Employee Engagement: It’s a leaky bucket, folks!

Another day, another bucket full of employee engagement articles, most of them woefully misguided and terribly confusing.

Employee engagement, put simply, is a state of mind in which employees deliver to their full potential because of an emotional and rational connection with the organisation they work for.

It is no more complicated than that.

It does not require dozens of definitions. It most certainly is not, as many commentators imply, a goal in and of itself.

Employee engagement is a means to an end and that end is the achievement of the objectives of the organisation.

Far too many people who should know so much better suggest that employee engagement can be achieved by a single initiative or requires complex behavioural science. No wonder the statistics have flat lined over the last decade while CEOs leave the room in search of the headache pills upon mention of the term.

Of course organisations can influence engagement levels and of course they should given engagement is an important enabler or driver of organisation performance. But it requires a systems approach to fix the leaky organisation bucket. Concentrate all efforts in one area only, promise what you can’t deliver and you’re likely to do more harm as the goodwill leaks out elsewhere at a rapid rate.

I’ve worked with dozens of organisations to bring about sustainable, positive change. I’ve seen examples of great initiatives that have created energy and focus. But this always fades away unless the people processes that drive the organisation development system are improved systematically. These include, but are not limited to:

  • culture management
  • leadership development
  • internal communication
  • recruitment
  • retention
  • succession management
  • performance management
  • training and development

The best organisations recognise that brand management involves collaborative partnerships between internal and external facing departments and they form alliances between hr, marketing and comms.

So do everyone a favour, unless you recognise that employee engagement is an enabler not an outcome and you’re prepared to address at least all of the above holes in your otherwise leaky OD bucket, then please drop the engagement word. You’re wasting your time, doing yourself and your organisation an injustice and giving the people disciplines a very bad name.

* Want to read more stories from the organisation development front line? Pick up a copy of Ian P Buckingham’s Brand Engagement- How employees make or break brands and Brand Champions – How Superheroes bring brands to life.

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Let’s face it folks, employee engagement has had its day

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MMMA few years ago I contributed a chapter called Marketing and the Internal Market to Professor Phillip J Kitchen’s book Marketing Metaphors and Metamorphosis in which a number of marcomms experts debated the use and abuse of the metaphor in internal and external stakeholder communication.

Given the fact that, despite years of “noise” and effort verging on overkill, employee opinion polls remain firmly in the “red” with regard to employee engagement which, of course, has a causal relationship with communication, perhaps the time has come to re-evaluate a concept that has constantly divided opinion and which runs many of the same risks associated with the mis-use of metaphors in everyday parlance.

“For many years, internal communication was seen as an off-shoot of marketing and largely reported to the marketing head. Recent evidence suggests that corporate communication and, rightly or wrongly, HR are starting to assume increasing responsibility for employee engagement (see Melcrum study in Brand Engagement).

This subtle power struggle is a sign that internal communication is gradually gaining improved status as the importance of employees as deliverers of the promises made by brands via marketing receives increasing recognition. It may also be a signal that the marketing function lacks the appetite and aptitude to influence the internal markets appropriately.

While there are clear similarities between the internal and external communication markets, especially in industries where the distinction between customers and staff is blurred, the internal market differs from the customer-facing market in a significant number of ways. This means that a blanket approach to communication based upon the use of marketing methodology is essentially a flawed model. Employees are more savvy, more informed and more innately cynical than customers. They literally know the product/service inside out and most importantly, understand the means of production. They also have a feel for the core values and motives of the business owners and managers. They demand greater authenticity in internal communication which has implications for the way metaphors can and should be used.”

The core thesis was that the process of employee engagement differs from customer engagement yet essentially there needs to be greater authenticity and audience focus, especially with regard to internal comms.

Yet it strikes me that this lesson hasn’t been learned as bluster, commoditisation or creation of “engagement products” exaggeration and spin continues to undermine talk about systems-based engagement, amplified by the proliferation of social media where it is hard to differentiate between enthusiastic opinion based on scant knowledge and well-honed and grounded experience.

Hardly a day passes without hearing about fresh attempts to:

– define the term

– create a business case for it

– lambast leaders for ignoring it

– deplore the lamentable statistics associated with it

– badge initiatives like internal marketing, training, brochure design, app design and events etc as “silver bullet” engagement solutions.

The problem is that, even the few who appreciate that employee engagement is just a cog in the wheel of a comprehensive, systems-based organisation development solution to a compelling business need, namely to tap into the full range of latent employee potential, are fast becoming sick and tired of the term.

Let’s face it folks, the employee engagement “drive” coinciding with the global economic downturn, has amounted to little more than a cathartic filibuster. The volume of noise it has attracted/generated has only caused the community leaders most in need of support to withdraw and retrench and this is reflected in the global employee engagement matrices, as well as the proliferation of culture-induced brand implosions which have typified the period in question.

Just as the use of metaphor can be a powerful tool in marketing but detracts from the core message if over used and abused, the very term engagement has sadly become a lazy shorthand for employee satisfaction or wellbeing. It is too readily dismissed as a “nice to have” by cynical senior leaders who have too many conflicting, often short-term priorities to pay it much heed, especially given that the employment market is still buyer loaded. And despite the talk of Edleman and co creating engagement indices as well, I do fear that the term, riddled with mis-use and miscomprehension has had its day because it lacks credibility with the outcomes focused people who matter. The need for employee engagement should be a given, but ironically the terms itself and the circus of single solution practitioners may well have had its day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leadership and control

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Gatland eyes up

When working with leadership teams as part of a culture change or development programme, we sometimes ask them to negotiate a behavioural contract with each other based upon what we call five stations:

1. What is your primary purpose as a team or why are we here?

2. What are our leadership processes and how will we operate?

3. What’s our leadership foundation, our style of leading, our qualities??

4. How will we interact with each other or our leadership culture?

5. What’s the role of each individual within our leadership system?

Being a fan or rugby union, it’s fascinating to observe how this leadership model applies to team management, something I was particularly interested to apply to the unique environment of the last Lions tour, a unique institution which involves shaping a high performing team from the best individual talent from these islands within a matter of weeks.

Professional rugby teams are complex machines. Adopting a military metaphor, the coaches are the commissioned officers, the generals if you like,  who control the master plan, the strategy and their team of NCOs. The NCOs are the on-field leaders who input to and then motivate the players to implement the strategy before acting as the pivot between players and coaches, providing insights and feedback.

It’s obviously important that the generals and the platoon leaders, lieutenants and sergeants buy into the same behavioural contract at the start of something like a Lions tour. On the tour to Australia in 2013, Warren Galtland was head coach while the key on-field leaders were Warburton; O’driscoll, O’connell; Alun Wyn Jones, Lydiate and Parling.

In various interviews, Gatland had been asked very direct questions about his attitude to leadership.Talking predominantly about his role as boss of Wales, he talks about core values dear to his heart including trust; loyalty and honesty the importance of really hard work and how peer pressure is vital for the selection of the optimum leader. He also talks about the importance of empowering coaches and players and how a plan empowers leaders on the pitch. He describes how the most successful teams are where senior players take ownership of the game and the plan. Interestingly, Gatland states that he “loves individualism” and how “talented people are a bit different and it’s important to harness this so they conform to the team plan”.

Famously, however, quicksilver talent seldom wants to conform as many French coaches have found down the years. He obviously likes coaching Wales who he characterises as being unwilling to critique their peers and ironically rather like the French in that regard, clearly recalls the famous French win over New Zealand as an example of individualism igniting on the day but failing in the long run.

I believe that the difference between what Gatland says and does is very revealing when viewed in the context of the 2013 Lions tour:

1. Selection: The 2013 tour party was notable for having few star names or blockbuster players in it. This was largely circumstantial but Gatland clearly has issues with the likes of the Quixotic Welshman James Hook, who he dropped from the Wales party and who never stood a chance of touring. Mavericks like Henson and Cipriani clearly never stood a chance of being considered even though the latter has recent  form in Australia. Instead he chose to tour with just two, relatively young and hitherto fairly unspectacular fly halves. Does this simply reflect a talent low point or does it say something about Gatland’s actual leadership style and how he views control?

2. The tour skipper: By opting for Warburton, the young captain of Wales, an exemplary individual and player yet someone who seemingly had to be talked into taking the captain’s armband, did Gatland overlook the obvious experienced candidates like Bod and Poc (the choice of most former players), because of doubts over their fitness or form? Or was the decision a sign that Gatland wanted his own man who could be trusted to understand and implement his plan?

He deliberately placed Warburton in a tough position given he was clearly under pressure for his place, faced a great deal of criticism as a result and, although he is clearly a decent operator with regard to referee rapport, in my view he currently lacks the necessary experience and gravitas that comes with experience and seldom displayed evidence of yet having the top two inches and cool head needed during a game.

I believe Gatland’s language consistently displays a desire to control every aspect of  what can be an unpredictable game. Although he talks of empowering his team, he caveats his statements with phrases like “to deliver the plan” and “the more you plan the more I can pull back”.

But, as great generals have famously said,  plans go out the window at the first engagement. In short, the best rugby teams have leaders all over the park who can improvise and, informed by the plan, make decisions “in the moment”. World cup winning coach Woodward’s teams, in contrast, were full of leaders who were trained to think clearly under pressure. Yet he had many years with them not a few weeks and he failed spectacularly as Lions CEO.

3. Captaincy during the tests: Gatland is clearly a man who has fixed ideas about the gameplan, call it “Gatball” if you will. He likes a predictable  forward platform and appears to see the centres as rugby ground zero where the game is won or lost. This philosophy isn’t universally shared, especially within more empowering rugby cultures like France or Australia where much pivots through the fly half.

Gatland’s fly halves tend to be more pragmatic than poetic which has brought much success for Wales in the northern hemisphere, perhaps the yin to the Welsh rugby culture’s yang of flair and backline craft. Yet famously they have not been able to achieve the same success against teams from south of the equator who are clearly the pace setters on the global stage.

There were a number of occasions in Test 1 when Sexton looked to the old guard of Poc and Bod to confirm decisions rather than Warburton. To the onlooker, it appeared that the leadership system was working and the on field leaders were sharing responsibility. But by the second test, Poc was gone and Sexton appeared to be playing much more to agreed set patterns, standing deep and kicking Garryowens. This nullified most of the attacking play as the kicking plan backfired.The Lions defended well with Warburton and Bod leading by example with their faces stuck in rucks for most of the game. But they stuck to the plan and lost.

For me, the mark of problems within the leadership cadre on tour were most apparent in this Test and were summed up by a single incident. The Lions won a penalty with no time on the clock and were camped on half way. They could and should have advanced the ball to ensure that it was definitely within the excellent kicker, Halfpenny’s range. This was exactly the call Johnson made at exactly the same time during the 2003 rugby World Cup final and the rest is history. Warburton was off the field and it isn’t clear who made the decision but Halfpenny kicked without the extra yardage. It fell short and Australia drew level in the series, gained momentum and the series moved to Sydney’s crunch match.

4. Dropping BOD and Reverting to the Wales Comfort Zone: On the back of the disappointment of Melbourne, in an unprecedented move, Gatland’s strategy lurched radically back towards his comfort zone, in my view. He changed almost half of the team and began the Sydney test, the decider, with 10 Welshmen and Alun Wyn Jones as the captain for the first time on tour. AWJ is a great warrior but again, he never craved the captaincy. Apart from Parling who is still a novice, he was the last of the experienced on-field leadership cadre remaining with Brian O’driscoll being controversially dropped from the squad altogether.

