Where has the time gone? It only seems such a short while ago that I and those of a similar disposition at Leyland Trucks and Runshaw College were celebrating the launch of the report. We felt that this was the turning point: an opportunity to revitalise British Business with new levels of productivity, profitability and efficiency. And alongside that came an opportunity to revolutionise the world of work through enhanced levels of self -esteem, morale, satisfaction and perhaps even sheer enjoyment for all concerned.

Having been a passionate and quite successful practitioner of engaging at work since the mid-70s, and an active advocate in the North West since a governmental sponsored initiative in 1994, this seemed to be the first authentication of an approach hitherto seen by many as ill-advised and fanciful. David and Nita produced a first-class analysis showing why engagement worked and, equally importantly, the guiding principles in making it happen.

Fast forward ten years and we can admire the way the report has spawned a veritable movement, focussed on spreading the word. One can only respect the persistence and ingenuity that has built up such a powerful advocacy.

However, I am sure that many of you, like me, are mystified as to why this no-brainer of all no-brainers has not been adopted by more in the business world, especially the public sector. I am also equally saddened that many of the organisations that do adopt it, even with huge success, fail to follow through and sustain it. There are exceptions to this but my general experience is that the majority fall by the wayside.

After over 45 years of practically implementing employee engagement across a raft of differing institutions, I would suggest some of the reasons to avoid this frightening waste to be:

  1. The key driver of employee engagement has to be a leadership/management paradigm based on motivation. Paradoxically employee engagement is less about employee behaviour and more about management style, behaviour and credibility. Public sector organisations often simply do not get this. They tend to focus on codes/values for the rank and file rather than the key behavioural traits to be constantly and consistently exhibited by managers.
  2. Employee engagement needs initially to be directed towards improvement in the conventional metrics of the business in order to sustain leadership interest. It has to be seen to be directly relevant to business success. The “soft” metric improvement will follow automatically so have faith and be a little bit mercenary.
  3. Employee engagement has to be simple, structured and embedded in the organisation for long term sustainability. The big challenges here are management turnover and management distraction. The process has to be formally structured so engagement becomes “the natural way we do things around here” and distilled into simple, transparent and readily implementable elements. Winging it, as so many are prone to do with engagement, just does not work.
  4. Transitioning from a conventional, directive style of managing offers severe challenges to the fragile egos of most in leadership positions Here, I speak from painful, personal experience. I have also run countless sessions with managers looking at barriers to engagement and this is often their biggest concern. Many have genuine fears over the greater exposure that such a philosophy brings.

I am not sure that we in the engagement advisory community have got it right over the past decade. I have written two well received books on the subject but perhaps it is a good thing that they are both now out of print. I suspect we are generally guilty of over-complicating it and underestimating the pivotal role that leadership plays. If I could go back and start again I would certainly:

1: Focus entirely on managerial influence and access the workforce in general only for their perceptions of collective and individual management behaviours

2: Simplify the implementation plan by firstly introducing the “correct” approaches to communication, behaviours(values) and recognition. Once these are embedded into the organisation psyche as routine, then I suggest they move on to management style and understanding the collective and individual “shadow of influence”. Only when this is resolved would I then gently introduce continuous improvement.

I have learned that it is difficult to do all three at once.

3: I would also be a lot more sensitive to the emotional challenges faced by the organisational leadership as the demands of the engagement journey will vary from person to person dependent on their personalities. I am of a generation which viewed personal coaching as an admission of weakness or failure. I now believe that the challenges of leadership in the 21st century make it almost obligatory.

4: and finally, I would make no apology for making the bottom line, or other key business metrics, the ultimate measures of whether your engagement story is successful or not. This is an area where I get frequently criticised. At a recent seminar on family companies, I was asked as a member of an assembled “panel” what three one-word priorities I would judge to be the most important objectives for family concerns. My reply of Profit, Profit and Profit did not go down at all well but without it, management is never going to see engagement as anything other than a temporary and perhaps unnecessary initiative, a short-term fix.

So, in summary, ten years ago, David and Nita showed us the way forward. However, as an industry we need to translate their wisdom into something which is more readily adaptable, impactful and sustainable. Simplicity, transparency and relevance would seem to be the key messages here.

Mea maxima culpa,

John J Oliver OBE

Ex CEO Leyland Trucks inter alia