Friday, 25 March 2016

Engaged Execution: Rallying the Troops with an Enabling Culture

What does it take to unleash a high performing team ethos that draws in and nurtures the finest talent? There is general understanding and acceptance that lack of an engaged workforce is detrimental to the survival of any organization. Apart from the annual ritual of employee satisfaction surveys and customary task forces thereafter, to what extent are we creating conditions that support employee engagement? Remember what we discussed about laying the foundation? What matters is the everyday instances of employee engagement in our interactions and actions. In the first part of this series, we had looked at delegation of responsibilities, especially the platinum handshake. As you might have noticed, that is largely a transactional view. You want to get something done, so you’re ensuring everything is in place to get you the best outcome. One of the enduring jokes in office corridors is about the manager who suddenly becomes friendly, “warm” and approachable before assigning some “extra” work. That saccharine sweet grin and the glint-in-the-eye is more pronounced after 6 pm for “urgent” and “critical” activities! The touchscreen controls are de-activated, as soon as the work is over. Till the  next critical activity comes along. In the interregnum, it’s perfectly kosher to look through you as life is too hectic.

Ever wondered what’s the scene like vis-a-vis people engagement the world over? Take a one minute break right now. On your online search window type out the following and press enter: “percentage of employees engaged at work in the global workforce”.  Spend some time reflecting on the search results. No doubt, our thought leaders don't spare a chance to wax eloquently about why engagement is critical to the bottom line of any organization. So, then, how do you relate to these search results? Have you sensed a disconnect between intention and reality in your own environment? Or would you rather repudiate this picture? If not, think about the massive opportunities that are perhaps getting passed over, almost at a global level, due to insufficient people engagement in our organizations! I’m sure you’d agree, it doesn't take that long for sub-par engagement to degenerate to plain indifference. In the Indian sub-continent this not-too-wide spectrum is somewhat immortalized in the everyday phrase “Chalta Hain”, a vivid form of “sometimes-couldn’t-care-less-and-somehow-the-show-will-keep-running-acceptance”!
The global talent war and crisis can only get worse if our workplaces aren't engaging people enough. It could show up in many ways. Inability to grab new opportunities, difficulties in growing and scaling up, slow and inadequate response to competition, poor customer satisfaction, lack of innovation, dysfunctional and toxic work-cultures, inability to retain high-caliber talent, an inadequate leadership pipeline, lousy fixes to big problems, work-life balance that’s gone kaput… the list is quite long indeed. For a leader, it could mean endless frustration fueled by a vicious cycle of loss of control plus a sense of virtual siege. There’s so much more you’d love to take on, but you feel held back constantly. You secretly admire those few peers who seem to have cracked it all with an upbeat team that delivers. You’re convinced that they’re mostly lucky to have got “excellent people” to work for them. It’s tempting to rationalize it: “You see, it is the global forces ‘out there’ at work. Talent crunch is crippling everyone!” “The new generation of employees are too-demanding, they’d rather chill out than contribute enthusiastically”. How can we be an exception, after all?! It’s hardly a consolation to know there is comfort in numbers, isn't it? But it can certainly lull many leaders into a sense of despondency and inaction, waiting for things to sort out, waiting for the “organization” to fix it, for the recruitment team to get the right folks, for the learning and development group to manage the talent… So much indeed needs to be done!
Yes, it is absolutely essential that the entire organization works in cohesion to get around this crisis. A word of caution though! What is this crisis we’re trying to fix here? What exactly is the problem? More importantly, do we recognize the danger with all-encompassing labels like “talent crisis”? Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? How can we avoid similar diagnostic errors, especially when the stakes are so high? While the other departments get their act together, can at least some part of the talent crisis be handled better with an upbeat work culture? Wherever you are at the moment, (in the meantime) isn’t it better to work from your circle of influence as Stephen Covey so beautifully told us many years ago?
Let’s step back for a moment.

Imagine a dream scenario where you have sorted out this engagement conundrum. With an engaged workforce what change are you expecting to see? And don’t just look at it from their perspective. Let’s turn that gaze inward, for a change!