Some applauded Gatland’s courage, ruthlessness and decisiveness saying it’s part and parcel of the modern game. The vast majority, however, including the highest profile figures and Lions legends like Willie John McBride expressed disbelief at the number of changes between tests, the apparent inconsistency in the manifest strategy and style and the way the legend Brian O’driscoll was treated given his commitment and hard work could not be faulted (qualities Gatland states he values highly), a man who was at the very heart of the Lions defence in Test 2.

A few critics and commentators, shocked by Gatland’s actions, tentatively suggested that perhaps he had this surprise in store all along and hid his intentions so well that everyone was surprised, most notably the Australians who were on the back foot as a result.

My personal opinion, is that it’s important to read between the lines of what Gatland himself says and what he does. I believe he analysed past Lions tours and came to the conclusion that it is virtually impossible to blend the playing styles of the 4 nations completely to the point that the players become unconsciously competent and comfortable in new partnerships. They just don’t have the time. Recent results appear to back this up. He tried on tour, hence many variations within partnerships, but it failed to deliver the control he needed. Hence the fans witnessed largely pragmatic and unspectacular fare until he reverted to type.

I also believe that Gatland was forced by injuries and the inability to facilitate the style of play he favours, to revert to a Wales-dominated side who know his style and the plan by heart. Remember his phrase about on-field leadership,“the more planning you do the more I can pull back”? Well his plans were undermined by the reality of the tour, so rather than pull back for the most important game of his career, I believe he stepped right back in to control the game by deploying the troops he knows and the style he spent years cultivating, supplemented at key moments and in key positions by a handful of talented players from England and Ireland.

What about the leaders? Well, despite his statement that “the most successful sides have been where the leaders have taken ownership of the plan”, he had to assume greater ownership of the strategy by appointing the players he knows best and in the end had fewer strategic leaders on the field than ever. He didn’t have to as he could easily have opted for O’driscoll to play with Roberts, a winning combination after all. Yet in the same interview he lists his greatest mistake as once appointing a leader who wasn’t in accord with the views of his peers. The players from Wales expected their general to enforce his will and, sentiment aside, he did by dropping the most capped player for the most important game.

Whether this is true is pure conjecture, of course, Whether this was always the plan is open to debate. Whether fielding 10 players from one country and making so many changes between tests is wise, is an interesting talking point. Whether this approach clashes with the values and culture of the Lions is a question that will certainly be asked as part of the review of this tour. But the records will read that they thrashed Australia in the final game and broke many records in the process.

Despite the leadership controversies, Gatland’s team delivered as the professional players responded well to the crisis and drama and the starting 15 as well as powerful bench delivered, improvising well from a solid platform of forwards.

Interestingly, the Australians had their on field leader recently restored for the game and in Genia had an amazing cavalry commander. But they were clearly at odds with their coach. And they lost, badly.

Obviously Gatland couldn’t fly the team by wire on D day yet still, they won, guaranteeing his place in the pantheon of the Lions.  But I wonder what lessons both he and his management team learned about leadership in the process and how the experience will transform the fortunes of Wales and indeed Lions teams in the future?

What if Superheroes were Sponsored by Brands?

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CokeAmerica

In Brand Champions (Palgrave 2011), Ian plays with the notion of the superhero employee as “ultimate brand custodian”, suggesting that people are too complex to buy into the alignment logic of many brand campaigns, intrinsically suspicious of internal marketing and PR. He offers the suggestion, instead, that the great brands are built on authenticity both inside and out and are supported by willing advocates who understand what the brand stands for and who see themselves in the values they project be they customers or employees.

Many of our favorite, comic book superheroes, especially popular during tough times, fight crime for the greater good. But what if they were sponsored by brands and made to ‘represent’ the companies that paid them?

Italian graphic designer Roberto Vergati Santos helps to make this point in his illustrated series titled ‘Sponsored Heroes’ which plays with the juxtaposition of personal and corporate branding in the context of icons many consider to be “heroic”.

