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Employee Engagement - an interview with Wayne Clarke

Every manager and HR professional, across every industry, will likely have been faced with the challenge of reigniting the flame for an unmotivated worker. And maybe even an entire disengaged team or department. Whilst we are aware of the day-to-day difficulties of dealing with unhappy employees, do organisations understand the true impact of ensuring a highly engaged workforce is in place?

Wayne ClarkeRullion spoke with The Global Growth Institute’s (GGI) employee engagement expert, Wayne Clarke, who shared some of the insight he’s gained through helping companies from ‘good’ to ‘great’, often assisting them to climb the Sunday Times’ Top 100 Companies list too.

“It’s the key thing for the successful growth of a company”, states Wayne, “if you look at what we can do from investing in different technologies to diversifying business strategies, through to cost cutting and operation improvement – all the levers you’ve got to pull in terms of making a business successful - I certainly believe that employee engagement is the most effective.”

Economist Wayne, has worked for a number of large corporates throughout his career. During his time with BDO he was able to take them from position 91 to 19 in the Top 100 list and he’s also worked as a United Nations Ambassador. Wayne has since founded GGI and has branched out to advise not only UK companies, but multinationals and governments too.

It’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about supporting organisations on their journey along the road to growth and improvement. And for Wayne that journey both begins and ends with employee engagement.

Wayne feels that although it would be ideal for every worker to be happy, from the view of an economist, and for a company’s ultimate success, the route to success is engaged workers who are willing to invest their skills and experiences in order to achieve the organisation’s goal. He added, “We’ve seen so many organisations that have tried so many other things to grow and they always end up back at ‘what can we do with our people?’”

“When you look at micro-economics, the behaviour and psychology of a company, you have a group of human beings in the workplace that we’re investing money in each year. So, my question is ‘what are we doing to maximise on that investment?’ Many organisations are quite stunned when you ask that question. A happy workforce is a bonus, but what your customers want is an exceptional experience, product or service, so you need to make sure your people are fired up, activated and enthused about achieving that.”

As Founding Partner at GGI, Wayne spends much of his time advising managers, front line teams and CEOs and describes himself as being privileged to have access to what works for companies, and what doesn’t. Below, Wayne shares some of the expert advice he’s gathered whilst working with a diverse range of companies, on engaging your employees for maximum success within your business.

Be sure that your leaders are well connected to the business

The most successful organisations, according to Wayne, are those where senior management, or at least those who are the recipients of employee feedback, are connected with the business. He tells us that, “most recipients of the feedback are in some way, disconnected from what it feels like to be in line management or front line employee roles.”

He continues “We trialled it with one company – it had a major impact. We essentially gave every leadership team member and The Board, a group of four or five front line members of staff who they got to meet with each month continuously for six months.”

Parts could not be missed out, or taken out of context as feedback came ‘from the horse’s mouth’ and was then taken straight to The Board. “I think having a mechanism to give the leadership team access, even if on a monthly basis, to a cross section of staff that represent the operation can give them a real feel for what’s going on. By leaders having real-time feedback from the customer, the patient, whoever, is one of the most effective means of operation improvement.”

Gain real-time feedback and take action to improve

“This is a dramatic thing for me to say given my background”, laughed Wayne, “but I’d kill the [employee engagement] survey and replace it with an app. There are lots of app companies springing up who can offer real-time measurement – they can be really useful.” Wayne explained that although employee engagement surveys can provide an indication of worker satisfaction, the information is quickly outdated. “Apps are quick, accessible and easy and give a true handle on how the organisation is feeling.”

Wayne added that neither surveys nor apps, in his opinion, solve the major issue. “I’ve spent years of my life going to see boards of companies that had admitted there was a need to address problems identified through feedback. Many empathise, but don’t take action. The challenge is to act upon those complaints.”

High quality line management is essential

“Does a company actually exist?” asks Wayne. “What does exist is a group of people that you work with regularly to achieve something. So they key is the team leader, the manager – the person who has the ability to make that day at work a better or worse experience for you.”

According to Wayne, whilst the role of CEO and other leaders are important, the primary differentiator between average companies and those who reach “top” lists is the quality of line management. Wayne urges organisations to ensure that line managers take responsibility for their teams’ engagement. “Their job, I would argue, is to get the best out of their team. You may have an individual who lacks motivation for some reason and it’s a manager’s job to relight that again.”

Wayne points out that people go through horrific things in their personal lives which could be affecting their performance or behaviour at work, and in such circumstances it may be that the manager takes on a level of pastoral care to be more appreciative and supportive. Ultimately, it’s his belief that a business spends a lot of money on management and wants to be able to rely on their ability to act accordingly and to get the best out of their people.

Empower workers to take control of their own development

Wayne explained that some of the most common negative phrases given in employee engagement feedback initiatives are along the lines of “I don’t get developed by my manager” or “my company does not have a development path mapped out for me”. For Wayne, this is like saying “a careers fair is not mapping out my future”, and he adds “no-one cares more about your future than you.”

Wayne describes seeing a recent shift in the workplace in people accepting that it’s my responsibility. “The truth is that there are unlimited [development] opportunities, even for charities with a lack of funds. You have to get creative about people development.”

Whilst management should be supportive in allowing for their employees’ development, ensure that a sense of responsibility also lies with your employees.

Be flexible and adapt to employment shifts and trends

We asked Wayne his thoughts on retaining employees, in particularly keeping talent within a business in a marketplace where predominantly younger employees, have a tendency to move between jobs more frequently.

He told us “I’m not taking away from the fact that there have been changes but some people approach it with an old-school mentality. Things change, things shift and you’ve got to move with them. The nature of the employment cycle has changed and people don’t want to stay longer than 26 months. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – you just have to adapt to it.”

Wayne gave the example of a hotel in London. “They’d only expect a three to six month tenure, because it’s a transitory population of people who come into the city for a short stint before moving on. Businesses like that survive because they adapt to the employment cycle.”

Another shift that Wayne has witnessed is that of graduates having a much more entrepreneurial spirit and opportunities than they used to. “20 years ago we entered the workforce wanting to work for big companies; now more people want their own business. Employers need to be able to accept and adapt to that.”

Hire the right people for your organisation

Wayne encourages employers to “...align with the dreams of people. Get that right and the rest is easy to work on. Find people for your organisation who have the same passion for achieving what the company needs them to achieve. That way you’re already on the same team.”

Culture is also a consideration here. Wayne adds “Before even worrying about technical ability, think about cultural fit, because if that’s wrong, the rest is a waste of time.”

Speaking about investment bankers, Goldman Sachs, Wayne said the business is known to take candidates through a 15-20 stage interview process. “People could question their process, and I’m not arguing whether their morality is right or wrong, but they certainly get it right when it comes to finding the right people for them. They win a lot of “best employer” type awards, so taking a lot of time up front working out who’s right and who’s not for them pays off.”

Wayne cites Red Carnation Hotels as a company getting things right when it comes to engaged employees. With an outstanding customer feedback score, “no hotelier has ever been able to manage to achieve what they have”, he explains.

“When you look at their demographic, many of their employees earn minimum wage. They travel to work on the bus, because the tube is too expensive, then arrive at work and have a job cleaning rooms and toilets. It’s tough. And for people to feel enthused about working there is unbelievable. They’ve got half the average London staff turnover rate too, so they’re doing something right.”

When asked what their secret was, Wayne claimed that Red Carnation has thought long and hard about who they accept into the business, adding “I think the recruitment of the right people can solve all of these issues.”

“They’ve got excellent techniques of how they select people for their organisation and culture and the investment they make into the training and development of their people is exceptional.”

Ensure that your organisation delivers on promises

All of the Sunday Times top 100 list companies that Wayne has worked with are diverse in their industries, structure, offerings and cultures. There is however, one thing that he has noticed is constant across each of them; they follow through on what they promise.

“You can read anyone’s website for a feel of what it’s like to work for them. No-one’s going to say it’s terrible. Instead they’ll promise you the world, but then many don’t deliver on it.”

Wayne gave an example, “We met a software business who had an unbelievable employer feedback score, especially around ‘wellbeing’. I was trying to understand as normally, similar kinds of businesses have some of the lowest scores for wellbeing as people working in roles such as coders, work long hours, sit in front of four computer screens, using a lot of creative energy and brainpower, whilst working to tough deadlines.”

Wayne met with some of the leaders to find out what this company was doing differently and he learned that their secret was quite simply, honesty.

“Throughout the interview process, they’re really honest about what it’s going to be like – they explain the long hours and the stressful environment, but it works. They are absolutely delivering on their expectations. They tell candidates ‘it’s going to be tough, want the job?’, to which many reply ‘yes I do, I can handle it’.”

Whilst a lot of companies try to oversell a role, Wayne advises businesses to be open and honest, as with the trust of your employees, comes their buy-in and ultimately their engagement. 

It would appear then, that employee engagement is much more than your workers arriving at work each day with a smile on their face. Linking directly to productivity and performance, an engagement strategy is an essential component for an organisation’s growth and success.