Thursday, February 04, 2010

Engaging conversations

Some days in this job lift the spirits - and yesterday was one of them. It was a day of good conversations moving several fronts forward.

Two of the best conversations were with Leon Benjamin and David Macleod. I'm still mulling over what they had to say, and much will end up as a magazine feature so this blog isn't the right place to pre-empt that piece. However, each played into the employee engagement conversation with both style and insight.

Leon Benjamin has long argued the case for social media inside the company - his own blog distills it here. During our conversation he made several telling points that struck home with me: most around the fear and insecurity of the current crop of business leaders and managers who draw power from hierarchy, and are afraid of losing that power through the non-hierarchical building force of social networking. Leon argues that old-style leaders gain and maintain their power from the top of the organisation: the Board makes the decisions; the rest of us implement them. Real leaders, by contrast, draw their power from the bottom: they're prepared to share; prepared to listen to and learn from anyone in the organisation who can help it thrive. His view is that this braver style of leadership will emerge - ever more so as Gen Y becomes more established in management structures. The conversations in business will change as social media technology usurps more traditional channels. The days of command and control management are numbered: hierarchical structures aren't going to collapse yet, but the foundations are already shifting.

It was a pleasure too to speak to David MacLeod about employee engagement. We discussed whether it's even the right term since the stakeholders affected range wider than a strict definition of 'employee' but also because employee engagement reflects a hierarchical 'us and them' approach that's at odds with the truly collaborative, involved, shared environment that a truly engaged organisation must be. Colleague engagement seems a better term - but employee engagement was used for the report since it's the common currency term within its own community of interest.

I questioned David on whether he was 'preaching to the converted' as most of the events he and his colleagues have been speaking at have been organised by HR and comms people for HR and comms people rather than those who need to adopt and champion EE - organisational leaders. He agreed - but countered that they're now working hard to get on the right platforms to hit those leaders with a more analytical bent who clearly aren't buying in to the whole concept of EE quite so easily.

We talked about 'what next?' following the review too. The completion of phase 1 will be the launch of a raft of EE material through BIS in March; but the really interesting part for David is phase 2: making it happen. I agree with him strongly that there's no magic bullet for EE. There's no one-size-fits-all solution that automatically creates the right attitudes and behaviours that will deliver the right outcomes. Every situation is contextual and the set of requirements that will deliver engagement in organisation A may be quite different from those that will bring engagement to life in organisation B. So, it's eating the elephant one bit at a time - there'll be a similarity of flavour, but the texture will be very different with every bite you take.

What's clear is that Leaders are pivotal. EE can't be created, sustained and nourished from a comms or HR function somewhere in the middle of the organisation. It has to be embraced and actively championed from the top and at all the points of influence throughout the community. It isn't a task - it's a more complex set of beliefs and attitudes that values people as much more than a cost on the balance sheet.

No comments: