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October 2011

Care to engage

Who Cares WinsWho cares wins!

I don't know what David Stirling or the SAS would think of that misstatement of their motto "Who dares wins!" But I am sure you will agree it is equally true. Possibly even more true.

Be that as it may, I don't wish to start a debate on that score here. Rather I just wanted to share an insight that was inspired by simply changing a single letter in a well-known, well-respected and well liked phrase. This can be a wonderful way to create new ideas and to start thinking on different lines. It certainly did that for me on this occasion.

As I thought about the word 'care' I was suddenly struck by its similarity to 'career'. Of course, it was a natural step from there to see career as a two syllable word 'care-er' and start looking at it more closely from an employee engagement perspective. And as I did, I thought about David McLeod and Nina Clarke's Employee Engagement Task Force.

In their first report they said that they gave up trying to define employee engagement after being presented with 56 perfectly acceptable definitions. As a result they distilled it down to what they call a single recurring theme: "Getting people to offer more of their capability and potential willingly." Now you can put that another way and simply say that employee engagement is simply about getting people to care. Thus:-

"Employee Engagement means putting the care back in career." 

I really liked that concept, and began to wonder whether there was a valid etymological case for linking the words care and career in this way. Unfortunately it appears that the connection is loose at best. According to Webster's Dictionary the root of the word care is the Anglo Saxon and Medieval word for anxiety, while the root of the word career is an early modern English word for  a road race derived form the old French 'carier' meaning to carry by wagon and derived from the Latin for a wagon.

However, at a stretch you can still make a link, because you could say that a career is a wagon which conveys a person's cares! I don't want to labour the point any more, but as long as you accept the premise that a person's work reflects something they care about, you could validly make that link. After all, as I've said before, if you don't enjoy what you are doing, you are effectively wasting your life.
So to have a meaningful life you have to do something you enjoy doing i.e. something you care about. That is the only way you will ever "offer more of your potential and capability willingly." Thus if you want to engage your people you have to make them care.

And - paradoxically - you make people care more when you show you care. So put the care back in your people's career!  It doesn't just create a win - it creates a win-win!

Why people have to be MAD to engage!

The desire to make a difference is possibly one of the greatest motivational drivers we have as human beings. That's because it validates our sense of being, and gives our lives purpose and direction.

But how do you know when you are making a difference?

I don't know about you, but I would say you know when someone else acknowledges your effort. No doubt that is why William James said, "The deepest principle of human nature is the desire to be appreciated." After all, sincere appreciation is the most genuine acknowledgement of the value of what you have done or are doing.

And what happens when you are appreciated? You feel good and you repeat your behaviour and even try to do more and better. So when you make a difference and are appreciated for it you create a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement.

But making a difference is the ingredient that fuels the whole process.

So it follows that making a difference is the root of employee engagement. For, by definition, you are engaged when you are making a difference. And, if we follow a prevalent trend and create a TLA (three letter acronym) for making a difference, we get MAD. Consequently you can legitimately say that you have to be MAD to be engaged!

So the challenge for you as a leader/manager then becomes, how do you create an environment where your people can be MAD? 

I do not think it is rocket science to come up with the answer to that (and those of you who have been following me for a while will already know.) It is a two step process.

  1. You make your people co-owners of the business, and so create an unbreakable bond between personal and organisational self interest. 
  2. You value people for their contribution to the business, which builds in an appreciation factor that is largely independent of personal opinion.

Employee ownership is almost self-explanatory. Thus, although I offer an entirely new model of employee ownership, I would like to go straight to step two now.

In order to value your people for their contribution to your business you effectively need to value their activity within the context of their work. You would do this by identifying all the factors that impact on the way they work and/or are affected by the way in which they carry out their work. I have attempted to depict all the determinants of value in the diagram below but please advise me of any that I may have missed.

The Value of People - No logo

You might find the list a little intimidating, but surely these are the things that you should be looking at anyway?  After all these are the essential determinants of measuring performance. The only difference is that now you are looking for a means to:-

  • Create a systematic process
  • Remove the "touchy-feely" aspects of people management and make it more empirical.

This will remove some of the subjectivity and help bring people management into line with the management of other assets. As a result it will make people more responsible for their own work and make your life considerably easier, reduce conflict and build a platform for sustained success.

