By engaging its employees, an organisation can enhance the productivity of its workforce. And this is an office truth that every CEO learns early
MEENA SURIE WILSON
What does outstanding leadership look like? Why do we need outstanding leadership? How can leaders become outstanding? These are enduring questions that interest the faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership, a global organisation with an office in Gurgaon, India.
In India, hierarchical differences are accepted and people with status and formal authority are respected.
One quality of outstanding leaders is that they are astute about keeping employees engaged. But what does ‘engage’ mean? Several synonyms can be found in a thesaurus: involve, engross, occupy, absorb, hold, charm, attract, connect, interlock, join, mesh, secure, and retain. Thus ‘engagement’ is a word with many nuances; and at some point in his or her career, every savvy CEO has to learn the art of engaging employees.
Here are three stories from senior leaders. These leaders either learned or demonstrated that employee engagement is important to them. The first story narrates how an early career trainee learns to engage his subordinates; the second story concerns a mid-career manager who connects with co-workers–winning their affection and respect; and the third story is about a high potential manager who commits whole-heartedly to his organisation.
Recognising the contribution of others
Let’s consider 25-year old Gautam, an academically gifted, state-ranked high achiever. He was recruited and fast-tracked by an Indian multinational company. Gautam was assigned to the Group chairman’s office to manage an urban development project. Much to his surprise, Gautam found that he could not count on the chairman’s office staff to do several small jobs that he wanted done—such as making phone calls, sending faxes, or setting up travel arrangements. It seemed to him that these subordinates were not treating the jobs he gave them with urgency or attention.
What Gautam learned is that he had to take the time to get to know people, find out more about their background with the organisation and listen to some of their stories about the headaches and satisfactions of their jobs. His position and credentials did not automatically earn him the authority to tell them what to do. But his involvement with subordinates as people created the cooperation he needed. To win the engagement of subordinates, leaders must dignify their feelings, thoughts and contributions.
Empowering subordinates through respect, responsibility and trust
In boss-subordinate relationships, it is the day-to-day interactions that matter. Arun is a mid-level manager who started to think about how he could become a better boss. He thought about his own previous bosses. There were several whom he had respected greatly and he tried to recall why he had liked working with them so much. Arun resolved that he would become the best boss he could be by changing some of his own behaviour, one step at a time.
Arun’s first goal was to develop his ability to manage situations calmly and with poise. He wanted to show patience with people rather than fly off the handle when a project was not working out as expected. His second goal was to keep subordinates occupied by delegating more work to them. Of course, he found it difficult to decide what to delegate, whom to delegate to and how much to involve himself in the work he had given to them. But he realised that getting work done by involving others would be motivating for them and would free him up to take on other responsibilities.
In a matter of months, his subordinates and peers started to notice these changes in Arun. When asked on a 360-degree survey, one subordinate commented: “In the last month, we have been able to talk to him freely because he is not as short-tempered as before.” Similarly, a colleague said: “He has mellowed down and to a large extent, has endeared himself.” Another subordinate noted that he appreciated that his boss had given him more responsibility. This subordinate felt motivated and energised about doing a good job. To earn commitment from co-workers, leaders must show respect and confidence in them.
Coaching top talent to handle difficult assignments
Already a senior manager in a conglomerate business, Kaushik was identified as a future top leader. His ongoing responsibilities were to manage factory operations and increase production capacity at a plant with an annual turnover of 15 crore rupees. To prepare him for top leadership, he was asked to also develop a network of vendors across India for distributing one of his company’s new products. Kaushik was told that he was being groomed for higher responsibilities. To enable him to do an outstanding job, one of the company’s directors would mentor him and he would be assigned an external coach.
In India, hierarchical differences are accepted and people with status and formal authority are respected. For Kaushik, attracting the personal involvement of a senior executive was an honour. The company’s willingness to assign him an external coach (for guidance and encouragement) meant that the company valued his achievements. He found the company’s interest in him very motivating. Kaushik realised that it was up to him to make use of this opportunity and give the assignment and his company his best effort. He felt that his duty was to advance his company in every way that he could. To earn the dedication of top talent, top leaders must challenge them and support their growth as leaders.
The question every CEO needs to reflect on is: Am I treating employees like property that my organisation owns? Or am I acknowledging employees as people by learning to listen to them, showing courtesy, communicating openly and helping them become more competent. For employees to engage with their organisations, the organisation must engage with their employees’ hopes and aspirations. Mutual engagement is the key to maintaining everybody’s commitment to the organisation’s strategic goals.