Taking familiar superheroes from comics and movies, Santos linked each of them to a specific brand by dressing them in colors and logos of the company.

In the series, showcased on the Design Taxi site, ‘Batman’ can be seen wearing Nike gear, while McDonald’s sponsored Tony Stark’s ‘Iron Man’ suit.

“Imagine if one day capitalism reaches the point, where the big brands start to sponsor the superheroes,” Santos explains. “How would this influence their images? Based on this hypothesis, I decided to experiment with some characters, and see what would be the results of such idea.”

The results are fascinating and oddly disturbing but certainly make you think twice about the relationship between brand advocacy, values and endorsement.

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The future of work & the future for HR

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logo_cipdTo celebrate their centenary, the CIPD invited Ian to contribute his voice to a feature about the future of work and the future of HR.

There’s much food for thought but we were particularly struck by what the leader of Tesco Bank’s HR function had to say, words which had a very familiar feel:

Therese Procter, Personnel Director, Tesco Bank

Centenary-100-thoughts-therese-procterFor me, HR’s future can be summarised in two words: value and values. In the past, the value created by public and private sector organisations has been measured primarily in financial terms. Following the global economic crisis, however, organisations will be judged not only by the financial value they deliver – but also by the social value they create. Consequently the impact organisations have on the lives of employees and customers, on communities, and on the environment will be studied as closely as their impact on shareholder and taxpayer returns. This, in turn, will bring the values of organisations into far sharper focus, because how and why things are done will now be subject to the same level of stakeholder scrutiny as what gets done. I believe that progressive HR practitioners will play a pivotal leadership role in driving both financial and social value in this new era of values-led organisations.

This very much supports our conviction that HR will play a leading role in the eventual  recovery of the more forward thinking organisations.

You can plug into what Ian and other HR strategists, practitioners and thinkers are saying by following this link to the CIPD site.

What does your packaging say about what your people think of your customers?

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packaging

During my Interbrand days I was known as a vociferous flag-waver for the behavioural aspects of brands, less interested in the signage; packaging and many physical manifestations of the brand management art.

I guess a large part of the reason for this was that the design team largely had this covered. Yet the people factors were and remain by far the greater business and brand challenge.

But this Christmas, faced once again with a mountain of packaging and the notorious dad challenge of liberating the toys from their cellophane and cardboard cells, assembling them and breathing life into them with the right set of batteries, strokes and nudges, I couldn’t help but reflect on how little the predominantly Chinese packaging departments appeared to care about the customer experience once the purchasing decision had been made.

I’m sure parents around the globe are becoming increasingly frustrated with toys and presents that are ALL about the marketing, shelf appeal and the promise but appear to give scant regard to delivering on that promise post purchase. When faced with a doll that has had three screws inserted into its head and hair to make it look nice on the shelf and a little girl crying in frustration to get to grips with the goods, or a scarlet-cheeked little boy who, try as he may, simply can’t liberate a toy car from the lacerating plastic and tie-grips, it’s easy to see where Tim Burton’s inspiration for The Nightmare Before Christmas came from.

As I frantically cut, tore, peeled, tugged, unscrewed and assembled much more than I was expecting to given the amount of money we had spent on the goods, I pictured in my mind’s eye an army of particularly malicious factory workers in China dexterously engineering micro screws and fastenings that would test the patience of Buddha as some sort of  post -modern, post- imperialistic backlash. But the truth is, the manufacturers are most likely complying with the very letter of the brief from the marketing department in Washington or London and the workers are simply being as efficient as they can possibly be.

So is there an issue for the brands concerned?

Oh yes there most certainly is.

Regardless of the science underpinning the product development, effective brand management is a holistic process. The physical elements of the brand mix need to work in harmony with the behavioural. That means ensuring the customer is engaged with the product at all key stages, un-packing included. But not as some sort of de-facto home-based assembly line operative. And that calls for listening and empathy to be included in the employee skill set

Why?