What does Engagement mean to you?
What makes you feel like being in flow as part of an engaged work ethos? What do you look for at an individual level? Is it the nature of work? Do you value the scope to learn, grow and enrich yourself? Is it about the quality of inspiring leadership that you can look up to? Or is it about feeling valued, trusted and cherished, and thereby motivated from deep within to enthusiastically contribute, and enjoy the time that you spend in the organization? Is it about the amazing collaborative bonds with people that seem to work like magic?
What is your idea of engagement?
Draw a circle on a piece of paper. Divide the circle into multiple sectors, as shown below. Your circle now looks like a wheel with multiple spokes (five to eight spokes will do for now). Alongside each spoke write down one key aspect of employee engagement that matters to you personally. Let’s use this wheel like a radar chart now. You can rate each aspect of employee engagement on a scale from 0 to 10. The centre of the circle is where all the spokes intersect. This point corresponds to a score of Zero. The point where the spoke meets the periphery of the circle corresponds to a score of 10. On this scale, what score will you give for the quality of leadership in your organization and your department? Yes, you’re getting to rate your leaders and managers too! Is it 7 out of 10, or more, or feels like lesser the better? What about the potential to learn? How about growth opportunities? To what extent do you feel valued and cherished? Go ahead and rate every aspect, and mark the score on the spokes of your wheel. Connect all these points to form a radar plot. How does this plot look like?

Are you happy with what you see? If not, what would you like this plot to look like? Are some spokes better off with higher scores? Would you feel more engaged in that case? Where would you like the changes to happen? You can mark your desired scores for each spoke and join all those points together. This will give you one more radar plot on the same diagram. It will be a great idea to get a few of your immediate reports also to do this exercise. And then compare all the charts. Where do you see divergence and convergence? Are you all having similar ideas about an engaged workplace? How similar?
So you’d like to rally the troops and inspire them to reach for audacious targets? And in the process fill them with a powerful sense of pride that fuels the pursuit of success? Let’s explore how this can be done. In this article, we’ll specifically look at two broad themes of rallying the troops with an engaging and enabling culture.
  • Igniting Excellence: Enriching the Work Experience
  • Influential Leadership: A Valued Partnership built on Trust and Engagement
In this article we will focus on two critical aspects of Igniting Excellence: A Strengths based model of engagement, and Connecting to a compelling Vision.

