In 2013, research identified the five biggest mountains UK organisations need to climb. While these findings have been around for a while, they are worth revisiting in the context of a 2020 horizon, which then felt so far away, but now seems just around the corner.
The Conference Board CEO Challenge, carried out in conjunction with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), was based on responses from 729 leaders and managers. The table below, taken from the report, summarises the top challenges put forward by a cohort of more than 40 CEOs, along with suggested strategies for tackling them.
The employee engagement challenge
As a developer and mentor of leaders, it is columns 2 and 3 that resonate most with me. The strategy suggested in column 2, to ‘Raise employee engagement and productivity’, makes an immensely broad and challenging area sound quite straightforward. It isn’t. It’s a challenge that has thwarted many an HR initiative, and remains on the ‘top priority’ lists for the majority of senior leaders that I speak to.
Having spent the last five years or more heavily involved in the UK Government’s Task Force for Engagement, though, I can’t say that I’ve seen a massive improvement in this area. While the table shows engaging employees as one of the most significant challenges in the eyes of CEOs, it’s interesting that their actions, priorities, and attitudes so often suggest otherwise.
There are a number of tactics leaders can deploy to grow engagement, which all revolve around treating employees as people, not pawns. Communication and empowerment are two essential areas for improvement in most cases; achieving a workforce that is motivated to achieve specific goals is all about conveying an inspiring vision, and both trusting and enabling your people to reach it.
The leadership capability challenge
I see engagement as closely connected to strategies listed fourth and fifth in column 3, concerning human capital (a term I detest, along with its cousin ‘human resources’. I prefer to think of people as people).
Time and again, studies and reports such as this have demonstrated the link between leadership capability and employee engagement. Building an effective organisation is about hiring and nurturing talent at all levels, but especially at the top; in light of the tactics mentioned above, it is the actions and behaviours of leaders that make or break engagement, and therefore performance, for the rest of the workforce.
Despite this weight of evidence, even among those with ‘professional qualifications’, the subject of engagement remains worryingly peripheral. Many MBA programmes don’t focus much on this, yet finance, marketing and operations get significant attention.
I would suggest that a focus the three areas I’ve highlighted (developing senior leaders, growing middle and front-line managers, and engaging employees) is not only crucial, but that improving these would also significantly contribute to most of the other strategies in the table.
For anyone leading or managing others, developing the ability to engage is fundamental to success. To find out about strengthening your capability in this area, get in touch below.