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Your Organization's Got Talent

Some companies are finding talent shows offer big returns in employee connectedness and engagement, though the practice has its critics.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011
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Stuart Kramer not only sang at SRA International's employee talent show > last year; he also acted, penned lyrics and crafted choreography for the opening act, which drew rave reviews from the 500 or so attendees. In short, Kramer had the time of his life.

"People really need to be able to feel fulfilled and enjoy themselves in their work space as well as personal space," says Kramer, an SRA vice president and strategic account executive. "So I think it's a very good attribute of the organization that we want people to work hard" but also embrace fun.

Kramer's sentiment is what Karen Amato and others hoped to hear after the launch of the SRA < talent show >, which last year featured acts ranging from singing and stand-up comedy to dancing and martial arts. Amato, who performs senior HR functions and is manager of SRA Cares, the company's employee-driven community-service outlet that sponsored the show, believes the event contributes to improved communication and even yields a competitive advantage.

"Whenever you have connectedness, you have engagement," says Amato. "Then, we believe, you'll see increased productivity and retention." That retention, she adds, is "critical" for SRA, a 7,000-employee Fairfax, Va., organization that confronts formidable competition as a provider of technology and strategic consulting services.

Top-ranked TV shows such as America's Got Talent and American Idol clearly demonstrate the popularity of talent competitions. But it's difficult to prove whether that popularity has translated into more companies hosting their own employee talent shows. Even for those that do, considerable debate arises about whether the shows benefit the organizations.

Put Susan Stamm down as skeptical. Stamm, an employee-engagement facilitator with The Team Approach in Lancaster, Pa., and author of the 2009 book Forty-Two Rules of Employee Engagement, says such events typically are tangentially connected to business objectives.

"I don't want to give the impression that a [< talent show >] isn't a fun thing to do," says Stamm. "But if I were looking for a strategy and a way to impact employee engagement ... this wouldn't be my first choice, maybe not even my 10th choice. It's a real stretch for me."

Nevertheless, at a juncture when employee engagement is weighing on many organizations, an employee < talent show > may be an option worth considering.

"Depending on how it's structured, a [< talent show >] is something that can be done at little or almost no cost," says Lee J. Colan, a consultant and president of Dallas-based The L Group who has written two related books on employee engagement. "It could be a good vehicle, especially in difficult economic periods such as the one we're in now."

For HR professionals, the rewards of employee talent shows -- the promise of improved employee engagement, morale and camaraderie, among other attributes -- are certainly enticing. But they must be balanced by concerns that include limited employee appeal and offering an event that perhaps minimally advances business interests . . . not to mention worries that employees may do something inappropriate during a live show (see here).

Engaging Employees

Even before weighing risks and rewards, organizations should first capture a sense of whether their workforce favors an employee < talent show > and whether it's a good cultural fit. And that leads to a central question: Should winners be selected in the event, or should it be noncompetitive?

At SRA, no employee acts were judged. But at Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's USA, its "Voice of McDonald's," a worldwide singing competition open to hundreds of thousands of restaurant employees, the competition lasts for months and contestants are evaluated by music-industry professionals.

All 16 of the global semifinalists receive coaching and may be required to arrive in Orlando -- where the fourth VOM winner will be crowned next spring in conjunction with the 2012 McDonald's worldwide convention -- 10 days before the competition. The top prize winner receives $25,000 and each of the semifinalists is guaranteed a minimum of $3,000.

Whether an organization does or doesn't select winners "should be culture-dependent," says Colan.

"Does it value competition, collaboration, self-expression, individualism, teamwork?" he asks. "Like an employee program, it's not 'one size fits all.' "

Human resource leaders would do well to consider another key question when it comes to such shows: Are employees involved in running them?

Colan and two other employee-engagement professionals strongly advocate workers have some say. A prime purpose of a < talent show > is engaging employees, says Fraser Marlow, vice president of marketing at Blessing White, a Princeton, N.J.-based firm involved in employee engagement. And that means offering workers some ownership in the < talent show >, which Frazer believes will also attract more event participants.

"If the show is about engaging employees, then they should be creating it and driving it and putting the whole process together," adds Stamm. "If you're empowering people, you're saying, 'This is your show, take it, do it, run it.' "

At SRA, the show last year was conceived of, organized and run by employees. SRA's human resource department provided ad-hoc guidance and further assisted the with on-site setup, organizing and other support through SRA Cares, the company's community-service outlet that sponsored the event.

"Everybody I talked with was extremely enthusiastic about it," says Tim Atkin, chief operating officer and current acting head of HR who helped spearhead the launch of SRA's < talent show >.

Some Doubters

Enthusiasm may indeed be high for showcasing talent as an engagement and morale booster, at least among workers participating in the event or involved behind the scenes. But one lingering criticism is that many of the events aren't broad enough in scope and, therefore, have relatively limited appeal.

"In no way can it replace true engagement initiatives in which each and every individual is given the opportunity to contribute at a high level and achieve high personal satisfaction," says Marlow.

Marlow doesn't deny the potential of employee talent shows. But, by and large, he is dubious of their value. He believes many such shows do little to further a company's business priorities.

Stamm agrees. She says talent shows tend to overlook underlying issues within an organization that may subvert employee engagement -- issues such as insufficient communication, trust, and personal and professional-development opportunities.

"Frankly," says Stamm, "I don't see a < talent show > as having a direct correlation to these kinds of issues, which are at the core of employee engagement."

Another nagging question surrounding such shows: Is it an organization's role to entertain employees?

Marlow also wonders if a show is an unnecessary diversion. During an era of increased bottom-line awareness, he frets that a < talent show > could redirect employees' time, attention and energy from critical tasks.

Companies have yet another reason to be skittish about them. Consider that an Apple employee doing a stand-up/poetry routine at such a show several years ago made what a company official considered inappropriate remarks involving a customer. The employee was fired, which prompted the worker to produce a widely circulated online video entitled "Why I Got Fired from Apple." The company received a volley of criticism for the termination.

Value on Many Fronts

Despite these challenges, though, some larger organizations swear by employee talent shows -- especially in troubled economic times, when finding ways to boost employee engagement become ever more crucial.

Steve Russell is senior vice president and chief people officer for McDonald's USA. He considers Voice of McDonald's among the company's biggest and best employee motivational and engagement vehicles.

Consider that about 10,000 McDonald's employees alone submitted videos of themselves performing for the last VOM. Presumably, tens of thousands or more employees observe the contestants online or vote for them.

"One thing I didn't see as we started to get into this," says Russell, "is that it drives engagement, pride and energy for people beyond the people who are actually singing in the competition . . . ."

Even in smaller venues, the benefits to multiple communities -- workforce and otherwise -- are evident.

At the 2010 "Artists at Work" exhibition, sponsored jointly by the Chrysler Group and the United Auto Workers union, only 39 employees displayed artwork ranging from sculpture and painting to blown glass and photography. While the number of artists was relatively small, there was widespread visibility for their artwork, says Mike Brown, Chrysler's director of union relations.

Many of the estimated 25,000 Detroit-area bargaining-unit and non-bargaining-unit employees could view the artwork in Warren, Mich.; Chrysler's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich.; and the National Training Center, a joint UAW-Chrysler program in Detroit. The artwork is also viewable at the NTC website.

The import of the exhibit, says Brown, even extends beyond quantifiable visitors and online views.

"It is one of the most important initiatives, as a UAW-Chrysler labor group, that we have ever participated in," he says. "The impact it has had on relationship-building, partnership and morale cannot be quantified."

The Artists at Work exhibit helps break down barriers between union members and management, says Brown. Twenty-three UAW members and 16 non-bargaining-unit Chrysler employees were on equal footing with their artwork and in a reception honoring the artists.