Igniting Excellence: Enriching the Work Experience
What can you do to provide the opportunity to learn, grow and build a great career? Are you nurturing a work culture that stimulates and keeps them engaged? Guess what, on a typical afternoon at work, such jaded statements are all that you’ll need to put people to sleep! Well, that’s what happens when pious intentions are left hanging in the air (and powerpoint slides) with minimal follow-up. Luckily the finest organizations and most effective leaders have demonstrated how to make it work!
Let’s take a look at some of the best practices:
Let a thousand strengths bloom!: Keep those weaknesses aside for a while, and shift the emphasis to identifying and harnessing strengths. Again, rather than leaving it to chance discoveries, make sure that you dedicate time to observe and study your people. And it’s  not just your reportees, but also your seniors and peers! For instance, when you want to escalate some issue to higher-ups, see how well you can leverage their special talents and skills. Maybe your manager Sudha is extremely tough when it comes to negotiating pricing terms with difficult customers. Your colleague Reema has amazing skills while interfacing with “pain-in-the-neck” internal resourcing teams.
Spend time with them. How do they handle challenges? How do they handle success? What’s their reaction to criticism? What strengths and special skills set them apart? Analyze their big successes in the past. Study their comeback stories after embarrassing setbacks and failures. Where do they draw strength from? When they hit a plateau, how do they relaunch themselves? What do you think is that special ingredient that keeps him/her ticking?
Perhaps, Reema doesn't even know that exact strength which seems to work always for her. It could be her confident unflappable tone when the staffing manager tries to drive a hard bargain! There’s a point beyond which he simply runs out of steam!
Whenever you get time, ask them how they solved a major problem, or found a unique solution. How did your team lead Maya manage to motivate her recalcitrant peer to collaborate with her?
Let them do the talking. Find out those special qualities. Document them. A Mind map will be perfect. Give one branch for each person. And for each person, note down visible and hidden strengths. Put a * wherever you find a strength that'll be vital to secure your goals. Do the same exercise for people in other teams, departments and business units, or even partner organizations. If done well, this is a goldmine! Every time you take up an ambitious target, quickly scan through the Strengths Map for your team, and believe me, you’ll get a lot of ideas. Keep the document updated, when you notice new strengths that weren't seen earlier!
And now to utilize these strengths. Make it a practice to regularly study the strength chart, and identify opportunities for people to showcase these strengths. We had seen this “trick” of engineering positive brownie points in my article about Everyday Trust and Appreciation. Time to revisit that idea! Actively scan through the strengths list. Match up people with complementary strengths. And create activities for them! Yes, the strength is the horse, and the activity is the cart! Get your order right, folks! Imagine the waves of positivity that’ll become routine in your team as everyone gets to showcase their special skills and strengths more often. And to know that they’re being actively sought out and feted too! Does that sound like at least a slightly more engaging work ethos?
Another secret tip: Do this wherever possible, especially at the water-cooler corner, in the verandah, the coffee lounge bar (just about anywhere). Don the role of a name-dropping Santa! ‘Casually’ talk about Reema’s negotiation skills in an everyday-run-of the mill conversation. Or Neeraj’s analytical skills. Or maybe Rakesh’s presentation slides. Keep name-dropping at random. Let others also notice and know! If you can do it diligently, you can soon spread a wave of positive acknowledgement with this seemingly minor step! It feels good too, as you’re using authentic information here! Don't overdo it. Simply say something like: “You know what, this chap Roshan is great at driving teleconferences. Quite a good meeting organizer; gets a lot covered methodically in every discussion.” The idea is to create a positive buzz in the floor and even beyond. Gently nudge people to do the same for others too! With simple questions like: “Hey, I was quite impressed by Neeraj’s report. What did you find interesting?” Chances are that most people will play along. We’ll deal with the others later! For now, get started with the Strengths Map. Don't wait for the pigs to fly!
Connecting to a Shared Vision: The organization has a vision. You may have one for your department or program or project. How can people connect it to their context? The idea is not to read it out or explain the vision, or even stick up posters on the wall! Rather to use it as a guiding framework that will open up opportunities for them. If your vision is to “be the trendsetter and the standard bearer in the field of consulting”, help people get a feel for all the amazing things they stand to gain when they imbibe the values and principles that go with this vision.
Get them to visualize clear and relatable outcomes. Do active brainstorm sessions and help them identify and articulate specific behaviors, qualities and forward looking commitments thereof that will further this agenda. And what happens when that happens? In what way does this impact their roles and responsibilities? Is this inline with their own dreams and aspirations? Side-stepping this question for the “time-being” may seem convenient, but achieves precious nothing, and you know that from your own experience, don't you?! As this picture emerges, what are their concerns and fears? How specifically can you alleviate those, and provide a robust sense of hope instead? Maybe some things are not in your control either! Where can you take support and guidance from?
Look again at them. Do you sense a resistance at some level? Find out more right away. Is it just an irrational fear of change? Or has it got to do something with their self-image and perceived capabilities? In what way can you support them to get aligned? All change isn't exciting. Is there a way to ease the transition? Also, perfection may not be needed everywhere, right? Can you clarify that properly, if it helps?
And it isn't only about responsibilities. How well do you plan to empower them with appropriate levels of authority for decision making? If you don't tell them, they wont know! Agreed, you may not have got it so neatly articulated for yourself on a platter like this. Your seniors may have left it open ended for you to figure out. They did it in their own wisdom. Is it time to make a new beginning? Remember that result window on your browser when you went looking for global trends on employee engagement?
Do you sense any conflict in value systems? Now, that’s a big one, and answers may not be easy! But forewarned is forearmed as they say!
One key point to note: Simplify! Wherever possible, make sure the changes can be seamlessly integrated into their way of working without adding useless overhead. While that’s obvious for sure, it is important that the right balance is maintained, so people can enjoy the process rather than feel overwhelmed!
And remember, at one level this is more about you than them! If you want to make that transition to a leader from a manager, this is where you should be spending some more quality time. Because, they are looking for reference points that they can relate to. And the first port of call for that reference point is you. So, go back to the questions in the previous paragraphs and once again turn the gaze towards you! How can you make a compelling and engaging pitch for this vision both explicitly and implicitly? If there are mismatches, especially at the value level vis-a-vis your own value system, what do you plan to do? Open yourself up for frank insights, and have the courage to look them squarely in the eye. Even if you don’t act on them right away, it’ll save you a lot of bother later! When you start connecting with this level of clarity you’ll radiate an authenticity which is the hallmark of a true leader. Good! That’s one more item ticked off on your engagement checklist!
Another important question you must ask yourself is about giving up success formulae that worked for you in the past! We like re-using these formulae, sometimes well past their sell-by date! With these new insights and clarity, go back to the drawing board, and check if those magic-formulae need some healthy tweaking if not wholesale dumping! Letting go can be hard, especially when it is something that’s stood you in good stead. But remember, fortune favors the brave and wise! So don't flinch, having come this far.
In the upcoming parts of this article, we will explore further aspects of rallying the troops with an enabling culture. We will have additional insights on Igniting Excellence and also look at various aspects of Influential Leadership in practice.

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