Because ultimately it isn’t Santa (sorry kids) but we long-suffering parents who pay for the presents. And in the famous words of The Who, “we won’t be fooled again”.

Well….not until next Christmas, birthday, reward day, anniversary, baptism, baby shower……….

Paralympic brand watch: Motability’s culture-first approach to brand transformation

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Like the millions of people suffering withdrawal symptoms following the extinguishing of  the London 2012 Olympic torch in the wake of an epic games,  I was deeply moved and hugely impressed by the awe-inspiring opening to the London 2012 Paralympics watched by a tv audience of 20 million people in the UK alone.

As that grizzled hack Simon Barnes of  The Times put it:

“The opening ceremony began last night with a Big Bang, in just about every sense of the term, and some words from Professor Stephen Hawking, the world’s most agile mind once again leaping free from the ruined body. It was all good inspirational stuff, but doomed to be forever second-best to the inspirational things we will see as the Games start today.”

Watching those extraordinary scenes of exceptional people it reminded me of the Motability brand re-launch which remains one of the most successful transformation programmes I’ve had the pleasure of being associated with and which still puts so many FTSE 100 change journeys to shame.

In the space of two years, Motability went from an apparent employment back water with a laid-back charitable culture  to an extremely professional, top 50 organisation in the Times Best Companies poll; Local Employer of  the Year; operator of Europe’s largest vehicle fleet and “best thing since sliced bread” in the eyes of their customers who, along with the dealerships, rated the organisation as a premium brand. No surprise then that the stories of so many of the athletes competing in the games, who also happen to be Motability customers, resonate with the brand. Not for profit doesn’t mean unfit for business.

It’s depressing to hear talk of values, culture change and engagement trip so easily from the tongues of so many business leaders in recent times without the intentions or actions to back up the fine words. But when your founding mission was to liberate people with disabilities from the confines of the trike through the simple device of providing the use of a motorcar, perhaps it’s easier to engage the right people in the right way and inspire them with values like Friendly; Flexible and Facilitating. Perhaps. But first they need to feel proud to be part of an organisation that can be as hard-nosed on behalf of their customers as it is accommodating to its customers, which is where the culture bit comes in.

Under the leadership of an inspirational CEO, Mike Betts, the Motability management team transformed the way they do things, the internal culture, in the space of 18 months by opening with a process of engagement via consultation and then role modelling their core values as they set about evolving the processes that mattered most to their people from recruitment through to communication and appraisal.

The engagement of key stakeholders from garages through to manufacturers came next with contract and service levels re-negotiated to the point that the re-designed Motability brand and logo moved confidently to pride of place on forecourts and industry publications. Motability is now a leading player in the UK car market with 1 in 12 or so cars sold in the UK going to a Motability customer.

The 2012 Paralympics is the first in the history of the games to be completely sold out. As always, however, it is the athletes who give the games their soul. What made Motability’s transformation different for me was that there was a universal belief in the core purpose and desired culture of the organisation, from front of house through to the most senior of leaders. It is always the employees, the workaday brand champions who give the organisation its soul. And once they had learned to blend commerciality with passion and conviction while remaining true to the integrity of their core purpose, the brand grew wings. If only the leaders of  the abundant beleaguered brands could feel that for themselves, perhaps the spirit of the Paralympic village could work its magic in corporate HQ. In fact, Oliver Holt could have been writing about Motability when he penned these words to describe last night’s events:

“Before a new flame was lit in this magical London summer, the words of an Ian Dury song rang out around the Olympic Stadium. ‘Hello to you out there in Normal Land,’ the lyrics to Spasticus Autisticus went, ‘you may not comprehend my tale or understand.’ Normal Land watched on. Not with distaste. Or disdain. Those kinds of emotions began to seep away a long time ago. Not even with indifference. No, Normal Land gazed at the Opening Ceremony for the London Paralympics with admiration, even a little envy.”

* you can read more about the Motability transformation journey in Brand Engagement (I.P. Buckingham 2007).