Friday, 1 April 2016

Introducing the CORE Engagement Model

Rallying the Troops & Channeling the power of your INNER CORE. The path to an engaging culture and ethos.

“But wait, what’s with this overkill about changing myself? Isn't this supposed to be HR department’s job? And where am I going to get time for all this fluff? Do you even have a faint idea of what I am going through? Boss, I work 70-90 hours on most weeks. So, you think it’s fun to attend these stupid conference calls at the most unearthly hours? And now you want me to sit through this moral-science lecture, be-good, see-good, say-good, do-good… Give me a break, dude. Put yourself in my shoe, isn't that what your crap empathy thing is all about? How come you aren't able to practice it yourself? Go, talk a walk buddy. Listen, I haven't become a manager just from nowhere, okay? It's taken me years of hard work to get here. And I know how to get things done. Some nerve, Eh?! For one dolt of a junior executive to get back at me like this, in my 360 degrees feedback. To hell with it! Who does he think he is, to sit in judgement of me? Without knowing a thing about what it takes to keep the business running. Can’t even write a proper email! I am Sorry, I didn't mean to be rude. Forget it . Let’s talk some other time.”

Neeraj slammed the phone after talking to the new HR Manager Atul. This is one of those days again! He’s had it with these new initiatives and “revolutionary" ideas that seem to pop out of every nook and cranny of this place. 

Isn't that a typical conversation overheard a zillion times in some of the most familiar settings? It doesn't matter who is at the receiving end of this tirade, does it? The one who does the talking (or rather letting off steam!) definitely knows a thing or two about life in our organizations!

Alright, agreed that employee engagement is important. We’ll organize some training programs. The damn thing has this typical “soft” skill smell and feel to it. We’ll get some surveys and 360 degree feedback process to fix this. Maybe organize some “fun” events, order a few more tennis rackets, cake, coke and beer, and lo behold, we’re set! Rest of the survey findings can (and must be) be canned till next year. Watch out, lest the whole thing becomes a pain in the neck!

Well, that’s a story many of us can relate to. From all that we’ve seen about engagement so far, one thing is becoming clear. We are not just talking about changing of behaviors or even attitudes. It looks like, what we’re up against is something more deep rooted and fundamental. Basic belief systems and identity can’t be challenged without expecting a backlash, howsoever couched in genteel corporate jargon we may push them. And precisely for this reason, we need to show greater sensitivity while planning any radical culture change initiative of this nature. Geert Hofstede spoke at length about cultures characterized by high power distance (the acceptance of wide power differentials and inequalities across hierarchies in societies and organizations. Incidentally, India and many Asian societies score high on power distance index). And that didn't happen over few years or generations. It is deeply embedded in our collective consciousness. Higher people engagement may seem threatening to this equilibrium, at least to many who’ve thrived in it. A fear of loss of control is only part of the worry. “Will I be even taken seriously, if I am seen as being too people-friendly?” is a big concern for many stalwarts from the almost military style “command-and-control” management systems from the days of yore. And many of them are highly committed conscientious folks who’ve risen through the ranks by sheer grit and hard work. They have also tasted and seen success (at times massive) with the command-and control style. How do you get them on board?

If you are a business owner, CEO or a very senior leader, by now it must be obvious to you that the “environment” is where much of the work needs to be done. You cannot afford to antagonize the leaders and managers in your organization with highly disruptive change while they are feeling anxious and bereft of vital support. At the same time, this change is also critical to your massive growth and expansion plans. You do realize that without a highly engaging ethos, the existing weaknesses will undoubtedly get aggravated, triggering a domino effect with catastrophic consequences. You’ve been around long enough, and have see that happen to many businesses and organizations.

So, starting with this article, we will look at a wide gamut of issues related to environment (so beautifully expressed as “Mahaul” in Urdu), and how we can rally the troops to create an engaging culture.

In this article, let’s take a close look at the most fundamental ingredient of this culture:

The leader’s readiness for engagement. Who are we referring to here as a leader? Well, it could be the senior most leader in the organization, or the large number of senior, mid-level and junior leaders, managers and domain/functional experts who are expected to influence and get the best out of teams, working groups or even task forces. How “engage-worthy” are you willing to become? What happens if you choose to opt-out of (no doubt) what can be an intensely challenging change (at times), and stick with the status quo? An engaging culture cannot sustain itself in thin air. Every leader in your organization must embrace, enrich and and live this culture to make it transformative in nature.

To  those who are still unsure of hopping on the bandwagon: The alternative could be more of the same, or worse than what you’re seeing in your organization or team. If you are lucky to be experiencing massive success, at some point you might want to look at making it sustainable. You can come back to reading this series at that stage!

Great, so you’ve reached till this paragraph? Now, consider this: The trouble with leaving this engagement thing to your learning and development department, and the nobility around the corner office, can be manifold. Your folks might get all pumped up after attending those “revolutionary” offsite events and workshops. They come back brimming with ideas. But the excitement is rather short-lived as the fledgeling initiatives wither against the onslaught of daily work-realities. With support missing, cynicism creeps in big-time. That leads to not just loss of morale, but also a firm belief that nothing’s gonna change! And you bet, that belief can prove to be your Achilles heel, becoming a debilitating self-fulfilling prophecy over a period of time. There is no incentive to take the offbeat track. The “mojo” is missing as people are happy reacting and responding to, and fixing situations and events. They become territorial, wanting to safeguard their little silos and fiefdoms with odd chores like information hoarding and status gold-plating. Here on, you can keep dreaming about “fluff” like initiative, creativity, transparency and above all a passion for growth and renewal. And don't even think about highfalutin concepts like adaptability, innovation and genuine value creation! Insecurity, fear of irrelevance, and “impostor syndrome” were never known to be powerful motivators. Lip service takes over, while you keep wondering how this slide began.

As a leader, you certainly want to feel more powerful than that, don't you? Deep down, even you’d love to be a leader that people look up to. They want to be led by someone like you. While your peers are still stuck in their old patterns, you love to be a pioneer and trendsetter. To be part of a winning empowering narrative like this can be intensely rewarding. Readiness here, is not just about the intention, but also about at times swimming against the tide, and committing to a change pathway that holds immense potential to raise your sense of pride and fulfillment in whatever you do. In one bold and daring stroke, you’d have differentiated yourself from everyone else, especially your peers, and at times even your bosses! In a celebrated dog-eats-dog world, that means a lot, doesn't it? So, let’s see how to get moving.

What do you stand for? You may be a CEO or a team leader. Your span of control may be vast or limited. It doesn't matter! We’re going to do a small exercise now. Imagine that we are looking at a picture that has images of you, your team, and whatever you do in your role. A two-dimensional or three-dimensional snapshot. Pick whatever works for you. First, let’s take out everything related to the organization’s vision and mission for a moment from this picture. Then, we’ll remove the current top three priorities of the organization as well as your department and/or team. Next, we’ll take out the goals and objectives, and stated responsibilities of your role/position. In short everything that you are expected to deliver and also the manner in which you’re supposed to get there. Of course, we are not looking at your personal life at all! What remains after all of these have been dismantled, so to say? What do you expect to see in the picture?

Actually, nothing much! (Sorry to pop the balloon so fast) In case of normal leaders and managers, that is. Not quite so when it comes to the engaged leader! The picture actually starts looking very interesting in the latter case. This is where you get to see what he/she actually stands for at a core level. What are their values, their core beliefs, their passions, and the ideas and themes that excite them? What are their pet peeves and the frustrations that get their goat? What values do they hold so close to their heart that they can fight to the finish if these are violated or threatened? Is it a fanatical obsession with quality? Or is it about perfect design of an engineering product? Or maybe outstanding commitment to customer service, come what may? Is it about process rigor and predictability? Is it about an upbeat team culture? Or maybe an intense desire to be in the top 3% of super-achievers at all costs? Or is it about creating and nurturing a learning organization? 

