If you want your company to innovate, you need colleagues who are motivated, says MD Nampak Plastics


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When I became managing director of Nampak Plastics about four years ago, I wanted to lead and inspire a culture change around innovation. We are Britain’s largest producer of plastic milk bottles, supplying dairies around the country. Many people probably think a company producing plastic milk bottles doesn’t need to bring in a different leadership approach to encourage innovation. But that is exactly what I wanted to do.

One of my biggest objectives was to increase engagement. I believe employee engagement is at the heart of a range of business benefits and has concrete output in terms of productivity, safety excellence, retention, customer experience and reduced sickness absence. For both employees and employers, high workforce engagement is a win-win.

Engage for Success launched in November, when business heads from some of Britain's top companies, from Sainsbury's to Lloyds Banking Group, discussed Britain's problem with engagement. The group is calling for every leader to play their part in tackling the UK's employee engagement deficit, which is estimated to be costing us all £26 billion in productivity each year.

As the only leader of a small or medium-sized business on the panel, I felt our company had a unique story to tell about engaging employees, and some different ideas about what company leaders could do. Our starting point was a staff survey in 2007, which found that 80% would not recommend Nampak as a great place to work.

In response, we introduced a new ethos to encourage innovation at all levels. We also wanted our staff to feel part of their local community, especially as most of our factory sites are located some way from the centre of the local town. Colleagues were encouraged to take part in schemes such as Young Enterprise and work with local young people. Back at the office, we brought in leadership behavioural training to teach these crucial qualities to colleagues at all levels and empower them to make decisions. Simple tactics like an Employee of the Month scheme and annual Colleague Excellence Awards made everyone feel they were valued members of the company and helped create a sense of collaboration.

The initiatives have paid off in a very tangible sense. A staff survey carried out in 2010, identical to the one three years earlier, found that 80% of the company would recommend Nampak as a great place to work; and our sickness absence rates dropped by 28%.

Better still, greater employee engagement and empowering staff at all levels brought dividends in terms of innovation. Nampak Plastics is the only milk bottle producer to have a 'next-generation' bottle, with 25% less material (depending on size) and around 15% recycled material (with scope for more in future). The Infini bottle is a game-changer in its market, and I don't believe it would have come about if it weren't for our newly engaged workforce, which is encouraged to speak up, be creative and care about the company they work for.

Now my mission is to spread the word about employee engagement and show other businesses how a few simple steps, led from the top, and with minimal financial investment, can bring about a mindset shift from the bottom of the company up. If you want your company to sustainably innovate, you need colleagues who are committed, motivated and working to a shared goal. Then the sky is the limit.

Eric Collins, managing director, Nampak Plastics

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