Employee engagement: Leading from the front

Putting in long hours for a corporation is hard…Putting in long hours for a cause is easy.

Following on the theme of last week’s post about the role senior leaders can play in employee engagement — and how engagement creates business results — a quote from Tesla CEO Elon Musk.

Employee engagement and CEO engagement

As results from our global survey come in, preliminary findings indicate a gap between what motivates and engages employees and what their companies actually deliver.

Another preliminary finding shows a worrying lack of qualified leaders to guide companies through the challenges ahead — a perception shared by executives and employees.

I was thinking about these data points last week while listening to a presentation about patient safety and satisfaction at Annie Penn Hospital in Reidsville, NC. This acute-care facility in an old tobacco town has won national recognition for high levels of employee engagement. President Mickey Foster described a degree of worker buy-in to Annie Penn’s mission that he says makes the high scores possible.

Nurses, doctors, and staff take the possibility of a hospital-caused infection as a personal challenge — they are invested in the health of the patients, and of the hospital itself. Part of that comes from the nature of the work, and part from the pride the community takes in its hospital. But a lot of it, I think, comes from Foster’s leadership. 

This is a CEO who will grab a mop if he sees a spot on the floor. He has cycled through several front-line jobs, from food-service to mail delivery, to better understand what his workforce does every day — and build camaraderie in the process. His own commitment to quality, and to his people, drives the culture of the entire place.

One question I had at the meeting — and I should mention that as a member of the Annie Penn advisory board and a trustee of its parent health system, I’m an interested party and a fan of Mickey Foster’s — was how well that kind of lead-from-the-front style can scale. Annie Penn is significant organization, but not a huge one.

We’re about to find out. Foster was just named President of a much larger hospital in the same system. My guess is that the top boss can set the tone even in very big enterprises, and that CEO engagement is a key to employee engagement.

It’s up to senior leaders to boost employee engagement

We’ve been talking a lot about the relationship between employee happiness and productivity and the factors that contribute to engagement—topics that are in the news more and more as companies realize the value of cultivating a positive corporate culture.

Last Sunday, The New York Times published an article (“Why You Hate Work,” Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath) from the leaders at The Energy Project, a consulting firm built on the idea that “the way we’re working isn’t working.” The company recently teamed up with the Harvard Business Review to survey 12,000 employees about their engagement and productivity levels.

Their study found that employees whose physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs are met at work report higher job satisfaction and levels of focus. The researchers also found that, while senior executives are typically aware of the correlation between engagement and performance, most are not investing in meeting the needs of their employers or promoting work/life balance as much as they probably should.

 The energy of leaders is, for better or worse, contagious. When leaders explicitly encourage employees to work in more sustainable ways — and especially when they themselves model a sustainable way of working — their employees are 55 percent more engaged, 53 percent more focused, and more likely to stay at the company, [The Energy Project’s] research with the Harvard Business Review found.

As evidence that engagement leads to productivity grows, senior leaders should plan to in the wants and needs of their employees in the years ahead—to ignore worker satisfaction any longer may be detrimental to the overall health of the business.


Communication leads to engagement


“In China we don’t encounter a problem in terms of ‘supply.’ The issue for us and many multinationals is how to foster their loyalty and engagement longer-term.” Randall Bradford, International Vice President for Human Resources, Medtronic

In our Global Talent 2021 study, we concluded that employers who communicate openly with employees about their performance, leadership potential, and skills have more motivated teams that are driven to develop new skill sets. Perhaps in keeping with Mr. Bradford’s observation, companies in industrial economies were somewhat less likely to formally segment employees.

segment employees

Making employees feel more part of the conversation allows them to better understand their employers’ expectations and set performance goals. This motivation across the organization is critical to business success, as employee engagement closely correlates to the overall health and prosperity of a company.

Connecting, empowering, and engaging employees


Gone are the days when 95 percent of the workforce went into the office and were full or part-time employees. People are working remotely around the globe, you have freelancers and contractors. You may have partners’ employees working next to your own employees. You can’t gather everyone around the water cooler, yet HR still needs to meet the needs of the business.

                 Lisa Rowan, Research Vice President of HR, Talent and Learning Strategies at IDC

How are successful companies rethinking their approach to employee engagement and meeting the changing demands of their workforces?  In her article “Three Steps to Boost Employee Engagement,” Susan Galer writes about her discussions with three HR executives at the annual SAPInsider Human Resource (HR) 2014 Conference.

These industry experts told her that, to address changing employee engagement models and workstyles, companies need to:

  • Empower employees.
  • Connect silos.
  • Engage with five generations of workers.

You can read more in Galer’s article here.

Paying workers to quit is good strategy

Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, announced in his annual letter to shareholders that the company is offering its warehouse workers up to $5,000 to quit their jobs:

“We hope they don’t take the offer; we want them to stay. Why do we make this offer? The goal is to encourage folks to take a moment and think about what they really want. In the long-run, an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company.”

The “Pay to Quit” program is part of a larger employee empowerment strategy, which also includes development programs (Amazon will pay 95% of tuition for employees to take courses for in-demand fields) and flexible work locations for customer service support team members who need or prefer to work from home.

Giants like Amazon and Google often make headlines for their approaches to improving employee satisfaction; while there is no way to directly measure the relationship between a company’s workforce strategy and financial performance, the focus on organizational culture at both organizations suggests that employee engagement is a powerful new tool for business growth.

Bezos writes in his letter that Amazon wants “to find better ways to do things internally – things that will both make us more effective and benefit our thousands of employees around the world.”