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Will This Be The Year Leaders Put Employees First?

May 29, 2015
Borderless Leadership

As we approach the end of the first month of this new year, many of us are now well under way in implementing our plans and strategies to achieve the goals we’ve mapped out for the next 11 months. In terms of what leaders view as their top goals to achieve this year, a new study reveals some interesting opportunities, and with it, some key obstacles leaders will need to address if they are to help their organization move forward.

In the CEO Challenge 2014 study carried out by The Conference Board, CEOs and presidents from over 1 000 organizations around the world were asked to identify what they saw as the top challenges for their organization. While it wasn’t surprising to see innovation and customer relationships being included in the top 5 challenges, the study’s most revealing finding is how the top challenge for leaders worldwide was Human Capital – namely, how to engage, retain, manage and develop their employees.

In other words, leaders in every region of the world recognize that their employees are the defining factor both for their organization’s ability to achieve their goals this year, and as well as for their overall long-term success. As Rebecca Ray, Senior Vice President, Human Capital at The Conference Board, and co-author of this study points out:

“This emphasis on people-related issues makes perfect sense in a still-uncertain economy. Building a culture that supports engagement, employee training, leadership development, and high performance is something companies can control, and can mean the difference between growing market share and simply surviving in 2014. Moreover, if the focus of individual companies is sustained, Human Capital may well be the engine that revives economic growth.”

This is certainly encouraging news, as it reflects a growing shift from the survivalist/just treading water mindset to one that seeks opportunities for development and growth. However, we do have to be mindful of what other studies have revealed in terms of the wide gap in perception between how leaders view their organization, and the experiences employees have as members of their workforce.

For example, in a recent Towers Watson study, they revealed that organizations which effectively used their Employee Value Proposition (EVP) were five times more likely to have a more engaged workforce, and two times more likely to have a better financial performance than their competition.

Unfortunately, this study also revealed that the majority of organizations fail to tap into the full potential of this resource, with less than 43% of organizations employing a long-term strategy for how to implement and sustain these EVPs.

One of the more interesting findings of this study is how nearly half of those organizations identified as having successfully employed EVPs were also shown to consistently communicate to their employees how their needs are being met – along with the needs of the organization – through these measures.

As Richard Veal, head of Towers Watson’s Reward, Talent and Communication practice points out, the organizations that are most effective at using EVPs to drive employee engagement levels understand that they need to point out “how they meet their employees’ expectations and, in return, what behaviours they expect employees to exhibit to help them succeed”.

In yet another study conducted by LRN in conjunction with The Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California, only 3% of organizations worldwide were found to be self-governing – what they define as organizations which exhibit such traits as high levels of trust, collaboration, and commitment to the organization’s shared purpose.

What makes this study’s finding particularly noteworthy is that organizations which are self-governing have higher levels of innovation, employee loyalty, and customer satisfaction – outcomes which The Conference Board survey has revealed are top priorities for leaders going forward this year.

But the most troublesome finding in this study is the significant gap in how leaders perceive how their organization is managed compared to what their employees experience. As this last study reveals, CEOs around the world were three times more likely than their employees to view their organizations as mirroring the traits of a self-governing organization, with the gap in perception between C-suite executives and their employees being the greatest in the United States and Mexico.

In light of these different studies, it’s hardly surprising that the Gallup survey released last year revealed that employee engagement levels in today’s organizations continue to remain at extremely low levels – with only 13% of employees worldwide stating that they were “engaged”. In other words, in terms of your organization’s workforce, only one out of every eight of your employees “are psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions” to your organization.

When taken together, these studies clearly demonstrate tangible benefits in fostering a workplace environment where our employees feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their contributions. But they also highlight the problematic issue of how often the perceptions leaders have of what it’s like to work for them differs greatly from the realities of what their employees experience as members of their organization.

Given how The Conference Board’s study revealed that CEOs view integrity as the top leadership attribute, we need to recognize in light of these studies that what’s required on our part to reach those goals we set out to achieve this year is demonstrating a higher level of trust in the collective competencies of those we lead.

That we demonstrate our commitment to enable and strengthen the native talents, creativity, and insights of those under our care because we understand how this can help us ensure that we’re taking the best course of action to achieve our shared purpose.

To do such requires that we move beyond viewing our employees simply in terms of the functions and roles they play in our organization, to fostering meaningful connections with them so we can better identify and understand what matters to our employees, and how we can connect that to the needs of our organization.

Going forward, our ability to engage, retain and grow our employee base cannot be limited simply to the application of new measures heralding a change in our leadership approach to indicate our shift to encouraging growth over mere survival.

Rather, it also requires that we recognize the importance of building and sustaining relationships with those we lead. That we use those daily interactions with our employees to learn more about what matters to them; of what they want to accomplish as members of our community, and how we can empower them to achieve it through their collective efforts.

After all, if your employees don’t see or feel a connection between what they do and why your organization does what it does – if there’s no connection between what matters to them and what matters to your organization – how can we honestly expect them to bring their whole selves to work? How can we tap into their discretionary effort – into their native talents, creativity, and insights – if they don’t value and feel valued in what we collectively do?

If we are to be successful in our efforts this year to improve employee engagement levels, increase talent retention rates, and provide opportunities for employee growth and development, we need to openly address and manage this perceptual gap between how we view our organization and the realities our employees face, not to mention recognizing the role our employees play in achieving our shared goals.

We have to increase our awareness and understanding of what our employees experience through our leadership and how they view their contributions – not just in terms of professional growth, but also in terms of helping our organization to achieve its shared purpose.

What this all comes down to is the simple truth that we can’t demand excellence if we don’t encourage and enable commitment by connecting deeply with those we lead. So will this be the year that we put our employees first? I guess that all depends on how willing we are to employ consistently over the long term those measures which are necessary for our employees to succeed and with it, create the right conditions that will allow those under our care to thrive.

By Tanveer Naseer


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