Each year, Fortune magazine ranks "The Best Companies to Work For" and it is no coincidence that many of the same companies are also among the most profitable. Reasons vary, of course, but one of the common attributes is employee engagement. Sarah Cook shares her definition of it in Chapter 1: Employee engagement "can be summed up by how positively the employee thinks about the organization, feels about the organization, [and] is proactive in relation to achieving organizational goals for customers, colleagues and other stakeholders...In other words, it is about the degree to which employees perform their role in a positive and proactive manner...engagement therefore is about what employees think rationally about their employers, what they feel about them, their emotional connection, as well as what they do and say as a result in relation to their co-employees and their customers." That is as good a definition as any.
What Cook offers in this volume can help any company (regardless of size or nature) to achieve "better business performance through staff satisfaction," especially now when the dynamics of employment require an empowerment of workers in ways and to an extent that are unprecedented. Years ago when discussing Southwest Airlines' competitive advantage, then CEO Herb Kelleher said that it was its people, suggesting, "If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers, and your customers will take care of your shareholders." The same attitude prevails at other companies, notably Container Store, Nordstrom, Whole Foods, and Ritz-Carlton. It is worth noting that these companies also retain their most valuable employees and many of their job applicants currently work for competitors.
Some of Cook's most interesting and valuable material is provided in Chapters 3 and 4 as she explains how to identify "the key drivers of engagement in your business" and then develop a strategy that accommodates them. In Chapter 8, she examines three levels of involvement at which a sense of involvement must occur: with the direct line manager (i.e. supervisor), with associates (individuals as well as teams), and with the organization as a whole. (As I later reflected on the ideas provided in these three chapters, I envisioned the strategy as a "hammer" and the drivers as "nails," with the hammer driving the nails to establish and then sustain employee engagement on all three levels.) Over the past 50 years, hundreds of surveys have been conducted among millions of workers who were asked to rank that is most important to them. Only one was always ranked first, second, or third: feeling appreciated. (For what it's worth, compensation was ranked somewhere in the 9-14 range, depending on the given survey.) Cook fully understands how important feeling appreciated is to employees, including line managers.
That is why she devotes so much attention to issues that concern recognition and reward, communication, personal accountability, teamwork, and leadership development. Re the latter, all organizations need leadership at all levels and in all areas of operation and such leadership is not based on title or seniority, it is based on taking initiative to do what must be done. When discussing "agents for change" in Chapter 9, she makes a number of excellent recommendations but none of them will be implemented unless and until those involved (a) feel appreciated, (b) understand what needs to be done, (c) agree on the importance of doing it well, and (d) help to decide what must be done. Without shared ownership of a task, an employee will be involved but not engaged in completing it.
In the last chapter, Cook shares her thoughts about how to sustain employee engagement once it has been achieved. When discussing "embedding employee engagement," she observes: "Following the maxim that `what gets measured gets done,' generally managers focus their attention on the aspects of their role that will be measured. So if, for example, their key performance indicators are task- or sale-focused. This is where they will exert most of their attention. For managers to focus on employee engagement as a key priority, the most effective way of doing this is to make managers accountable for the engagement survey results of their staff." I fully agree while presuming to suggest that a percentage of employees will claim that they are engaged (and many of them believe they really are) when in fact their engagement is either non-productive or negative (i.e. they are engaged in undermining the success of the given business). Ultimately, in my opinion, measurement of her or his direct reports' performance rather than of their opinions is a more reliable indicator of a manager's effectiveness insofar as employee engagement on the three levels is concerned.
One final point. Sarah Cook quite rightly points out that achieving and then sustaining employee engagement is a long-term, in fact never-ending process. Her ultimate goal, therefore, is to help her readers to think through what is required to create a self-sustaining employee engagement culture, one that will continue no matter who the given managers and other employees are. That is indeed a worthwhile goal, worthy of a best effort (i.e. a full engagement) by everyone involved in seeking it.
on 2 December 2008
Businesses have long recognized the importance of cultivating proud, motivated and loyal employees. In fact, organizations that still operate with the mentality that workers should do their jobs and keep their mouths shut are likely to flounder. These days, the old style of management has largely disappeared - but so has the trust that once existed between employer and employee. Job seekers no longer expect to find lifetime positions within one company. Layoffs and cutbacks in a difficult economic environment have generated fear and suspicion among employees. Companies recognize that their long-term viability depends on finding, retaining and motivating good employees. Although she doesn't break any new ground here, British author Sarah Cook competently explains why every organization should make employee engagement a priority. Cook provides numerous examples of British and American companies that embrace and benefit from employee engagement. getAbstract agrees with her that it's not too late for companies to change their approach. But the clock is ticking for sure.