Monday, May 18, 2015

Talk On 'Effective Employee Engagement' - NHRD Hyderabad, HR Interact on May 14, 2015

I was invited by the NHRD's Hyderabad Chapter to speak about 'Effective Employee Engagement' using a generalists perspective in their HR Interact series of talks. The session was conducted at the EThames Graduate School, Punjagutta. Mr. Dinavahi was there on dot to receive me and we had a good crowd of about 40 consisting of senior practitioners, managers, entrepreneurs and students. Given below is the general flow of the speech.

"As I understand it - employee engagement is about how deeply we can engage the employee at work. We all do this at various levels - good and bad, low and high. Let's concern ourselves with practices and principles that give good results (because fully engaged employees will produce good results). 
A memento - Thanks NHRD (Pic. Vijay Vedantam)
To get the best out of their employees is the concern of every manager and leader. How do we do that? How do we engage employees? Or rather, how do we engage people? 

Let me tell you a story.

Engagement - It's about challenge
There is a cricket net at Shamshabad airport. The bowling machine bowls 20 balls and we pay 100 bucks or so and knock the ball around. A friend of mine paid up and asked me to play. I played, in a most disengaged fashion I must admit.  I got beaten, mistimed the ball and even got out a couple of times. When I left the net I felt very disappointed with my own performance. Why did I not play to my potential, I wondered. What would have made me play better? To my potential? 

That was when I realised that if the bowling machine guy had thrown me a challenge – say if I did not miss a single ball of those 20 balls I get 5 balls extra as a reward – I would have risen to the task. I would have been fully engaged. This is what happens for most people who are not self-motivated. The environment must think of ways to challenge and engage the customer (or employee).

(In cases where the environment cannot challenge me, I need to find ways to motivate myself. Which comes down to the same thing - I will find a new challenge and reward for myself to push myself to newer intensities.)

The lesson - to engage anyone fully we must challenge them. The managers job is to challenge the employees constantly - which requires the manager to be a creative person himself. For individuals it comes down to challenging themselves each time.

It's simple and mischievous
Another cricketing story. Ramakant Achrekar, Sachin Tendulkar’s coach apparently had a great way of motivating his young wards. Normally young cricketers go to nets without too much engagement – it’s after all practice and not the real thing. So Achrekar came up with a brilliant idea. He’d put a coin on the top of the stumps and challenge the batsman and the bowler to earn it. If the batsman plays without getting out during his time, he gets the coin. If bowlers get the batsman out they get the coin. Everyone is fully engaged. The lesson here is that engaging your employees or team mates requires such simple tricks that get them all to focus on the challenge. It requires the manager to be ingenious, creative and fun. There are no big lectures. There is a prize to be won and you can earn it if you are good enough. The players feel a sense of achievement from the first ball and may even start thinking how to make things happen (about the process) thereby improving their skill. 

It’s the kind of thinking that one can see in healthy growth-oriented cultures.

Years ago when I wrote my first book ‘The Men Within’ the crux of the matter was the same for me. How do I get a team of young cricketers who have no belief in themselves to perform way above their weight. The answer I stumbled upon was this – transfer a sense of ownership to the boys. How does the coach transfer his pain, his vision, his desire to the boys? It’s a difficult job but it can be done if one has the right intent and talent.

Employee engagement is getting the employee engaged in a way that he feels as if he owns the work and runs with it. That is the ideal employee really – someone who can behave with the urgency, drive and passion of the owner himself at getting the work done. In reality, most employees are not blessed with that kind of self motivation – so it does become the job of the manager to bring them to that point.
Holding forth (Pic. Vijay Vedantam)

Employee Engagement - The Manager's Viewpoint
Let’s look at employee engagement from the point of view of the managers and then from that of the employees.

Let me first categorise employees into two types. Those blessed with the ability to be self motivated. These are few - perhaps 10%. They are about pride. They know they are good and back themselves. 

Then comes the other 90%. These need to be mentored until they come to the level of believing in themselves, of taking pride in themselves and their work. These are the ones that need to be invested in. They must be made to feel secure. They must be treated like the whales in Ken Blanchard’s 'Whale Done' (or like most of us really). They must be appreciated for the small progresses they make and corrected when veering off course. They must be handled with kid’s gloves until they start walking.

The 90% - Need Belief in Themselves and Pride in Their Work
In my experience, most managers make the mistake of treating both categories alike. The people in the first category must be made to feel that the managers they are dealing with are interested in them and their growth. That they will be taken care of. To make them feel secure, managers could be patient with them, appreciate the progress they are making, accentuate the positive, ignore the negative and redirect energy (all whale done processes or kid-handling processes). Understand that its all about energy – what you pay attention to grows. In a while these employees feel confident enough to take some pride in their work and start believing in themselves.

The 10% - Challenge and Ownership
At this stage, when the employees or wards start showing signs of belief in themselves and pride in their work, managers can gently shift gears and challenge them a bit more. Now that the employees can walk they should be allowed to take more and more responsibility. Managers can now widen the range and empower them. While doing this one should be careful not to suppress their natural flair and allow them to express themselves naturally. Understand that each employee is different and invest time with them. There is no one rule fits all (except the grand rule that one must love ones wards like ones own children). Set high standards and make them earn it. You can transfer ownership by showing them their potential and where they can go with what they have and facilitate their growth after that.

