Engagement: It’s Leadership, Not a Program

Coffee ArtWithin the telecommunications industry, ACME was considered a giant. It’s shareholder value continued to rise, slowly, but always on a positive trajectory. For customer service, in a field known for horrendous satisfaction outcomes, the company was remarkably liked and respected. And it’s people, the employees who made this tremendous engine run, were overwhelmingly satisfied. Higher than average salaries and wages were the norm, along with competitive benefits packages and high internal promotion rates. But not all was rosy….there were troubling signs on the horizon of slowly sales and possible stagnation of innovation at the company.

Marc knew he needed to take action. He’d been named CEO almost exactly a year ago. At 39, he was the youngest chief executive in the industry and a leader well thought-of within ACME. Over the past year, as he’d settle into his new role, he’d pressed his executive team about the overall performance of the organization, for in his heart, he really felt they could be doing more. Together with an internal organization development team, the executive group had thoroughly examined ACME’s performance, searching for ways to motivate the employees to be more innovative and work harder. Without fail, the conversations seemed to return time and time again to engagement.

puzzled-face-man-00-1“But our employees are engaged,” Marc stated over one of our regular coffee sessions. High school classmates, he and I had always remained close friends, and we met as often as possible to talk about work, families, and life in general. “Our employee attrition rate is barely 3% annually. We’ve got a line of applicants 100-long for every job we post. And our employee engagement scores from last year’s survey are off the charts,” he boasted, but his furrowed brow revealed less confidence.

“You clearly question something,” I offered, pointing out the obvious.

He nodded and stirred his mocha latte, disturbing the delicate floral pattern the barista had effortlessly produced. “I don’t know, we’ve had an engagement program in place for almost five years,” he replied. “People really like it. Hell, we even let them wear jeans everyday now, and that NEVER used to happen.”

“And how many of them wear jeans?” I asked.

“Nearly all of them,” he answered laughing. “Much to the chagrin of some of the more senior employees!”

I, too, laughed as I slowly and deliberately scanned my friend, from his closely cropped, rapidly greying hair down past his Brooks Brothers shirt and khaki slacks to his polished dress shoes.

I sipped my coffee and smiled. “How often do you wear jeans?” I asked.

“I do,” he responded a little defensively. “But I tend to dress up a little more. After all, I’m in external meetings most days.”

“So, why do you allow employees to wear jeans?” I prodded.

old-blue-jeansHe looked puzzled. “Well, that’s the way of the workworld, isn’t it? In fact, it was one of the first suggestions our Engagement Team in HR suggested we implement, and I jumped at the suggestion! And trust me, the employees love it!

Now, that I didn’t doubt. As a Gen-Xer with Millenial inclinations, there’s nothing more comfortable to me than working in jeans and a hoodie (although as a product of both prep school and the military, I also have no issues with dressing to the hilt, when required, I should add). That employees like casual dress codes doesn’t strike me as odd whatsoever.

Over the course of the next half-hour, our conversation meandered a bit, but it consistently kept returning to the initiatives and programs ACME had implemented to drive engagement within its ranks. And yet, it was clear that Marc wasn’t seeing a lot of tangible results from all these efforts.

You see, Marc’s facing a very common issue. Organizations are increasingly paying more and more attention to engagement. Teams are being formed around the concept. Dollars are being invested in sophisticated survey instruments to measure, monitor, and remeasure engagement levels. Yet, more often than not these programs aren’t demonstrating the expected ROI.

That’s because engagement ISN’T a program, and programmatic attempts to boost engagement are usually little more than satisfaction boosters. Oh sure, they bring a smile to employees’ faces. But in my experience working for over a decade with organizations to strengthen the emotional and rational commitment of employees, it’s never the programs that make the difference between engaged and disengaged employees. It’s the leadership and the organizational culture, plain and simple.

In the drive to “implement,” when organizations turn to teams to “figure out” ways to improve engagement, to identify and address “low-hanging fruit” per se, the results are almost certain to fall short. It’s simply not the lever to drive engagement that we would like it to be.

Leadership PuzzleSo, what’s Marc’s solution? Well, for starters, ACME must reevaluate its leadership culture. Only when “engagement programs” are truly aligned with the leadership culture, vision, and yes, style, will organizations begin seeing truly substantive engagement shifts. Engagement isn’t a program. Engagement IS piece of the leadership puzzle. And only when organizations and leadership like Marc begin to understand that, will their people begin to soar in the way Marc hopes to see ACME. He’ll get there, trust me on that. He’s exactly the kind of unique, caring, and talented leader who will. But he may need some continued prodding.

Good thing we have another coffee scheduled….

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