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
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
The first five questions give
a flavour of the method:
· Do you know what is expected of you at
· 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
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
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.