Jane Sparrow: The new rules of engagement for 2014 – how to win over senior leaders

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New year, new buzzword: ‘Sustained engagement’ is something I’ve been hearing from HR recently as they find themselves again justifying expenditure on engagement initiatives. Getting senior buy-in for engagement is a tough call because many hold the view that it’s a waste of money. This isn’t an unreasonable assumption: most engagement activity is money down the drain.

Why, you may ask. Engagement initiatives are typically tools driven (think newsletters, intranets, roadshows) and focus almost exclusively on the ‘what’; what we’re going to do, what we’re going to tell people, what we want them to do.  Leaders switch off because they don’t see how these ‘initiatives’ are enabling the organisation to gain the outcomes and performance leaps they need.  If they can’t see a direct line of sight to what matters to them, they won’t sign up. And, frankly, I’m not surprised. Of course, engagement is nothing new: all CEOs will look to increase the performance of their organisation but not, ironically, if it is wrapped up in layers of engagement semantics. If the door isn’t opening, it’s probably because you need to find a different key.

Engagement investment that digs deep into the wealth of employees’ talent, commitment, ambition and loyalty is the ‘why’ leaders need to hear. Crucially, unlocking all of this untapped potential is all about creating ‘Investors’: employees willing to go the distance and become more emotionally committed to the organisation. Organisations that seek to build and sustain ‘Investors’ are successful because their focus is resolutely concentrated on behaviour and encouraging people to take action. When I ask HR managers and leaders to reflect on how much time and energy is being dedicated to creating Investors, it usually transpires that it is much less than they’d like! In reality, their focus is poured into tactics and process that ultimately only ever creates ‘Savers’; employees who do a good job but don’t ever push the boundaries of their emotional commitment and personal investment in the business.

Let’s be clear: Savers are undoubtedly needed in organisations and sometimes, ‘Saver’ level investment is the right course of action. But the leaps in performance only happen when a serious commitment to creating Investors is made. To create Investors, and sustain them, you need to focus on your most powerful influencers of performance: line managers.

Take Gabby Redfern, VP at Discovery Networks. When she was faced with improving the reliability of the organisation to ensure her team hit all ‘up time’ targets, she put in place a structured, detailed plan to engage every single member of her team. Within the first six months in her post, she had met every team and gained invaluable feedback about staff’s needs and concerns and what they wanted from her. She focused on improving the connections and relationships between her different teams and building stronger bonds between team leaders and their staff, enabling people to share feedback and to see first-hand the progress being made towards the outcome. Her results quickly showed a 63% improvement in her team’s uptime reliability and, two years on, she’s now achieved a staggering 87% improvement.  That’s quite an impressive ROI for any engagement initiative!  Sustained engagement? Absolutely. Her commitment to sticking with her tried and tested focus on people’s behaviour over two years is a stark contrast to one-hit wonders of engagement tactics that quickly lose impact the moment managers and employees lose interest.

Gabby’s results shows that the extra effort it takes to create Investors is something worth doing. However, how many managers are truly given the support, counsel and confidence to take it on? Often, the their focus is so driven by performance figures and targets that it feels like there is little of them left for anything else. And yet, when organisations place people at the heart of the culture, the performance swiftly follows.  UKTV is another great example of an organisation that pushed itself way beyond ‘Saver’ level type of activities when it embarked on its ambition to be a heavyweight player in the media arena. Led by CEO Darren Childs, the company overhauled its engagement strategy by focusing on people and relationships: line managers were closely involved in defining the new values of the business and were individually held to account for embracing the values as part of the recognition and appraisal systems. Senior leadership worked hard to strengthen relationships with the management community and Darren led by personal example, frequently attending company-wide meetings to hear direct feedback and offer his own insight. The results speak for themselves: the company has emerged as stronger and more successful as a result.  It is also the first UK broadcaster to be recognised by Best Companies as a great place to work.

If you are serious about making 2014 the year of real, impactful engagement, it comes down to focusing on the right balance between what is going to create more Savers in the business and what is going to create more Investors. Start by reviewing where your current attention and focus lies at the moment and ask yourself what impact you can have by dropping or reducing some of the more transactional engagement pieces. Often, much of the tactics and processes have been inherited and adopted over time so it’s good to question them with this new perspective in mind. Keep focused on outcomes and remind yourself – and everyone you influence – what those outcomes are.

Jane Sparrow is founder of The Culture Builders, a consultancy specialising in transformational change, leadership and management development.

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2 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. What a refreshingly fantastic article on the realities of engagement activities – thank you Jane – I often read material on engagement and most of it goes straight in the bin, but this is something I will definitely be sharing with my team. You’ve been really helpful in sharing an incisive interpretation of where HR can often go wrong with engagement and how to really connect with senior leaders. Thank you!!

  2. Thanks Jane for a refreshingly fantastic article on engagement. I read a lot of material on engagement and most of it goes in the bin, but I shall definitely be sharing this with my team. You’ve explained very concisely and incisively how HR can get engagement activity wrong, and how to really engage senior leaders. I’m very impressed, thank you!

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