Those who lead companies want a workforce that is as passionate about the future of the business as they are. They don’t want employees; they want growth partners. They want to be surrounded by people who are committed to the purposes the company serves, will take ownership of the outcomes their role exists to produce, are able to create significant value and will be stewards of shareholder interests.
They want engaged employees.
So how do business leaders make that happen? Can engagement be manufactured? Is it the result of team building exercises, executing the right kind of engagement survey or bringing in outside experts to run a training program? Is it something that be purchased by paying employees a certain amount of money or giving them stock in the business?
Company leaders tie themselves in knots trying to answer these kinds of questions. And no one has come up with a good answer. In the meantime, a whole industry has grown up promising to help organizations develop greater engagement from their people. And yet few feel as though the things they are doing are making any difference. It’s frustrating.
Is it possible these leaders are making the issue more complicated than it needs to be? Yes, it is. Most cultural problems are solved at their roots, not by employing clever devices or doing excessive measuring. Constructive organizational behavior takes time to develop and is only sustainable if it is built on the right foundation and principles. People cannot be manipulated into taking a committed, passionate approach to their work. They must come to believe that their devotion to the company they work for will benefit them personally and professionally. If they perceive their contributions are inuring solely to the benefit of the company, they are not likely to engage.
When companies focus on improving employee engagement, they are essentially admitting that they have not yet won the hearts and minds of their people. To correct this, they typically end up pursuing corrective strategies in a somewhat mechanical fashion, which comes across as forced or manipulative. Instead, for improvement to occur, business leaders must first understand and apply certain universal principles that govern the behavior or people—not just within a company but in any context we are trying to influence someone. These principles are not techniques or tactics. They are social truths that cannot be faked or ignored if business leaders want to see greater passion and commitment from their people.
Here is how these principles should function in real life.
1. Become. The first thing you must be able to identify if you want to gain people’s support and commitment is what you want them to become. In business, most owners and leaders want their employees to become growth partners. The implication is they want them to be stewards of shareholders’ interests and passionate advocates of the purpose the company exist to fulfill.
2. Do. For people to become what we want them to become, there will typically be certain things they need to do that evidence they are “getting it”; that they know what we need them to be in their role and are willing to do whatever is necessary to become that. In a business, this mean they are taking ownership of the outcomes their role exists to fulfill. They act independently and do not need a lot of supervision or managing. They see the future company the way owners do and make decisions the way owners would. They adopt the organization’s priorities, values and mission as their own.
3. Believe. Before people will start doing things we want them to do, they must first believe it is in their interest to do so. This has to do with winning people’s hearts. We must tap into the source of their motivation and understand their ambitions. Then we must be able to demonstrate how doing what we want them to do (and becoming what we want them to become) will fuel their ability to achieve those ambitions. In business, this has to do with aligning the purpose of the organization with the purposes to which employees are devoted.
4. Know. Before people will believe it is in their best interest to do what we are asking them to do, and become what we want them to be, there are things they want and need to know. They seek evidence that what you are leading them to is consistent with where they want to go. In a business organization, this has to do developing an employer brand that represents the company well in every setting—so that no matter where a person turns to get information, they hear and see things that confirm what a potential employee wants to hear before joining a company. They have their fears assuaged and their hopes validated about what the opportunity will mean to them. An employer brand is not just a plastic image a company promotes artificially. The brand is what people are saying about the employee experience within that organization—both those that work there and those that do not.
Please note that the application of these principles has a filtering effect. By definition, not everyone will become passionate advocates of an owner’s vision because not everyone will believe in (or at least be passionate about) the purpose the organization exists to serve. This does not automatically mean they won’t work hard or cannot do a good job for the company. But it does mean they will never become fully engaged—and probably should not be counted on to lead the march towards the achievement of the company’s growth goals and vision. That is why these principles are so important. They enable us to lead the right people to become fully committed to their roles and eliminate those who never will be.
Assuming a company is committed to the principles just described, there are seven things they must offer or do if they want their people to become and remain engaged. Stated another way, employees will expect to experience each of these things before they will fully commit themselves to their work. All the company cultures we admire (or envy) have these characteristics or qualities. And all seven are necessary. If even one of them isn’t present, a company will not be able to completely capture the hearts and minds of its people.
1. A compelling purpose and vision.
Hopefully, you have discovered by now that if you cannot paint a compelling picture of why the work of your company matters—and the significance of the business achieving the level of success you are seeking (to employees, to customers, to communities, to the world at large)—then you should not expect your people to feel particularly devoted to it. This is not about coming up with new and clever ways to sound enthusiastic and optimistic about company goals. And it’s not about a business leader displaying high levels of charisma, having a strong personality or great communication skills. This is about enterprise leaders having deeply held beliefs about the importance of the work their company performs and the purposes it serves. It’s also about their ability to communicate a vision for their people of their importance in the fulfillment of the company’s purpose, and what it will mean to them and others if the business succeeds.
2. Clear roles with strategic impact.
Positions are filled. Roles are fulfilled. Top talent wants to approach its work with a clear understanding of the strategic purpose it is there to serve. Key people want to know how their role impacts the business model and strategy of the company. More specifically, they want to know what part they play in the broader plan to grow the company and how their contribution aligns with that of others who are similarly placed to help drive business growth. This ensures that the combined effect of everyone fulfilling their role is synergy and not discord.
