In that classic of management science, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy gives the secret to finding a talented team of people who have intellect, passion, and courage when she says: “if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.”
Unfortunately, many executives and HR professionals have spent the last few decades solving the wrong problem. They are correctly convinced that growing their business requires having more talent than their competitors. They are also convinced that they must compete hard to win talent that might otherwise go to their competitors. Instead they should be more fully utilizing the talent they already have.
“Employee engagement” is a tired term in no small part because so many give it lip service and so few succeed at doing it well. Though executives say that their most important asset is their people, they don’t tap into the knowledge that their employees who do the work have about both the problems and the solutions they face every day. In the early 20th century, an employee was simply a “cog in a machine,” as portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Lights. But today, workers are looking for more meaning in their jobs while at the same time, they’re less engaged.
Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace study found that 70% of the workforce is not engaged with a full 20% actively disengaged (they are “more-or -less are out to damage their company”). Yet, engagement is the pathway to providing that desired meaning. Workers who are engaged feel that their job matters, that their opinion counts and that they are valued by their managers for the work they do. So, companies who learn how to engage earn higher levels of employee satisfaction, and a reputation that attracts even more talent. Better still, when employees are given the right environment where their talent can thrive, the financial results are dramatic.
For example, at a financial services company that employed 25,000 people, the CEO put into place a process specifically designed to have the employees generate smart ideas about their own work to make more money. In just 100 days, these employees came up with 2,400 ideas that the CEO announced to Wall Street were worth $400 million … and then subsequently reported each quarter that the actual impact was larger and coming faster than promised. A similar process was put in place at a consumer division of a food manufacturer that employed 7,000 people. In just 100 days the employees came up with 500 ideas worth $40 million.
So did thousands of employees suddenly become more talented—smarter, more energetic, better collaborators, stronger project managers? No, obviously not. What changed was that management made the goal of solving problems urgent so that employees wanted to use their talent to help the company and felt valued that their ideas mattered.
There are three key elements to engaging employees and utilizing more of their knowledge:
1. The single most important element, without which the effort will never succeed in a widespread way, is real commitment from management. How the top of the house spends its time is worth far more in terms of creating a corporate culture of engagement than any words in a mission statement. When it is clear that big bosses are paying attention to what employees have to say about things that are broken or even just less than perfect in the company, many employees will take action.
2. The next necessary element is that finding and solving problems is mandatory. We said that when bosses pay attention, many employees will take action. The way to get nearly all employees to take action is to make it mandatory by using a process that requires managers to present their ideas to solve problems to the top of the house. It is the rare manager who will show up empty-handed to a regularly scheduled, “bring us your ideas meeting”.
3. The third key element is to make the most talented employees visible to the executive team. Those employees can then get deserved recognition for adding millions to the bottom line. This visibility goes hand in hand with making problem finding and problem solving mandatory. When you tell people they must find and fix problems, you must then give them an executive audience. Here we circle back to our first element, executive time. In very short spurts of time, teams from each area of the company can present their solutions to win approval for any needed implementation resources. It is hard to think of a more productive way to use executive time.