Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Highlights of EE conf in Sydney

"Culture eats strategy for lunch. You can have a good strategy but if you don't have the culture and enabling systems to implement that strategy you will fail." 
~Dick Clark, CEO Merck USA

The second in the series of Australian "National HR Solutions & Strategies Summits" on Employee Engagement takes us to Sydney and a surprise change of venue to the Grace Hotel with its neo-Gothic exterior and Art Deco interior. 

Like the previous week in Melbourne, this conference delivered the goods with a series of insightful case studies and useful lessons on the people side of business. My favourite quote of the day is listed above; in what follows are some further highlights.

The engagement journey continues…
Reporter: "What do you think of Western civilization?"
Gandhi: "I think it would be a good idea."
Sophie Crawford-Jones of PwC gave us an informative overview of how the concept of engagement has developed over the past four decades as well as her thoughts on where it’s going over the next few years. While I like with the theoretical construct Sophie offered, I also think it’s fair to say that, whatever the next big thing in engagement is likely to be in 2010 and beyond, organizations still have a great deal of work to do in the here-and-now. 

Or to paraphrase Gandhi: while many more people nowadays are familiar with the concept of people engagement, effective engagement practice is often still in its early days.
Who’s telling your story?
The good news is that, as organizations seek to create a culture that invites greater engagement with their people, there are some practices that have proven helpful. Several examples were given of how leaders and managers used compelling stories to link people’s proven resilience in the past in ways that help to get them through hard times today with a clear vision of the future. 

This narrative approach acknowledges the reality that every moment is an engagement opportunity. It's not just an "HR responsibility" but needs to involve senior leadership and happen at all levels of the organization. And it’s not one-off events or even CEO roadshows that do it - effective engagement lives and breathes in your culture and must be related to every single thing that people do in the business.
It’s great to have a CEO who "gets it" and even better to have one who can tell engaging stories. It’s also true that stories can only gain currency and influence people’s daily behaviour when they are told and retold. That requires leaders and managers throughout your organization who also "get it", who can spread the influence of those stories with equally motivating effect. In other words, it falls to your people managers to engage your people.
In this quest to develop people managers into effective engagement allies, I was heartened to hear how one organization is getting some good results. Josie Gosling gave NineMSN’s answer to making this happen, with what they call communication champions. The idea is as genius as it is simple: there are already a handful of people in your organization that everybody else asks to explain and clarify what’s going on. These people are "naturals" - they have a talent for communication and/or the status and influence within the organization’s social networks that make their voices stand out. 

Let me quickly note two useful principles at work here: 1) a use what works (or solution-focused) approach helps you get fast results by working with people’s strengths, in this case communication "naturals", and 2) the realization that these communication/influencing talents can be found anywhere in your organization and don’t necessarily have anything to do with role or positional power.
Once you’ve identified these people…make them your new best friends! Do everything you can to develop their natural abilities (through mentoring, coaching and skills-building) and have the courage to "give it to ‘em straight" by making them part of the inner circle of communication practice. Giving them the big-picture perspective behind the messages will help them communicate better and, in turn, model the kind of engaging communication behaviour you want happening in your organization.
Setting the Stage for Success
Once the story of your organization is captured and consciously promoted, it will start to become clear which actors may not have a part to play in future performance. In both Sydney and Melbourne, conference speakers repeatedly made the point that low turnover can actually be a bad thing. As much as you need to actively retain your best people, you also need a standard practice to move out poor contributors.
Doing so in a grown-up and dignified way not only shows your commitment to do right by the people who ultimately leave - it can have a powerfully positive effect on those who stay. What's more, when a difficult situation is finally addressed the relief is palpable ("Well thank god…we've been talking about this for ages, now it’s finally behind us!"). 

As Chris Disley of Mars Food Australia pointed out, managers who can effectively manage low performers and disengaged people out of the organization actually get higher engagement scores as a result.
Chris also shared a crucial conversations exercise in which team members are asked, "If you left the company today to start your own business, who would you take with you…?" Naturally you need to contextualize the conversation and make clear this is a though-exercise, not an invitation to jump ship! While potentially confronting, such a process of rank-ordering people’s contribution from greatest to least can be a vital step toward having the kind of open and honest conversations that need to happen in effective teams.
Skills + behaviours = great performance
Finally, besides offering the quote that heads this post, Jason Flanagan of BT Financial Group gave some ideas on how to engage with your talented up-and-comers. He described how "high-potential" staff are matched with internal projects that tackle real business problems (e.g. bureaucracy-busting, new product development, etc.). Here I’d like to introduce a distinction that helps make sense of why this is a great example of people development that’s engaging too.
A skill is defined as "the ability to do something well" and is essentially the knowledge gained when for example you learn a tool, process or concept on a course. A behaviour, however, is "the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others" and manifests in the actual application of skills and knowledge - in real business contexts, on an ongoing basis.
So giving your top talent projects in the business is a great idea because it ticks many boxes:
  • they get the recognition they deserve (often worth as much or more than money) and a chance to strut their stuff
  • as they work on the project there’s a chance to identify skills gaps that may emerge and target them for further development (so you can send them on courses, e.g. effective communication skills, project management and the like)
  • perhaps most importantly, projects offer a practical way to apply their skills in real-world business contexts; combined with an effective mentoring/coaching program this means they learn a skill, give it a go through "live" application, talk through the results, then make needed adjustments (a double-loop learning process crucial to embedding a skill as an ongoing behaviour)
  • and all this development is not extra-curricular and in addition to their day-job, but sits within the organization and produces useful outcomes for the organization.

In sum, these were a couple of informative and useful conferences, filled with "war-stories" and good ideas from HR and Comms professionals. Their stories clearly made the point that your engagement strategy will stand or fall based on the ability of your people managers to make it real as they engage with people. The stories that are alive in your organization will grow and thrive to the degree that you’ve got talented managers breathing life into them - so it makes sense to set them up for success. 

And for those who don’t have a part to play in your story’s future, you need to actively do what’s right for them and your organization by applying the other basic use what works principle: if something’s not working, stop doing it!
Hope you found these ideas useful and they take you a few steps closer to good people engagement, increased contribution and better business results.

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