Think about it. Look at yourself in this picture. What do you see there that is at the very core of the unique professional identity you seek for yourself? Feel like adding some adjectives? That’s great! Note them down. Now think about your career aspirations for the next three to five years and even beyond that. What more would you like to add into this core, so that the mere thought of it gets you buzzing with positive energy, exerts a magnetic charm and gives you goosebumps right now?
  • What must happen at this core? What change will get you those outcomes? 
Remember, in the previous article, we had prepared a radar chart “The Wheel of Engagement” to rate your own workplace? Now, we are going one layer closer to yourself with this analysis and outline what constitutes engagement for you at a very deep personal level.

The Core Engagement Model

Before that, let me give an overview about the conceptual framework around which I’ve written this Article series. I have called it the “Core Engagement Model”. It is illustrated below. This simple framework takes its inspiration from the multiple layers of planet earth (starting from the crust as the outer most layer, followed by the mantle, the outer core and the inner core). To me, the Core Engagement Model is a multi-layered template that leaders can use while transitioning from where our friend Neeraj was to a  zone of true engagement.

This is where the leader and his/her team connect to an inspiring, shared agenda and vision. And from there on,  enthusiastically commit to robust action leading to well-defined outcomes. 

CRUST: The outermost layer is the shallow end characterized by the ‘flavor' of the day, the crisis of the moment, that “ultra-urgent” thing. In short everything that leads to the familiar adrenalin surge, increased cortisol and other stress hormones for the leader/manager and the team. Oh yeah, this is where most of the firefighting histrionics happen. As they say: “Well done. Keep it up”!

MANTLE: Just below the crust is the mantle, the layer of relative stability, where the mundane, routine work is executed to keep the show running. Lacks the drama and edginess of the crust. Nothing much to write home about in terms of excitement either!

For many leaders and managers, most of the time is spent moving back and forth between the crust and the mantle. By the time one settles down at the mantle, the alarm bells start ringing for the next bout of firefighting and you’ve landed back in the crust.

OUTER CORE: This is the zone of the big picture, with hopefully a more long term focus on the organization’s big priorities and vision. A strong outer core may have a salutary effect on the mantle over a period of time, by properly aligning the leaders and teams and increasing their readiness to manage challenges better. That’s what the corner office nobility likes to believe! Alas, the picture isn't so perfect. Even with priorities being reasonably well sorted out, that “punch” seems to be missing somehow. People are doing what is expected. Sometimes they do surpass these expectations too. But we are nowhere close to the engaging ethos that we’ve been searching for all this while. That is what leads us to the inner core, which is actually about the leader’s centrality in creating and nurturing this engaging ethos.    

The inner core is all about the Essence of you the Leader and your core identity. Your passions, values, ideas and everything that reflects your style and substance as a leader. This is the most critical aspect of an engaging leader. The trouble is that many leaders are so busy in the mantle and crust regions, maybe occasionally straying in and out of the outer core. But, rarely getting the time to reflect on how to operate out from the inner core, and align everything they do in the other layers to the essence of who they are and who they aspire to be. I believe that this missing link is leading to turmoil at the other three layers. Perhaps we end up spending too much time, energy and resources at the crust. Or we are wallowing in the almost indifferent monotony of the mantle. And even in the outer core, while we maybe connected to some (“divinely ordained”) business/organizational vision and charter, the fact is we’re just going through the motions. It is the inner core where the greatest opportunity exists for scripting a powerful narrative of renewal. I’ll go so far to say, that makes it the fascinating pivot for a renaissance of sorts. So, let’s now take a closer look at the view from your INNER CORE.

View from the INNER CORE:
Time to create a simple mind-map, or a 1 para write-up! Get your pen and notebook ready folks. Reflect on the following question for 3-5 minutes:

When the history of your current role (and maybe  the next one, and the one after that too, if you think it makes sense) is compiled, what would you like to be remembered for? Beyond achieving (maybe ambitious) targets and objectives. What will people excitedly recall about your “era” and the impact that it made?

Some examples ( I am sure you’ll come up with even better ones!): “It was during Asifa’s time that our department totally embraced knowledge management as a way of life, creating a superior learning organization of  sorts. Everyone felt so charged up in learning new things, sharing knowledge and even enriching the knowledge continuously. Not everyone can motivate people to contribute so much, and almost selflessly” 

“Our customer relationship and engagement practices were so completely transformed when Mayank was heading our group. So many of our accounts got upgraded to real ‘partnership’ level. He has this amazing radar to detect the customer’s unarticulated desires, and then inspiredly drive the rank and file to go all out for audacious goals.”

