Carla called last year from a medium sized energy company and said “Our Engagement is not growing and we can’t figure out why. We put our supervisors through a full Engagement training program offered by a global HR consulting firm. Despite that, Engagement has actually declined in a number of units!

Wait a minute—I thought the supervisor was the focal point for employee Engagement! Perhaps not as much as you have been led to believe. As early as 1983, Brian Morgan and I wrote a book entitled Supervision in the 80s that documented the critical role that the supervisor plays in motivating employees to create satisfaction and energy. It is important not to forget, however, that other factors play an equally important role. I was disturbed to see that, with the growth of focus on engagement, and on the immediate supervisor, top management was no longer being held accountable for its role.

Unfortunately, the supervisor only controls so many cards in an Engagement deck that is largely designed by top leaders and function heads, such as Human Resources. I have spoken with many supervisors who are frustrated (and themselves becoming disengaged!) at their inability to deliver on engagement commitments due to a lack of adequate tools and resources. For example, at many companies there are clear examples of supervisors who are great at recognizing their people—a big driver of Engagement–but if the “big boss” doesn’t even say hello to employees he/she encounters, it can negate the supervisors efforts.

I find the pay debate to include both level of pay and the way pay is managed and communicated. The emphasis tends to be on the former, but in many companies, the supervisor can influence only the latter. When the plan doesn’t demonstrate a clear connection between contribution and pay, the supervisor can do little beyond administering (and apologizing for) the weak pay plan.

Growth is another major driver of employee engagement, especially among younger generation workers. People want to be able to develop new skills, take on new responsibilities, and grow into more challenging roles. Strong supervisors will be able to find new skills and challenges through job rotation or expansion, but if the organization has no training budget, little job movement and poor career growth opportunities, the supervisor cannot create these on his or her own. And, if the top team does not have a clear, well communicated vision about the future of the company, including new opportunities for the employees, even the most compelling communicator simply has no story to tell.
I’d like to see more top leaders taking a strong hand in Engagement, working with, rather than passing the buck to front line managers. Actions that I have seen to be successful include:

  • Creating a compelling vision and direction for the organization among its workforce—(notice that I did not say “communicating” because too often that means a video and “back to work”)
  • Challenging Human Resources to create people systems that drive high engagement—a climate of growth, recognition opportunities, practices that engender feelings of fairness, reward systems that truly motivate, and performance management systems that create growth and improvement—not simply punishment and scoring!
  • Get out and talk to employees. Executives don’t have lots of free time. But part of being leaders is talking to followers. I am always impressed at how important a few words can be to a front line service employee or someone in the “back room” when it comes from a caring senior leader.

How do you compare the supervisor and leadership roles in creating engagement in your organization?
We welcome your comments–please post here!

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As research for my newly released book, Reinventing Talent Management, I interviewed 75 executives, both before and during the recession, with some fascinating insights:
• More firms than I expected, even in financial services, continued to fund and budget for leader development. The cynical view is that there is always money for the top of the house; the more benevolent view is that even during extremely tough times, senior executives see the value and need for leader development. Many execs were surprised to find out how thin their top talent ranks were when they asked some of their long tenured, high salaried people to hit the golf course a few years earlier than expected. Many of the interviewees mentioned a real knowledge chasm that ensued.
• Almost no firms reported a degradation of executive interest in employee Engagement. Most assumed, incorrectly by the way, that their Engagement scores were sure to drop (see earlier post “Is the Recession Killing Employee Engagement”) on why that hasn’t been the case).
• Many executives, after acknowledging what a tough time it was, spoke about future talent issues—about near term gaps such as losing intellectual capital as baby boomers retired, or post-recession challenges—talent shortages in one area or another; lack of trained leaders; weak positioning globally; and so forth.
• Regarding the current recessionary environment, most worried about tough talent decisions: managing labor costs–affording to keep talent and intellectual capital that took years to gain; recalibrating workforce mindset to new realities; getting more focused on the customer; and optimizing performance.
• And as I have now lived through five significant recessions, I have seen that there is always the challenge of communications. Do we share the bad news with employees? While more executives recognized the fruitless delusion of ‘hiding??? the negatives, their natural instincts as marketers and motivators is to ‘spin’ a lot of communication. We’ll talk about this and some of the above issues in more depth in upcoming postings on this blog.
• One noticeable difference in this recession is the interest of executives in measuring things: a far greater desire to measure customers regarding their perceived value of products and services; a wish to know what the workforce is feeling; and, a need to know how “my” function is doing. In my opinion, this has been a healthy change from the ‘head in the sand’ mode of recessions past.
I came away from these interviews with a stronger sense that executives managing through this recession cared more deeply or perhaps more expressively, about talent issues. The talent challenges of the prior five years most likely galvanized many to the inevitable talent challenges ahead…….
Are your leaders reacting this way? We would be interested in what you have observed uniquely or differently about talent management thinking and actions during this recession.
I welcome your thoughts, questions, and suggestions!