Sharing future plans, giving clear roles, providing support and mostly giving constant feedback are important. When employees feel trusted, when they know they are taken care of, they will give their best.

Ian Chappell on How to get the best from players
Here it's relevant to recall what Ian Chappell once said about getting the best out of people. To get the best out of his team members he said the captain must make the cricket interesting. In my view, to make the cricket interesting the captain must be interesting too. He must be passionate about his goals, about his wards growth, about the work itself and that itself can throw up many interesting possibilities.
With Mr. Chandra Sekhar, ITC, former Divisional Head, ITC, Guntur

My Leadership Model - How Leaders Evolve 
Insecure, Personal Leadership and Secure Leadership
When we look at managers we find that most cannot trust their employees because they are insecure people themselves. Trust issues are all about how much we trust ourselves - they are never about the others. 

Insecure leaders - All power and no responsibility (ownership)
My model for leaders is this. First come the insecure leaders who are given power without any responsibility. The have no understanding or confidence of executing their own role, are insecure and therefore try to merely survive (and not let anyone find out about their insecurities). They push down the smart ones, promote insecure ones and develop a system of mediocrity because of their innate insecurity. In such teams failure is a matter of time. Such leaders will certainly not grow leaders. Mostly because leaders are about ownership and they cannot transfer ownership because they do not take ownership for their role themselves.

Personal leaders - No power and all responsibility (ownership)
However the same leaders who have failed enough may start thinking at one stage of their own contribution, their role. Here they become personal leaders if they start thinking of the possibilities they can bring to the fore if they can somehow expand their role within its definition. For eg. a tea boy who serves with smile and panache, a chauffeur who makes the ride more enjoyable, a receptionist who takes her job seriously - its all about going beyond the call of the duty. Beyond the words and into the spirit of things. This is when magic happens. This is when the real power of ownership is unleashed. This is the first time when the real "I" is awakened. What can "I" really do? What can "I" contribute really? Two small examples. One of the tea boy in the bank where I worked - he'd come at 4 pm and serve tea as if its the best tea in the world and he'd label it Makwana's tea and come on like a breath of fresh air. Another of a lady scooterist in Pune who instead of cribbing about all the people who are breaking the law took it upon herself to stop a young man going on the wrong side on his bike and finally made him turn back and go into the right lane! Both cases of personal leadership. Of what people can do if they take ownership (and not merely talk about it). They will start making a difference. Now the hallmark of these people is that even without power they take up great responsibility. They go beyond the words because it is after all about who you really are. They do much more than what is required of them. They take ownership for their role. Like I said before, this is where the magic begins so its time we all asked ourselves the question - what can I do to change this situation? How can i contribute?

Secure leaders - Power used well to transfer power and ownership
The third lot of leaders is what we must grow. This is the lot of secure leaders. These are people who do not shirk away from empowering their wards with power and responsibility. They grow them beyond themselves. They can do so because they are secure. To be secure is only this - they say they know what they now and say they do not know what they do not. Many times they may even feign ignorance just to see what their wards can come up with. By merely showing this vulnerability they encourage and challenge their wards to step in and do their best for them. It is a natural human reaction to step up to help  someone who is seeking help (we all feel good when we do that don't we?). The secure managers transfer ownership and credit because it grows these wards of theirs. Its about letting the wards run with their ideas and grow the endeavour collaboratively while keeping a supportive net under them when they fail. There's this wonderful speech of Dr. Abdul Kalam who speaks of his boss at ISRO who gave all responsibility on a project to Dr. Kalam - when it failed the first time the  boss took all the blame and when it succeeded the second time, he let Dr. Kalam take all the credit. 

When managers have problems with their teams and their levels of engagement the first place they must look at is themselves. They say teams only reflect the leader so it is time for the leader to look at himself or herself before giving up on the team.

Employee Engagement - The Employee's Viewpoint
When we try to understand employee engagement from the employee perspective all we need to do is ask ourselves is this question. What do we want in an ideal boss? One who gives freedom to express and execute, one who trusts and supports, who is interested in our growth and helps us grow, one who makes us feel secure, one who makes us feel useful and like we are contributing, one who throws up challenges for our growth. We don’t mind the boss's admonishments when we deserve then because they are needed to keep us on course. That’s all one needs to bear in mind as a manager to keep their employees engaged. 

One must bear in mind that all people are not blessed with the same experience, maturity or knowledge. But we must believe that they are all possessing the desire to excel, to be recognised for the good work they are capable of. Here, is they need a bit of help and support, it becomes the manager's job to facilitate it (not talk about it) so employees enjoy the work and get engaged. Who benefits by this work? As a manager your job gets lesser and lesser because employees are taking more and more ownership and becoming more productive which indicate show well you are doing at your job (by becoming irrelevant after some time). As an employee you get more growth and challenge by taking more ownership and utilising all the opportunities you are getting.

Its all about people really
Finally despite all these words and talks about systems, corporate, hierarchies, employee engagement etc it is all about people. As we all know people leave their managers and not their jobs so it is up to the managers to make their jobs interesting, to find their own growth and purpose before they can grow others. It can all start now by accepting that we would like to be part of the change. That we as managers have the power to facilitate that change. For that the first point is that the leader must change to produce results.

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