Scan what you’ve written and mark out the keywords, special themes, ideas, and also the adjectives you may have used while describing. Make sure that these are way beyond what you are expected to deliver in your role. The key is to peg them a few notches above what you think is possible. Yes, slightly larger than life in that sense. So that it’s gonna be truly exciting! Refine and add more words/ideas if needed, especially things that mean the world to you. Over a period of time, you can even create a personal vision statement based on this view from the core. More on that later.

And for what reason are we doing this here? Well, this inner core is an intangible factor that people can “sense” in a leader. It doesn't matter whether you know about it, or even what you think about this core and my simple core engagement model. Well, the fact is that they seem to “get it” without much trouble! Teams have this amazing “sixth sense” to figure out if the leader’s inner core is having some worthy matter or not. There is no need for any explicit communication on your behalf. You don't need to herd them to a conference room for a 360 degree feedback session either! They have an almost “clairvoyant” knack of tapping in and figuring it out. And just to repeat, the organization’s vision or business goals are not part of this core! They don't need to go looking for it in your inner core, and they know that pretty well! So stop giving them sermons about the VISION of the Organization at these times! 

Now, this might be a provocative idea. I am okay to stick my neck out nevertheless! When people look to get inspired by a leader, it is this “intangible” inner core they want to connect to. Beyond the routine drudgery of everyday life, it is this “connection” that has the potential to motivate people to embrace and ace disruptive change with confidence. And that’s why time spent in defining and refurbishing this inner core can fetch you big rewards in the long term. And also swipe you in to the exclusive club of engaging leaders. You can no doubt save all this mighty trouble and continue being an executioner. The choice is for you to make.

Great! So, now we have a fair idea about what’s there in your inner core. At least we have a draft version that can be refined later. Now bring back the items we had removed earlier (related to the organization’s vision and goals, and the specific targets you and your team/department are pursuing). As you keep pursuing these, how can you ensure that the inner core also shines through? Let’s take a short break now from all this talk about core! Hmmm, the time is ripe to wade into another potentially provocative theme of this article!

The Politics of Engagement

How savvy are you to effectively work with the “political” backdrop within your team and organization? Many of us love to proclaim that we hate “office politics”, and yearn for the pristine glory of the organization where pure professionalism thrives! The elusive search for that organization continues, and be that as it may! In the meantime, let’s look at how a successful leader takes the political bull by its horns, and installs a result-focused and engaging culture. There is a reason for bringing in this topic right here in this article. In spite of the best intentions and devoted efforts, many leaders flounder when faced with disparate interests and agendas that catch them off-guard. When diverse and at times competing interests collide, the readiness of the leadership faces a litmus-test. In this article series, we have looked at various skills, ideas, behaviors and capabilities that are needed to nurture an engaging work ethos. We are going to see many more. And I am sure, you’ll identify many that aren't covered too. Good, it is great to see that list grow. But, do you also realize there are times when you’ve got to summon up many of these elements without advance notice, at real-time, in parallel and in the midst of extreme threats and challenges, much more than what we’ve seen so far? As Captain of the ship, it is moments like these that will create a narrative about you. Your response and approach at this real-time is what sets the tone, tenor and character of the meaty part of what we call “real” engagement. Long after your current assignment or role is done with, this narrative has the ability to float around in the “Mahaul" (Urdu for atmosphere).

You’d like to rally the troops and convince them to sign up? They are keen to know how well you’d fare when engagement may not look like an easy and obvious option. It’s all very well to figure out your inner core, but to what extent can you defend this inner core in times like these?

I have a feeling that this section may open up more questions than answers. And that is fine at one level! It is good to toss up questions and figure out answers and insights in due course of time. 

We’ll also look at some of the dilemmas, challenges and threats that present themselves in our teams and organizations. And what does it take to be an engaging leader while responding to them. Note that this is not an exhaustive list by any means. The idea is to explore meta-approaches that can then be fitted into other contexts and situations too. Here are a few ideas to engage with the political system in the organization.