3. A picture of success.
Before your people will fully engage, they will want a clear answer from you to this question: “If I’m meeting with you a year from now, and your expectations of me have been exceeded, what would I have achieved? What outcomes would have been fulfilled and results attained?” When good employees are given a clear vision of their role, have an unambiguous understanding of how you define success, and have access to the tools and resources necessary to produce what you’ve asked them to produce, they will break down barriers to perform. However, without a clear picture of your expectations, they will play games and be self-serving in their approach to the work. More important, without clear performance standards, how will you know if you are getting what you want?
4. A proper use of their unique abilities.
Employees want to work in the realm of their “genius”—what they are best and most passionate about. Here’s an analogy: Imagine you are a professional baseball player with a proven track record as a relief picture. You are signed by a competitive team that says it’s committed to going to the world series and “winning it all.” They roll out a bundle of money to attract you to the team. You are surrounded by great players and a coaching staff that is the envy of the league. However, in spring training, the manager approaches you and says he’d like you to work out at first base—because that’s a position that needs to be filled right now. What is your reaction? Hopefully, the analogy speaks for itself. People want to belong to organizations where not only will they be able to apply their unique abilities to full effect, they will have the resources and opportunities to get better at what they do. This is what makes people thrive. You can throw all the money you want at someone, but if they are not working within the realm of their distinct talents, eventually they will go somewhere that will put the full complement of their abilities to better use. Successful organizations are made when the individuals within those businesses are all working within the sweet spot of their genius—and seeing it magnified because they are part a unique team of people, all of whom are equally applying their unique abilities.
5. A stewardship framework.
Top producers want to be mentored and coached, not monitored and managed. If they have what it takes to perform at a high level, they want the freedom to do so. They do best in an operational framework that makes employees “stewards” over their roles. This is why so many companies have abandoned rigid performance management systems and ineffective assessment processes and tools. Successful business leaders understand that change is happening at the speed of light and their people need to be given broad berth to make decisions and fully own the outcomes for which they are accountable. Those with responsibility for supervising should be offering ideas, inquiring about resources that are needed and breaking down barriers that are preventing their people from fulfilling their roles. When your people think and act as stewards, you have their full engagement. So, you should make it easy for them to assume that stewardship.
6. A partnership relationship.
In organizations that have a fully engaged workforce, employees are not viewed or treated as employees. They are considered growth partners. And that is how they should be viewed and treated in any modern enterprise that is committed to success. No chief executive or owner is smart enough or can work hard enough to fulfill the ambitions they have for their companies without people around them who are as passionate about what the company stands for and its potential for success as they are. Consequently, it is a complete non sequitur to speak of or engage with people working within your company as something other than partners. And this is not something that can be feigned. You either genuinely see and treat your people that way, or you don’t. And the quality of talent you attract will in large measure be tied to your perspective on this issue.
7. A value-sharing philosophy.
One of the biggest clues that reveals whether you consider your people to be growth partners is how you pay them. Note, that sentence does not say how much you pay them (although that matters as well). How you pay growth partners is different than how you pay employees. It is rooted in a different rewards philosophy. Successful organizations in the modern business era adopt a wealth multiplier philosophy in their approach to compensation. They believe they are more likely to accelerate business growth if every stakeholder participates in the wealth multiple they help drive. And so, leaders of these organizations get very good at defining what value creation means in their businesses and with whom they believe it should be shared. They adopt an overarching philosophy about value-sharing and then create programs that balance rewards for short-term versus sustained performance. Their commitment to this approach is not rooted in altruism—although they believe it does reflects a fundamental fairness in the way they compensate their people. Instead, it is rooted in three realities:
1. By value-sharing instead of paying “incentives,” their rewards plans pay for themselves. They become “self-financing.” This is because value is only being paid out when it is created. And people who are treated as growth partners accept and even embrace this idea—because they realize that it places them more in control of their earnings.
2. The value-sharing approach creates an ownership mindset on the part of company “growth partners.” To be paid well, they must think like owners. Their financial opportunity is very much aligned with that of shareholders. They have to focus on ensuring the business model keeps the revenue and profit engine performing year to year while figuring out how to leverage its potential for producing even more in the future.
3. When companies adopt a value-sharing philosophy to rewards, they instill a unified financial vision for growing the business within their culture. Without a shared fiscal understanding of what it will take for the company to fulfill its purpose, that purpose will be left unfulfilled. As a result, smart leaders codify the growth partnership they want to have with their people by developing a pay approach that unifies the focus on value creation.
Hopefully, you can see how these characteristics lead to a more highly engaged workforce. Easier said than done? Of course. But what is the alternative? If you are going to spend time on this issue, why not get better results from the effort you are making? Look around at those organizations that seem to have figured this out. See if you don’t recognize all these elements at work. You can’t copy their culture, but you can copy the principles they applied to produce that culture.
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About the Author
Senior Vice President, The VisionLink Advisory Group
Ken has been consulting with middle-market private and public companies on executive compensation and benefits issues for over 30 years. In addition, he has authored numerous articles and white papers addressing compensation and rewards topics that modern businesses face. Ken also conducts a monthly webinar series on compensation best practices for business leaders throughout North America. His client work centers on the development of overall compensation strategies designed to enhance and improve shareholder value and workplace productivity. He is one of VisionLink’s six principals.
Business leaders spend countless hours trying to figure out how to best improve the engagement and commitment of employees. There is so much information and conflicting advice out there, that it can be a challenge to decipher the right balance that results in the best impact.
VisionLink’s report, How Employee Engagement Happens, solves this dilemma by outlining the 7 characteristics of high engagement cultures.