CEO views on engagement: symptomatic of a wider problem?

Tom Newcombe , 12 Jun 2013


This week I attended an Ashridge Business School event, where it unveiled an excellent piece of research on UK CEOs' views on engagement.

There were a lot of positives to come out of the research and proof CEOs view employee engagement (EE) as an important initiative for the growth of their business and the economy as a whole.

Many also see it as a "journey" not just a "quick-fix" or something which will disappear in a couple of years.

Over the past 12 months we've seen some excellent progress being made at getting the message across about the importance of EE.

Many business leaders have driven this and there has also been the very successful Engage for Success initiative, fronted by David McLeod and Nita Clarke.

Which is why it was such a surprise to learn from reading through the research and some of the comments at the event that some CEOs are failing to buy-in to EE. A major reason being they are failing to see the connection from EE to the bottom line.

Is it because they still see it as a "fluffy" initiative or is it because they don't take the views of HR serious enough?

Last week (before this event) I had the pleasure of meeting a HR director for coffee in central London to discuss various topics. And this very issue arose. Their view was a lot of CEOs just "don't like people", they prefer to concentrate on their balance sheet and shut themselves away. Having an open-door policy but "only open to good news".

A good point was made by one CEO at the event, who said it's easy to make your employees engaged when the arrow on the balance sheet is going in the right direction but the moment it starts heading the other way and cuts are being made you want to "hide yourself away" and engagement can suffer.

The report outlined clearly a lack of quality leadership with many managers displaying outdated models and a complete lack of self-awareness, which leads to poor engagement.

Speaking of poor leadership, rarely a week goes by without some mention of it in the NHS. Since the Francis report earlier this year, it has been scrutinised and written about on numerous occasions.

This week, I met with two senior NHS employees of a London-based hospital. They reiterated all the points of poor leadership I've read and wrote about recently. One particular worry was junior doctors who are over-worked and under-paid on 70+ hours a week.

They talked of the "ridiculous" shift patterns surgeons are on - on-call for 24 hours then straight into surgery, sometime with little sleep. External politics and constant media involvement does little for engagement, they said.

"A lot of leaders in the organisation don't seem to have the knowledge, skills or empathy to work in an environment where people contact is so important", was one direct quote.

I realise this is just two employees in an organisation of thousands but when they start to describe leadership and engagement issues within the NHS as a "ticking time-bomb", you have to worry.

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That's why we need hard data

Michael Moran 12 Jun 2013

The business case for employee engagement is not soft or fluffy. As HR professionals we have to stand toe to toe with CEOs and FDs to argue the financial case. In M&S the difference in terms of engagement between upper quartile and lower quartile stores in terms of engagement is 1.8%. The difference in sales performance is £140million. Anyone needing data please see Nailing the Evidence.


Norman Pickavance 19 Jun 2013

Great Article Tom. Comments : After years of slog, to find that for many CEO's the 'jury is still out' on the Employee Engagement (EE) agenda must be a cause for concern for all HR professionals...but should it come as a big surprise to anyone? There are 3 questions we should put to ourselves before we bemoan the CEO's too much; First ; EE often gets badly positioned in the Boardroom ...a solution looking for a problem? To get traction with the Board, it has to be seen as integral to the direction the business is driving in - Improving Service / Increasing Productivity / Innovating for Growth....That way - its always easier to show the link to output measures...because that's the focus of the intervention. For example - it will feel better for our customers only if it feels different for our people.( with measures on how the customer is feeling better). Second ; EE efforts don't half get complicated! Massive surveys, complicated briefing process's, expensive communications directors! If you wanted to design an easy target for the Line to shoot at - then it would look like the typical EE programme - particularly when the line is under so much pressure on costs . Keeping it all as simple as possible - is more likely to survive and deliver real long term results? Third ; We all talk about EE as if it were an end in itself. It isn't. When you ask people when are they really engaged in their jobs, its when they are "doing something they can do well, can take pride in, that matters, that makes a bit of a difference"....Yet the focus of so much engagement activity is around the additional / new process which sits somehow on top or alongside managers day jobs and people's tasks... " I have seen so many organisations that think that we are now doing engagement between 3 and 4pm on a Thursday afternoons...who wonder why colleagues are sceptical? Finally a watch out : with lots of emphasis on reducing costs in all organisations and building in flexibility - we have to be honest with ourselves as to whether the organisation really does want to engage people fully - Are we really acting in a consistent way - this is particularly true for those organisations who have lots of people on Zero Hours contracts or working for a subcontract organisation with little or no wage or job security... Yes this may work for students - but lets not pretend that this is a great way of engaging anyone else. Only last week I was talking to people in the Care services, who found that their contracts were structured in such a way that they were only paid when they were directly providing care to elderly patients - but not for the travel time between patients homes! Efficient ? Maybe ? Fair ? well not in most peoples books... My own view is that effective engagement rests on a foundation of mutual commitment and is built up when that commitment is shown and reciprocated each day. Its this type of working relationship which builds trust and fosters true engagement over time. It is therefore difficult to see how contractual relationships which do not have that at their heart can be a basis for true engagement? For more thoughts see ;

Engaging Leadership

Nigel Girling 05 Jul 2013

Good commentary Tom. I too was at the event (indeed I was one of the CEOs that was interviewed within the research). What strikes me forcibly from the report is the essential nature of many that are rising to the CEO position - for decades we have valued toughness, commercial obsession, data-focus and financial skills as the the key characteristics that get one to the top table. This report (and our own common-sense) tells us that we need to change the record. We need naturally engaging personalities, the ability to inspire with passion and enthusiasm and the ability to coach and mentor in our senior leaders. Time to stop promoting sociopaths perhaps?

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