Leadership Engagement Always Trumps Employee Engagement


Karl Moore

September 5, 2016

This was piece was co-written with Vincenzo Ciampi, executive director, Innovation and Strategic Projects at Sandoz.

Many increasingly put great emphasis on pursuing employee engagement. Simply put, we believe that the pursuit of employee engagement as an end goal is a strategic error. To get great employee engagement you must first start with engaging the top leadership. Companies that are highly engaged have one thing in common: They have highly engaged leadership at all levels of the organization. They also have a strong base of employees who feel a sense of pride and belonging to their company and in their role. There is a sense of alignment around the main purpose of the company, or in Dan Pontefract’s words, employees are able to find the sweet spot of alignment in their personal and professional sense of purpose. Research suggests that highly engaged firms also tend to have higher financial performance, better customer service and lower voluntary employee turn-over.

But how can all this be achieved? It all begins with strong leadership engagement. The engagement of an organization’s executive team is the starting point and is the most critical element in the engagement of any organization, yet is often overlooked for a variety of reasons.

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Why is the executive team’s engagement level often overlooked?

Although well intentioned, one of the most common errors CEOs make is delegating the responsibility of creating and sustaining employee engagement to Human Resources, as if it were just another talent management or recruitment challenge. Today’s firms are contending with a clash of generations and a war on talent. Companies race to win the praise of the third parties that perform engagement studies and publish rankings accordingly. The logic says that the more awards won by an employer, the better their ability to attract and retain top talent. This makes sense, right? Wrong.

Management energy is being put on communicating more and showing empathy to their staff. To compound the issue further, some very progressive companies will tie leadership performance bonuses to progress in the engagement scores of their team(s). Again, this is a strategic error. We believe that this solves the wrong problem – focusing on the wrong people and approaching the issue from the wrong starting point.

Pragmatic thinking suggests we not put too much emphasis on the leadership team, as their score is only a small percentage of the total. True, but that is not how it works in the real world of the organization. Many rather, strive to fix their employee morale issues first before addressing leadership; it appears easier, after all. In the process of zeroing in on these important matters we take our eye of the proverbial ball and fail to measure, and truly evaluate, the strength of the executives who are leading the various business lines and corporate functions.

Tying the management team’s bonus to the attainment of a specific engagement score makes some sense in the context of the old adage, what gets measured gets done. As appealing as this may seem in the short term, it fails to address the root causes of lower employee engagement and often encourages the wrong behaviors. Unfortunately, what can often stem from this practice is what we call the implied coercion approach. Just before the engagement survey comes out, you may witness an enthusiastic leader telling his or her team: “Did you know our bonuses are tied to engagement and that if we can show an increase it will actually impact my bonus – and yours?” Again, the main problem is that we too focused on treating surface-level symptoms rather than approaching the root cause of employee poor engagement.

What should organizations be focused on?

Engagement is a leadership issue that the CEO must address, period. We need to take a giant step back and evaluate the true engagement of the leadership team, which will drive far better results in engaging the second level teams. This is not a band aid solution; it may take a bit more time, but will pay out major dividends in the medium term. The CEO must first ensure that the leaders at the highest levels of the organization are in fact the best performers in their respective roles and are fully committed to the long-term success of the company.

Generally speaking, a top flight and highly engaged leadership team will tend to hire the best second level management and so on, right down to the critical mass of the employees. In the event that changes are to be made at the leadership team level, the CEO would be better served to make them before embarking on any serious employee engagement effort. Typically, the strongest ambassadors to drive up engagement are the senior leaders. Given that most people seek inspiration, direction and motivation from their leaders, it is always best to start improving engagement at the top. Canadian plane and train maker provides a case in point. Newish CEO Alain Bellemare has been there a year, and has replaced virtually all the senior team in that time. This is often what a transformational CEO does as they try to take an organization in a considerably different business. By changing the senior team, he sent a vital signal to the whole organization that we are in the midst of a turnaround effort. These new executives, in their better moments, can bring a fresh energy and vitality to the organization, which encourages all employees to reengage both for the sake of their own jobs but more fundamentally in hopes that things will be better.

In a nutshell, here are some recommended steps to follow before embarking on employee engagement surveys and action plans within any organization:

• Don’t delegate engagement to the HR leader. Make this one of the CEO’s key priorities to drive forward, starting with his or her direct team.

• Don’t over-focus on the masses; focus on assessing the leadership team first, and the rest will follow.

• Do start with the top, making sure the right leaders are in the right positions

• Do a leadership engagement audit before measuring mid-management and staff

• Don’t tie managers’ performance to an engagement score; this can create misaligned incentives and fosters the wrong behavior

• Do set goals for demonstrating adherence to company values, to communicating and listening to employees and leadership, and to take leadership action when appropriate.

Company-wide engagement is an important management objective, and achieving it starts with the CEO. The aforementioned six tips will be instrumental in order to begin or continue the journey towards driving higher engagement across the organization. Remember: the rule of thumb that has been proven repeatedly by the highest performing organizations is that leadership engagement will precede employee engagement every time!


This article was written by Karl Moore from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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