Transforming Employee Engagement–Don’t Ask How, Ask Why

One of the most familiar platitudes in business is that “people are our most important asset” or, perhaps the more evolved, “our people are a competitive advantage.”  Unfortunately, many companies become overly concerned with low employee engagement scores and other measurements they consider to be indicators of success.  Perhaps the more important piece of information is in understanding why you want to engage employees in the first place; what strategy will their engagement enable? Companies obsess about a generic employee engagement score, but the best are much more concerned with how employees can generate and sustain a competitive advantage.

According to Great Place to Work® Best Companies to Work , “committed and engaged employees who trust their management perform 20% better and are 87% less likely to leave an organization…financial performance of publicly-traded companies on our 100 Best Company List consistently outperform major stock indices by 300% and have half the voluntary turnover rates of their competitors.” These are compelling data, but the secret lies beneath the numbers.

Companies Disrupting the Disengagement Trend

How do the most employee-friendly companies do it? Net App, NuStar, REI, and SAS are all-stars on the Fortune 100 Best Places to Work list.  They’ve all been on the list multiple times, and they’re there for the same reasons:  they have a set of clear, well-articulated, widely shared values that provide a basis for competitive success.

Net App   Tom Georgens, CEO, affirms “Our talented employees are united in one goal: helping our customers and partners succeed.”  If employees do a great job and help the company make money, they will make money–the data storage firm’s pay-for-performance program shelled out huge bonuses where employees received payouts of up to 31% of their salary.   Interestingly, despite the fact that Net App’s income tanked in 2009, they were still ranked as one of the best companies to work for that year, and for the three years to follow.  Instead of  massively downsizing and letting their talent go, the company continued to maintain their culture of teamwork and success because they knew they had to–selling high-end solutions in a commoditized market mean they are really selling the fact that they have the best technical talent.  If they lose the talent, they lose the business.  The salient feature, however, is that the company consists of people who pull together in a crisis, on all levels of the organization, rather than splitting apart.

NuStar Energy — Nustar’s mission explicitly states that it “employs individuals who care equally about their company, co-workers, and communities”.  How do they show employees that they mean it?  They live by the philosophy that if employees do a good job, they will always have a good job. The company has never had a layoff, has a voluntary turnover rate of only 3%, pays 100% of its workers’ health insurance premiums, and matches 401(k) contributions up to 6% of pay. It also lends the corporate jet to employees in times of crisis.  Caring is the crux of Employee Engagement for NuStar, and this is reflected in their corporate strategy.

REI – REI is truly obsessed with environmental stewardship, helping others lead healthy active outdoor lifestyles–their employees are “true to the outdoors”: “Our own employees test REI-brand products in the wild. This helps us identify ways to improve our products while enabling staff members to get familiar with the gear. It’s one of the ways REI lives up to its commitment to quality outdoor equipment and knowledgeable customer service. What’s more, all products sold at REI are backed by our 100% satisfaction guarantee.”  REI employee perks support the corporate strategy of promoting healthy active outdoor lifestyles with REI sabbaticals, free equipment rentals, and hefty discounts on merchandise.

SAS  – SAS  is an analytics company that treats its customers like people, not numbers–it provides local, hands-on support for customers whenever and wherever they need it.  SAS invests in the future–of the company, their customers, and their employees–and that is demonstrated through “epic perks”: subsidized Montessori child care, unlimited sick time, intramural sports leagues, a huge state-of-the-art gym, and a free health care center.   According to one manager who was interviewed in the Fortune 100 article,  “People stay at SAS in large part because they are happy, but to dig a little deeper, I would argue that people don’t leave SAS because they feel regarded — seen, attended to and cared for. I have stayed for that reason, and love what I do for that reason.”  It’s likely why customers stay as well.

These are companies that have engaged their employees through strong cultures, where it’s clear what employees must do to be a part of the team and to be successful.   Their values and culture are demonstrated each and every day in the actions and decisions, both big and small, of their leaders.

Leaders Are the Architects

How do we follow the lead of companies like Net App, NuStar, REI, and SAS?

A)     Slow down and get clear – spend the time needed as a team to discuss:

  • What are our values?  What will we see our colleagues doing that will represent these values?
  • What is the clearly articulated message we want to send to make it clear?

B)     Inventory our practices – do they reflect our values? Look with fresh eyes and listen with curiosity

  • Walk through your building as if you are seeing it for the first time – how does the space support your values?
  • Talk with your team members.  Ask provocative questions to gain their perspectives.
    • What is the most likely reason someone would join our organization?  What is the most likely reason her or she would leave it?
    • What are the urban myths that people operate under here?
    • What do people grumble the most about over lunch?
    • What would motivate you to work seven days a week, twelve hours a day, for a month on an important project?
    • What are the unwritten rules here that make it difficult to get thing done quickly, efficiently or profitably?
    • Is each employee’s experience of the organization aligned with your vision?

C)     Act consistently

  • Deliver the message over and over and over again through action.  This is a simple step, but not an easy one.  Find a quick win that clarifies what the culture is all about.  Actions speak louder than words, and small changes can make big impacts.
  • Put the focus on the employees – culture, values, people are not topics on the agenda, they are the agenda.  How can you shift your meetings, your interactions, and the time on your calendar to represent the culture you are creating?
  • Measure it – how will you know you are making progress?  What will you see and hear in your organization that tells you that your people are engaged?

The case is compelling – we are the architects of our culture.  We can build a stimulating environment that engages our team and drives business results.  What steps are you taking to disrupt the engagement trends and innovate the way people are integrated into your organization?


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