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by William Schiemann | Categories: Talent Management | Comments Off

The following is the first in a series of posts??that will relate  to key issues identified in??my new book Reinventing Talent Management,  co-published by John Wiley and the Society of Human Resource Management.  The ideas in that book, and in these posts are based on extensive research across thousands of firms, and over 70 senior executive  interviews.

A Once in a Lifetime Experiment

When I began the interviews for Reinventing Talent Management, the global economy was robust with many cries of talent shortages, high turnover in A-demand jobs, and battles for the best talent.  About half way through the research, the economy plummeted providing an unusual glimpse at how viewpoints change when the world is much gloomier.  Some views of talent remained the same while others changed quickly.  The perspective changed from a reactive—find a person to fill the slot—to a more reflective mode.??

In some ways in looking back on the interviews from the go-go period, organizations appeared to be less strategic, tactically running faster and faster on the talent treadmill.?? Many leaders described environments in which they were growing so fast that it was hard to catch up, all the while not really challenging the overall talent framework.  In a fishing analogy, it was a “talent catch and release” environment because many organizations were losing talent as quickly out the back door as they were hauling it in the front.  It was like fishing with huge nets hoping to find the remaining minnows. 

As the economic sky was falling, viewpoints changed.  While the recession has hurt many people, it may have helped organizations and their people in the long run.  It required people to stop and ask fundamental questions around Value.  When we don???t have a plethora of customers, we have to determine what they value most and deliver it better than anyone else.  When we want talent that meets strategic objectives and stays, we need to identify it carefully and nurture and develop it better than other organizations. 

Executive interviewed in the final phases of this work were asking more future oriented questions, perhaps some that you might identify with:

  • What things are we doing that really add value to our external customers or internal stakeholders?
  • What do we really want from our talent?  People with the right values?  Right competencies?  Aligned with our vision and strategy?
  • Are we really seeding, growing, and harvesting our talent effectively? 
    • Are we really recruiting talent that is not only competent, but also capable of becoming engaged and aligned with our vision and goals?
    • Are we really acculturating new talent in a way that is likely to lead to long term engagement and loyalty?
    • Are our training and development efforts really producing talent changes on the job?
    • Do we lose top talent that we could have saved if we had the right early warning systems and process to address gaps?

A future Blog will address some of the key challenges in thinking about managing the overall talent lifecycle in new ways.

Your comments and ideas are most welcome

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by William Schiemann | Categories: Talent Management | Comments Off

A senior executive said to me the other day, ???Of course, engagement is down.  After all, we’re in a recession.”  I decided to tackle the issue here because I’ve been hearing the comment from a growing chorus of executives.  Keep this fact in mind:  Engagement has NOT plummeted in all firms, jobs, or locations due to the recession.  Data from the Metrus Institute backs that up.  Its research shows that about half of the organizations register higher Engagement scores on their employee surveys—some as much as 8 percentage points over the past year.  In others, Engagement has been flat or somewhat down.

Why this phenomenon?  I ask the reverse question.  Did we think all along that Engagement was a function of the economy and not organizational actions—leadership communications, human resources policies, and supervisory behaviors?  It’s interesting to note that during stable and growth economies, most people attribute high and low Engagement to things that happen within organizations, most especially leader and supervisory behaviors; yet during a recession, more is attributed to “bad times.”

Most research has demonstrated a set of factors that seem to drive Engagement across most situations:  supervisory behaviors such as fair treatment and honest communications, leaders with a vision, solid values, and opportunities to learn and grow at work, which can apply in good times and bad.

No, I think what we are seeing is more a reaction to How organizations are handling the recession than the recession itself.  How are we treating employees?  How are we communicating?  Are we living our values?  Are leaders inspiring and painting a future vision, or just hunkering down?  We are finding increases Engagement scores both in firms that are financially stable or growing as well as ones that have been hard hit economically.

Could it be Contrast?

Another factor to consider is how employee compare their relative situation to others.  Early on in the recession, expectations of and actual reductions of perks such as travel and training perhaps were viewed as takeaways.  As the recession has deepened, having a stable job with reasonable policies and treatment may look pretty good compared to friends and family members who do not have a job or have one that is draconian in employee treatment.

As in most things in life, people often judge their situation relative to others, and in the current environment, having a stable job with decent policies and a fair boss may not be so bad after all!  I could get engaged with that notion.


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by William Schiemann | Categories: Engagement | Comments Off