tier or salary grouping
  • An explanation of what form long-term value-sharing will take—and how it will differ by employee tier or salary grouping
  • An explanation of the circumstances under which stock will be shared
  • An explanation of how the company will use market-pay data
  • An explanation of how merit pay will be calculated

Certainly, more can be included in a philosophy statement, but these would be minimum issues to include. Once a clear pay philosophy is defined and communicated, the specific rewards programs that should make up the company’s compensation offering will be easier to identify.

The overriding belief system that should guide organizations wanting to build growth partners might best be referred to as a Wealth Multiplier Philosophy. The premise of this philosophy is that a company should want all its stakeholders to participate in the wealth multiple they help create. This is because the ability of a company to accelerate growth is the holy grail of business. And when employees participate in a value proposition that rewards them in much the same way owners are rewarded, you create a unified financial vision for growing the business. The result is, employees become growth partners.

Coming Full Circle

No business leader will succeed in the future by relying on practices from the past. Things will never be like they were in 2019 and before. You will need to be surrounded by great people who can help you survive then thrive in the future. That can only occur if you have created an employee experience that turns your people into growth partners.

Here’s to a successful 2021.

If you want to dive deeper into this topic, here are some additional resources you might find useful:

Article: Why You Should Apply Design Thinking to the Employee Experience

Growth Note: How to Make Leadership a Cultural Value

Report: How Employee Engagement Happens

Webcast: How a Successful Employee Experience Will Be Defined in the Future

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