Connect the Inner Core to the Outer Core
Go back to those wonderful points you’d outlined in your inner core description write-up/mind map. Quite often, leaders who aren't lucky to get their inner core level aspirations met may experience high levels of frustration and feelings of stagnation. It is a no-brainer that such leaders are seen as (near listless) executioners by their teams. Instead, the smart approach is to seek out opportunities aligned with organizational level priorities and initiatives to “satisfy” your own core level wants.

It could be a big change in way of working, an audacious business goal, an operational excellence initiative, a radical change in business or market priorities. Pick something where you can work out from your inner core too. That way you can also access more resources and support from the organization. To an extent, you may be able to make this connect in your primary role and responsibility (maybe in the department, project or program that you are responsible for). Well, that’s expected of you. Make sure you don’t settle only for that. Identify initiatives and priorities of the organization that you and your team can actively champion, beyond the call of duty. This is where you have greater opportunity to increase your influence and visibility within the organization. You are now proactively seeking out these opportunities, keeping in mind the interests that match your inner core. Rather than waiting for hand-outs from your bosses. What’s more, you can also check for ideas that may resonate with their core too! You are slowly becoming a pro in this. You’ll need to fine-tune your pitching skills so that you can swing deals in your favour. Before you even realize it, you are now at the centre of significant political churn and maneuvering! Well, it’s just a start. So fasten your seat belts. Over a period of time, you may even champion ideas from your inner core that can add superb value to the organization. This becomes your core agenda that will shine through and eventually provide the “buzz” about your “era”.

Ideas Bind: “Recruit” a Core Engagement Team
Cool! We have secured a vehicle or channel for your inner core agenda. You need the right folks to support you in taking it forward from here. Within your team, identify people who seem to have a natural flair for the themes and ideas that you have chosen. Forget about hierarchy for a moment. Simply list out the names of people regardless of their role or designation. Remember the Strengths exercise we did in the previous article on “Rallying the Troops”? It’s good to revisit that now. Identify names from outside your team too. Within the wider organization, your bosses, and peers too. Add in key movers and shakers in the organization where possible. Prepare a simple chart with all the names randomly thrown in. Doodle away to glory and put some smileys too if possible! This is your potential core engagement team. Make it look awesome. Along with their strengths, also consider ideas and themes that resonate well with their core too. Some names may get added or dropped as you do this. Look for a good mix of experts, idea “gurus”, self-starters, cool and quiet contributors, trouble-shooters, and risk takers. An eclectic mix indeed!

This is your inner circle. They are the potential change catalysts and evangelists for your change agenda. Keep them with you always! Not that others are to be excluded.

A core engagement team rallies around compelling ideas and themes. Especially when it is led by someone who sets the agenda, owns and drives it with an absolute firm conviction and clarity of thought. It is surprising that there are several leaders who don't realize the overarching importance of passionately radiating this belief. 

Talk to them informally at an individual level and in focus groups, and gather ideas and inputs that will help you prepare a blueprint later. Right from the start make sure you are in a deep and active listening mode. Pay close attention to your non-verbal cues (the smiles, the nods, the gestures and eye contact & more) and demonstrate openness and inclusiveness as core values. Do everything possible to make it part of their core! You are connecting at the level of Purpose and Values. That’s the key, and frankly that’s what matters over everything else. Don the mantle of the all-knowing high-priest/priestess now, and you’ll have all the time in the world to regret at leisure later. And get bogged down in the maze of micro-management. Aww, some of our leaders simple love that golden brown CRUST, don’t they?

Bring in some Naysayers too
It ain’t a core engagement team if you’ve packed it with your favorite yes-men and yes-women. Make sure that you include a few of those straight-talking folks who care two hoots about what you think when they hurl truth-bombs at you. They can tell you facts without batting an eye. Challenges to the status quo are to be welcomed at times. You need them to give you the all-important early warning signs that the “Hosanna Crowd of Yes-men” won’t come up with. But then, you know how much of a pain in the neck these naysayers can be, at times. Of course, you’ve got to avoid appearing dismissive or intimidated by such dissent (healthy or otherwise). We’d spoken about having ground rules sometime back to rein in the super-assertive folks once in a while. Press the refresh and reload button please!