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"Based on anecdotal evidence," adds Ron Russell, communications administrator of the NTC, "we firmly believe [the exhibit] contributes to mutual respect and greater understanding among union and management employees that is essential to a positive work environment and improved productivity."

Brown believes some of the creativity and innovation prominently displayed in Artists at Work transfers to the workplace. For certain, he says, the high standards exemplified in the artwork reinforce expectations for the workplace.

"My observation is that a lot of time, pride and attention to detail goes into the artwork," says Brown. "Well, that is the same attitude and approach we would like our employees to display in every part they touch that goes into one of our vehicles."

Boosting the Business

Some even say corporate talent shows and exhibits boost recruitment and retention. Marlow could envision snippets of his event featured on the website, helping project the organization's "brand" to prospective employees. Indeed, at McDonald's, the VOM last year received more than 1 million video views on McDonald's YouTube channel and the VOM website.

McDonald's Russell contends his company's < talent show > clearly advances business interests. For one thing, it's presumed many customers participate in the VOM, joining employees in voting online for favorite singing contestants. (Nearly 700,000 employees and customers voted for contestants last year.) For another, the VOM is held in tandem with McDonald's several-day worldwide convention, ensuring that business priorities aren't eclipsed by entertainment.

What's more, Russell challenges critics to observe the palpable passion of thousands of convention-going employees, franchisees and suppliers, whose post-convention survey responses indicate they "love" the VOM contest.

"There's excitement and enthusiasm," says Russell. "When you're working ... in a lot of cases, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year ... excitement and energy in the company and [individual] restaurants is a differentiator between a successful company and an unsuccessful company."

By no means, Russell insists, is VOM a distraction for the company.

"Our No. 1 focus at McDonald's is driving our Plan to Win [business plan]," he says. "That will always be our No. 1 focus, [that and] exceeding the expectations of our customers. There is not any misunderstanding about that anywhere in our organization. There are things that you do in support of the Plan to Win and things you do to support the people in the organization and [VOM] is one of those things."

SRA's last < talent show > also advanced business interests. It was thematically designed so presenters, including senior leaders, wove in historic factoids about the company. They also sprinkled in comments that reinforced SRA's values and mission.

At the eighth Artists at Work exhibition, a community-service component was included. It featured photographs by youngsters who attended a Detroit after-school program catering to disadvantaged youth. Some employee-engagement professionals favor linking talent shows to community services as one way to extract a business benefit, producing positive exposure for the organization.

With McDonald's VOM, $1,000 is donated to the Ronald McDonald House closest to the company restaurant where each of the 16 global semifinalists is employed. Meanwhile, at the last SRA International < talent show >, $21,500 was raised from show tickets and a silent auction for three Fairfax, Va.-area charities.

"A strong part of the culture of SRA is ... creating opportunities for employees to engage in what is important to them," says Tim Atkin of SRA, who included a community-service component when he helped launch the company's < talent show > in 2009. Community service, Atkin adds, is a company "core value."

Some proponents argue that a < talent show > offers a venue where workers can engage their hearts as well as minds. Colan likens it to a team ritual -- much like celebrating an employee's birthday -- that builds intimacy, bonding and appreciation benefiting not only individual workers but the entire organization.

"Your manager may not realize you can dance, sing, write or do whatever, so it helps build an appreciation that maybe you have more to offer beyond this particular project," he says. "A < talent show > is a way to reveal creativity and other talents that, in some cases, might be utilized for the company's benefit."

At SRA's < talent show >, Atkin treasures the opportunity for employees to more fully express themselves. He says the event helped boost connectedness and pride in colleagues (one employee-performer was a professional opera singer for years), as well as "phenomenal" good will toward the company.

"At the end of the day, what I feel is important about the < talent show and a lot of other activities at SRA is that they recognize our employees as people," says Atkin. "They're not [just] an employee number, not just billable for some hours. We recognize them holistically."

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