Leadership: The Prerequisite of Engagement

iStock_000003846998MediumSwing into your local book retailer or the airport bookshelves on your next cross-country business trip, and you will inevitably encounter books, trade journals and magazine articles devoted to engagement.  It’s a business craze these days, an end-all, be-all solution to the ills that plague all organizations and every industry.  Or so the authors (many enjoying lucrative consultant contracts) would like you to think. Raise engagement and raise profits.  That’s the message, right?

As my own career unfolds in directions similarly benefiting from such business school buzz, I’m all for hyping the cause and raking in the profits.  My wife and kids enjoy it.  Hell, even the dog now attends private doggie daycare three times a week, a sure and unadulterated sign of financial success and ultimate yuppiedom.  Bring it on!

But where are the ethics in promulgating the buzz in ways that rarely capture true understanding of what is meant by “engagement?”  Have we become snake oil salesmen, profiting through the misinformation, ill-informed and uninformed beliefs of engagement as the panacea of future success?

A case could be made that many are guilty of just such a crime, or at the least, ethical oversight.  But there are those who go to great pains to ensure their clients understand what engagement can provide and what it cannot offer.  And to those select consultants, kudos!  We need more of that kind of service, proffering advice with the true interests of the client organization in mind, ahead of the dollar signs that too frequently cloud our consultant vision.  Sometimes engagement isn’t the solution.

As an example of where organizations can stray, or be strayed, in their blind pursuit of engagement…too often I hear well-intentioned professionals raving about engagement efforts that, when stripped of their superficial derma, amount to little more than feel-good, temporary morale boosters.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with attempts to build goodwill through treat days, casual dress policies, or culture rooms constructed to liberate the creative juices of a normally inhibited and fearful employee base.  And with clients, I often recommend such ideas, just not in isolation as a “quick deliverable” intended to ultimately move the engagement needle.

No, for organizations allocating scarce resources (all organizations, if you will), truly understanding the key drivers of engagement will help engagement effort prioritization.  Ultimately, in 9 out of 10 cases (a more liberal estimate might be 98 out of 100 cases), the root of engagement failures lies with leadership.  Great leaders are the prerequisite of high engagement.  Work environment matters little.  Benefits are icing on the cake.  “Mandatory fun” rarely works.

So, my recommendation is this….unless your employees universally rave about your organization’s leadership, don’t bother with the superficial efforts.  Focus on the hard realities of attracting, developing and retaining the highest quality leaders.  THAT’S where your engagement efforts will be most fruitful.  Without high quality leaders, engagement efforts will create only a house of straw.  And when opportunity comes knocking for your best and brightest employees, you will have no foundation to prevent the big, bad wolf of other organizations from blowing down yours.

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