When you talk to the Naysayers, make sure you note down the points of differences, divergent views and ideas. Keep clarifying with open ended questions. Gather multiple perspectives, as some of these folks are fine thinkers with a keen sense of observation. Their brains are the catchment area. Congratulations, Look at you! You have started your formal risk identification phase already! Pick on those brains right away!

Manage the Spoilers
Then there are the spoilers. These are folks who work at cross purposes to derail progress. They have their own axe to grind perhaps. When you’re taking up initiatives that disturb a certain established order, some restlessness is bound to be stirred up. This cannot be avoided fully. As a leader, you've got to spot them and keep a close watch on their actions and motives. At times, you may need to periodically “allow” good and not-so-good facts and data to “surprisingly” or “accidentally” tumble out into the open so that the spoilers face a little extra “heat”, and are feverishly second guessing your next move! Of course, keep your core team and the naysayers fully engaged and “in the loop”. A lot of the opposition plays itself out via subtle intrigue and indirect subterfuge, rarely as direct confrontation. So an effective informal radar is good to develop and keep, so you have a sense for which way the wind is blowing! Some of them may realize the futility of continued opposition at some point in time. Especially when they see an engaged work ethos at work they may rush off to other places to peddle their wares (it’s a pity that many of them haven't ever experienced the joys of an engaged workplace in their lives)!

The other strategy some spoilers may use is to provoke you into emotional outbursts. Stay calm and composed when people try to unnerve you, push your hot buttons. As they say, don't wrestle with a pig. Avoid the wrestle, and they get confused, as they were raring for a fight. Oh, Come on! A composed and measured response knocks them off! This is a trick such people deploy to divert your attention, and the attention of others from some of their own shortcomings, insecurities and also to hide some skeletons in the closet. So, they manufacture outrage and drama by provoking you. Or they feign feelings of hurt, sullenness, or despair to put you on the defensive. It is a manipulative ploy to get what they want. The bright light of information and searing heat of facts can be a bit too much for some of them at times! So, make sure that transparency is given a leg up in your regime. Some spoilers will flee in no time! Yo! You just stay cool as a cucumber while all of this happens!

Yes, you might like to think that some of them haven’t outgrown their kiddish selves. Pity them, don't sympathize beyond a point. Keep the focus on the issue at hand. Express your disagreement or anger or disappointment very firmly without raising your voice. Instead of thumping hard on the desk and growling, how about saying :”Mark, I feel extremely disappointed and angry at the way this issue is left to fester. We had identified three options that you had agreed to consider, to get some progress. It’s been a week and I am yet to see any movement. Is there something that I am not able to see here? I am keen to know your side of the story”. Your emphasis is on facts, and how that has made you feel. Mark can clear the air vis-a-vis the facts, you've left the door open to reconsider your opinion based on his clarification. He has also got a clear picture about your feelings. By stating it matter-of-factly, you have avoided raising your blood pressure, and coming across as someone “not in control” of his/her emotions. Most importantly, the issue has not been aggravated with inter-personal dimensions that may perhaps delay the resolution of the issue, and even damage your standing in the fraternity.

If the spoiler runs wild with his/her opposition, then don't hesitate to take drastic steps, including disciplinary action, termination and the like. That may turn out to be the best option for them and you.


In this article, we have looked at the CORE Engagement Model. Our focus in the previous articles was on keeping the show running, and stabilizing the situation when things go out of hand. As we’ve seen in the CORE Engagement Model, this is the zone of CRUST and MANTLE. We want to do better. The answer lies in operating out of the inner core. We have learnt to set up a core engagement team. This is about rallying the troops to build a truly engaging work ethos. We have also looked at navigating the political landscape, building convergence and managing divergence. This is a critical skill that the leader must develop to ensure that the change agenda thrives. In the upcoming articles, we will look at institutionalizing the right tempo for the engaged team ethos. We will later look at self-leadership for the leaders to engage themselves!

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