7 Secrets to Building a Successful Employee Engagement Strategy

Company leaders tie themselves in knots trying to improve the level of commitment and engagement of their people.  And most report their efforts have little impact.  They all say they deem it a high priority but readily acknowledge they have yet to find the magic formula for unleashing the full passion, loyalty and dedication of their employees.  It’s frustrating. 

That said, is it possible these leaders are making the issue more complicated than it needs to be?

Employee engagement will not take hold until your people are treated like growth partners.

I think they may be.  I’ve been in business long enough to have watched a whole industry grow up whose sole focus is to provide solutions to the engagement problem.  As evidence, it’s likely you are using one or more of the tools these companies sell to measure the level of engagement you are achieving in your organization—or to build a greater sense of teamwork—or to create more unity and enthusiasm.  I’m not suggesting any of these things are bad; but most cultural problems have to be solved at their roots, not through clever team-building exercises or excessive measuring.  We need to recognize that these things take time and will only take hold if they are built on the right foundation. 

So, what are the elements that help employee engagement take root at a deep level?  As you observe organizations that have earned the loyalty, passion and commitment of their people, what are they doing?

The 7 Secrets

Through my study and observation of successful companies with enviable cultures, I have identified seven “secrets” that these companies seem to have discovered in their efforts to build high engagement.  I believe all seven are necessary.  If even one of them isn’t present, a company will not be able to completely capture the hearts and minds of its people.  Before employees will become fully engaged, the company must provide:

1. A compelling purpose and vision.

Hopefully, you have discovered by now that if you cannot paint a compelling picture of why the work of your company matters, and what it will mean if you achieve the level of success you are seeking, then you shouldn’t expect that your people will feel particularly devoted to it.  This is not about coming up with new and clever ways to sound enthusiastic and optimistic about company goals.  And it’s not about a business leader displaying high levels of charisma, having a strong personality or great communication skills.  This is about enterprise leaders having deeply-held beliefs about the importance of the work their company performs and the purposes it serves.  It’s also about their ability to paint a picture for their people of their importance to the fulfillment of the company’s purpose, and what it will mean to them and others if the business succeeds.  

2. A clear role with strategic impact.

Positions are filled.  Roles are fulfilled.  Top talent wants to approach its work with a clear understanding of the strategic purpose it is there to serve.  Key people want to know how their role impacts the business model and strategy of the company.   More specifically, they want to know what part they play in the broader strategy to grow the company and how their role links to that of others who are similarly placed to provide strategic leadership.  This ensures that the combined effect is synergy and not discord. 

3. A picture of success.

Before your people will fully engage, they will want a clear answer from you to this question: “If I’m meeting with you a year from now, and your expectations of me have been exceeded, what would I have achieved?  What outcomes would have been fulfilled and results attained?”  When good employees are given a clear vision of their role, have an unambiguous understanding of how you define success, and have access to the tools and resources necessary to produce what you’ve asked them to produce, they will break down barriers to perform.  However, without a clear picture of your expectations, they will play games and be self-serving in their approach to the work.  And without clear performance standards, how will you know if you are getting what you want?

4. A proper use of their unique abilities.

Employees want to work in the realm of their “genius”—what they are best and most passionate about doing.  Here’s what I mean: Imagine you are a professional baseball player with a proven track record as a relief picture.  You are signed by a competitive team that says it’s committed to going to the world series and “winning it all.”  They roll out a bundle of money to attract you to the team.  You are surrounded by great players and a coaching staff that is the envy of the league.  However, in spring training, the manager approaches you and says he’d like you to work out at first base—because that’s a position that needs to be filled right now.  What is your reaction? 

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Hopefully, the analogy speaks for itself.  People want to belong to organizations where not only will they be able to apply their unique abilities to full effect, they will have the resources and opportunities to get better at what they do.  This is what makes people thrive.  You can throw all the money you want at someone, but if they are not working within the realm of their distinct talents, eventually they will go somewhere that will put the full complement of their abilities to better use.  Successful organizations are made when the individuals within those businesses are all working within the sweet spot of their genius—and seeing it magnified because they are part of a unique team. 

5. A stewardship framework.

Top producers want to be mentored and coached, not monitored and managed.  If they have what it takes to perform at a high level, they want the freedom to do so.  They do best in an operational framework that makes employees “stewards” over their roles.  This is why so many companies have abandoned rigid performance management systems and ineffective assessment processes and tools.  Successful business leaders understand that change is happening at the speed of light and their people need to be given broad berth to make decisions and fully own the outcomes for which they are responsible.  Those with responsibility for supervising should be offering ideas, inquiring about resources that are needed and breaking down barriers that are preventing their people from fulfilling their roles.  When your people think and act as stewards, you have their full engagement.  So, you should make it easy for them to assume that stewardship.   

6. A partnership relationship.

In organizations that have a fully engaged workforce, employees are not viewed or treated as employees.  They are considered growth partners.  That is how they should be viewed and treated in any modern enterprise that is committed to success.  No chief executive or owner is smart enough or can work hard enough to fulfill the ambitions they have for their companies without people around them who are as passionate about what the company stands for and its potential for success as they are.  Consequently, it is a complete non sequitur to speak of or engage with people working within your company as something other than partners.  And this is not something that can be feigned.  You either genuinely see and treat your people that way, or you don’t.  And the quality of talent you attract will in large measure be tied to your perspective on this issue.

7. A value-sharing philosophy.

One of the biggest clues that reveals whether you consider your people to be growth partners is how you pay them.  Note, I did not say how much you pay them (although that certainly matters as well).  How you pay employees is different than how you pay growth partners.  It is rooted in a different rewards philosophy.  Successful organizations in 2019 adopt a wealth multiplier philosophy in their approach to compensation.  They believe they are more likely to accelerate business growth if every stakeholder participates in the wealth multiple they help drive.  And so, these organizations get very good at defining what value creation means in their business and with whom they believe it should be shared.  They adopt an overarching philosophy about value-sharing and then create programs to reward the right balance of short-term and enduring performance.  Their commitment to this approach is not based in altruism—although they do believe it reflects a fundamental fairness in the way they compensate their people.  Instead, it is rooted in three realities:

  1. By value-sharing instead of paying “incentives,” their rewards plans pay for themselves. They become “self-financing.” This is because value is only being paid out when it is created.  And people who are treated as growth partners accept and even embrace this idea—because they realize that it places them more in control of their earnings capacity.
  2. The value-sharing approach creates an ownership mindset on the part of company “growth partners.” To be paid well, they must think like owners.  Their financial opportunity is very much aligned with that of shareholders.  They have to focus on ensuring the business model keeps the revenue and profit engine performing year to year while figuring out how to leverage its potential for producing even more in the future.
  3. When companies adopt a value-sharing philosophy to rewards, they build within their culture a unified financial vision for growing the business. Without a shared fiscal understanding of what it will take for the company to fulfill its purpose, that purpose will be left unfulfilled.  As a result, smart leaders codify the growth partnership they want to have with their people by developing a pay approach that unifies the focus on value creation.

Hopefully, you can see the self-evident logic in these “secrets” to developing a higher engaged workforce.  Easier said than done?  Of course.  But what is the alternative?  If you are going to spend time on this issue, why not get better results from the effort you are making?  Look around at those organizations who seem to have figured this out.  See if you don’t recognize all these elements at work.  You can’t copy their culture, but you can copy the principles they applied to produce success.

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