How To Engage Your Workforce

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Peter Hunter

Peter Hunter has over 20 years of leadership and team building experience as an officer in 3 different Navies. In the build up to October’s Employee Wellbeing Forum in London, Peter offers insights into the best ways to relate to, engage with and motivate employees…

When people are engaged in what they do we know that it makes a huge difference to their performance.

The way that we feel about what we do defines the way that we approach our work and that makes the difference between just turning up for our paycheck or looking forward to coming to work and doing something that we are proud of.

It is very easy to see how Lewis Hamilton can be proud of what he does but for the rest of us it does not seem possible that we could look forward to turning up to work on the checkout, or driving a bus, and get the same feeling of pride and achievement.

Except that it is possible, but it all depends on the environment in which we work.

Some are lucky and work in an environment in which they are supported and valued for what they do.

These are the lucky few. Many people work their whole lives without ever experiencing this sort of environment, they can become bitter about their work experience and develop very low expectations.

What is so awful is that the managers who spend their working lives creating this directive and ultimately destructive working environment, could, with less effort than they currently spend, create the same positive, recognition driven environment that would allow their workforce to engage and thus become proud of what they do.

It is not difficult to do but it requires a shift in the managers understanding of what the task of a manager is, from the traditional “Do as I say” approach of most managers to an understanding of the difference that it makes to the workforce for a manager to ask “ What do you need? How can I help?”

Some years ago while working in the jungle in Venezuela on a drilling project my job was to save the drilling rig, whose contract was under threat for failure to perform.

I knew exactly what to do. The key was changing the understanding of the rig manager to allow him to appreciate how valuable his workforce actually was.

When I first arrived on the rig I asked the manager, Willie Schmidt, to promise that when his crews came up with an idea to make savings or improve the operation he would try his best to make it happen.

Raoul, one of the assistant drillers gave me one of the first ideas for improvement.

I had been waiting at the gate for the crew’s bus to arrive, an eighteen-seater minivan that brought a minimum of eighteen people every crew change, and frequently more.
The trip took three hours and I could only imagine how that must have been cooped up pressed against each other in the cramped tropical heat of the un-air-conditioned van.
When they arrived on site I watched them emerging from the bus as they spent several minutes bending and stretching to restore their circulation after the journey.

On this day they piled out as usual and Raoul, after finishing his stretches, came over to talk to me.

He asked if he had heard right that I wanted to know any ideas that would make the operation better. I said “yes, tell me your idea and I will see what can be done.”

He seemed a little embarrassed at first but once he started it poured out. His concern was about the bus and he launched into a litany of its problems: It was overcrowded, cramped, didn’t always pick people up, walking for an hour to the pickup points, and the length of the journey itself.

There was a whole raft of issues that he just wanted to tell someone, to get off his chest, but I realised that he was just setting the scene.

None of this was his real point. Finally he came out with it.

All that Raoul really wanted was cushions for the hard wooden seats in the back of the minibus.

The front seats, occupied by the driver and the driller were upholstered and they were fine, but the rest of the crew had to sit for three hours each way, to and from the rig, on the lumpy jungle roads, sitting on slatted wooden benches.

Now I understood the reason for the elaborate stretching exercises that went on whenever the bus arrived.

I wrote down the idea and promised to see what could be done.

Now I took the idea to the Rig manager who if he made it happen could start to change the way that the crews felt about what they did, or he could reject the idea then he would have exactly the same crews, and the same performance, that was already threatening to close him down.

After reminding Willie of his promise, I asked him to consider Raoul’s idea.
“Could we put some cushions on the bus?”

He did not explode but he came close to it.
“Cushions on the bus, Cushions on the bus! Cushions!”
“Where do you think you are? This is an oil rig! We are in the middle of the jungle!
Do they think this is a holiday camp?
What will they want next?”

I weathered the storm and after he ran out of steam I asked him what sort of ideas had he expected to get from the crews.
Willie said that he was expecting ideas to save money running the rig, ideas to speed up the operation, ideas to drill better wells, “Not cushions!”

Then I asked him, “Suppose that Raoul had an idea tomorrow which cut your costs by ten thousand dollars a week, is that the sort of idea you want?”
He didn’t even have to think, “Yes of course it is, I’m not running a charity”.

I continued, “Do you think that Raoul would give you that ten thousand dollar idea tomorrow if today, when he asked for cushions, he did not get them?”

It was a light bulb moment; Willie opened his mouth as if to speak then stopped and looked at me through narrowed eyes.

I could see him replaying our conversation in his mind and could see a new understanding playing across his face. He started to smile and the next thing he said was,

“What colour cushions do you think I should get?”

 


About the author:

In the Seventies Peter joined the Merchant Navy. Qualifying as a Navigating Officer Peter spent the next six years circling the globe in oil tankers carrying everything from Heavy Crude Oil in Supertankers to Jet fuel and Kerosene in smaller ships around the coasts of Europe and the Mediteranean.

Peter took his first Degree at Sunderland then a Masters in Underwater Technology at Cranfield Institute of Technology.

Peter spent several years in the Royal Naval Reserve before finally joining the Royal Navy at the age of 32 as an Instructor.

Based initially in Portsmouth Peter soon gravitated to the Royal Naval Submarine Base in Faslane, Scotland, where he spent the remainder of his Naval career as a Rocket Scientist teaching at the Royal Naval Strategic Systems School.

After leaving the Royal Navy Peter Settled on the West Coast of Scotland from where he spent the next eight years commuting to South America and the North Sea as a management consultant.

This experience formed the core of his first book, Breaking the Mould.

Breaking the Mould is a collection of stories about what happened when employees were allowed to take ownership of their work.
Their performance becomes so amazing that grown accountants have been known to weep.

Peter took the lessons from those stories and created a repeatable process that allows others to create the same performance in their own organisations.

Peter is now based back in Cranfield and spends his time writing, speaking at Seminars and delivering Training Programmes, allowing others to benefit from this same remarkable insight.

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