A key principle of employee engagement

In the past week nearly everywhere you turned you will have seen, read or heard tributes to Steve Jobs. What a testament to a remarkable life.

Amongst the many lessons that people claimed to have learned from him, one that resonated most with me was the idea that you need to "work on principle." I really like that idea. Why? Because we learn that to be a leader you have to be a visionary because it is your vision that inspires and creates the shared values on which great things are built. You will not get any argument from me on that. I would add, however, that in order to have a vision you have to have clear, sacrosanct principles.

Yet it is so much more profound than that. One definition of principle is an original source, and principle is the primary source for vision and the creation of values. Thus it is part of who you are. It is inviolate and integral to everything you do. This is what inspires. This is what attracts and what values are built on.

Engaged Employees_000012107875XSmallThink of your own experience for a moment. If you work without inspiration your work is a grind. Thus you can very reasonably say that work without principle is slavery - no matter how much you are paid.

So what principle drives you?

For me it is that people matter.  This is what has driven me for the past few years.

You could say that this is the principle of employee engagement. You see, there are so many different definitions of employee engagement that it is practically impossible to agree a standard definition. Thus the term itself becomes an umbrella. That is a problem because it is open to so many interpretations that success becomes a moving target. But "People matter!" is a concept that cuts through all that and as such is the principle that provides the uniting theme.

The power of principle is not in words. It is in ideas.  And of course it is personal. But for me it all boils down to the fact that no-one - not even a Steve Jobs - could achieve anything on their own. Taken to its logical extension that means organisational success is the result of aggregated personal success. Or, as I prefer to say - the more successful people an organisation has, the more successful it will be!

This has important implications for employee engagement.

If you distil employee engagement to a theme of "Getting people to offer more of their capability and potential willingly" as David McLeod and Nita Clarke do in their Employee Engagement Task Force report, then you can simplify it even further to say it is the same thing as personal fulfilment. In other words an engaged employee is a personally fulfilled person. This makes it imperative that you find a way to align personal capabilities and organisational needs. If you don't do this you will never have a truly lean organisation because you will always have wasted human potential.

However, it goes deeper even than that. It means that every one of your people has a value to your organisation. It is therefore important that you recognise that value and account for it. Only when you do this will you be able to partner with them effectively to optimise their potential and ensure that their lives are not unfulfilled and therefore wasted.  Enhance their value and their self-worth and you will create the win-win that makes life better for all.

That is why people matter. If you are serious about success, then it has to be a principle that you work on and that inspires you too.

Partnering in tough times

Tough Times 000014352702XSmall No doubt you have noticed - we are going through tough times. 

But, have you ever thought about what makes tough times tough?

One factor is that past practices no longer seem to work. There is a new immunity that means they have little or no effect. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Keynesian approach of spending your way out of recession. This is impossible because we have already been to the well too often and levels of debt are already way too high.

However, this does not have to be depressing. You see, it means that you have to find new solutions. It is that old "Necessity is the mother of invention" situation. It thus creates a time of opportunity and can actually be quite exciting.

To make the most of it, however, you have to throw off the trammels of traditional thinking. You also have to recognise that new ideas can come from anywhere. No-one has the monopoly on them. But, more importantly, they seldom happen in isolation. They are invariably the result of collaborative effort. Yet you so often overlook this.

Redundancy initiatives and headcount reductions are the perfect example of this. When you start to look to reduce your employee numbers you are effectively:-

  • Diminishing your intellectual capacity to come up with new ideas;
  • Undermining your capability to respond at the appropriate time when things do start to improve;
  • Transferring the economic burden of looking after your people to the state, and so exacerbating and prolonging the problem you are trying to address. 

And of course that is to ignore the breakdown in trust and the inevitable erosion of employee engagement that follows.

So what's your alternative? It has to be greater employee ownership. It is no coincidence that employee owned-companies do better than their competition in good times and bad, and recover faster from any economic downturn. There are of course may such organisations, but in the UK the John Lewis Partnership is the best-known employee-owned company. And for me the organisation's insistence on calling its people partners rather than employees is the epitome of what I am talking about.

To survive tough times you have to create a spirit of "all being in this together" that transcends conventional definitions of employee engagement. And there is no better way to instigate and inspire and inculcate this than through employee ownership. So if you haven't thought about this already you need to be asking yourself, "Why not?" Especially since there is a way that you could do this without equity and at virtually no-cost to your organisation or your "partners."