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Donkin on Work - Human Capital Management

February 2006 – Measuring engagement

There was so much hot air emanating from the World Economic Forum in the little Swiss town of Davos last week you could have parascended the Jungfrau on the strength of the vocal thermals.

This annual power schmooze has never been a place for detail. These are big picture, conceptual artists painting with broad daubs on a planet-sized canvass. It is for lesser beings to make sense of the dialogue.

Normally I give the whole event a wide berth but this year I was drawn to the closing debate on “creative imperatives” that discussed among other things the need to attract and retain creative employees.

One delegate, a businesswoman from an internet company, outlined her staffing needs thus: “We want marines not mercenaries. You want people to come to work to achieve a mission; you do not want people who would just sell their services for the highest price.”

I spent the best part of last week trying to search out these office-based marines but they seemed thin on the ground. I didn’t find one working behind the counter when trying to buy my rail ticket to London. In fact my own mission was hampered when the sales clerk pulled down the shutter just as I came to the head of the queue, his only mission at that moment, a tea break.

Elsewhere I found the usual mixture of helpful and disinterested receptionists, shop assistants and restaurant staff but no-one resembling anything like a marine. I did come across a few people I might describe as mercenary. These were hard-nosed private equity backers engaged in sniffing out some profitable deals. They bounced ideas around and spoke with real excitement about various possibilities laced with risk. In reality they are neither marines nor mercenaries since they set their own agendas.

As someone who is more mercenary than marine these days, I disagree with the suggestion that selling your services is somehow disreputable. I always try to get the best price for my work and to do the best work I can, whatever the deal. For most of my career I was a salaried employee and now I work for myself, but wherever I have worked I have always tried to tailor my output to the expectations of the customer, be it a commissioning editor or a reader of this column.

Any employee can have a mission, the issue is whether that mission feeds the need of the enterprise for which they work. The mission for some is to get promoted as quickly as they can, no matter who else gets trampled under foot.

If the businesswoman was talking about employee engagement, as I believe she was, then she was right to focus on the need to stimulate the kind of discretionary behaviour among employees that extends beyond the basic job description.

The extent to which some businesses are investigating the dynamics of employee engagement became clear last week in a discussion with Tim Miller, director and group head of human resources and Debbie Whitaker, group head of human capital management at Standard Chartered Bank.

The bank registers employee engagement using feedback from a 12-question measure developed by Gallup, the polling company, to which it has added some questions of its own. The Gallup survey has been put together over several years, using focus groups and thousands of people in different industries to establish the kind of measures it can relate most closely to the bottom line.

The first five questions give a flavour of the method:
· Do you know what is expected of you at work?
· Do you have the materials and equipment you need to do your work right?
· At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
· In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
· Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?

My favourite is question number three. If every employee could answer that one positively the world might be a happier place. An extra one I would be tempted to add is the question outlined by Fred Reichheld, the former Bain & Co director in this space a couple of weeks’ ago: “How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a potential recruit?”

Mr Miller has looked at the scores from engagement surveys among bank branches in different parts of the world. “No matter where they are in the world, the more engaged branches perform dramatically better than those with lower engagement scores,” he says.

Analysis of management behaviours in the better scoring branches has produced some common factors. Managers in the best performing branches, he says, tend to deal with poor performance by learning from mistakes whereas the poorer managers tend to spend too much time analysing why something went wrong.

The best managers, he notices, are good at providing feedback and have the ability, he says, to contextualise their work, often drawing on analogies and storytelling techniques to explain the workings of the bank. In this way employees understand the importance of their own contribution.
Mr Miller recalls the apocryphal story of president John F Kennedy asking a man sweeping the floor at NASA how he saw his job. “Mr President I’m helping to put a man on the moon,” said the floor sweeper.

Observations of employee engagement are helping to shape various roles in the bank. “We distinguish between innate talents, knowledge and skills and try to ensure that people are in the jobs where they can play to their strengths,” says Ms Whitaker.

Strengths are gauged in different ways, including questionnaires. One set of questions looks for evidence of competitiveness, a strong indicator of selling ability. Actuaries tend to shine through their puzzle-solving ability and HR people display a natural desire to see people growing in their jobs.

But Mr Miller believes firmly that the HR role should not be associated with employee welfare. “HR has to earn its corn by demonstrating that it can add value through improved productivity. It’s there to drive business performance. If it’s doing anything else then it should stop it,” he says.

This “horses for courses” approach would seem a little bit more sophisticated than defining a workforce in military terms. Is helpful today to distinguish between the recruit and the mercenary? Even mercenaries can embrace a cause as Akira Kurosawa demonstrated in his film, The Seven Samurai. The world has plenty of hardy professionals. But can companies engage them in worthwhile work? Real motivation is found in the mission itself.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved