What Makes for an Engaging Leader?

Recent research suggests that leaders capable of engaging employees are ones who can, among other things, help them understand their role in helping the business meet its goals.

Monday, August 18, 2014
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Employee engagement -- or the lack thereof -- weighs heavily on the minds of business leaders these days. But at companies such as Greensboro, N.C.-based VF Corp., managerial engagement is just as important as the engagement levels of the people who report to them.

"Organizations have stayed lean and haven't re-staffed to their pre-2008 levels, which were lean to begin with," says Ronald Lawrence, the company's vice president of organizational development. "Consequently, people are feeling pretty stressed. The companies that will win in this environment will be the ones that recognize the importance of building strong leaders."

VF Corp., which owns more than 30 apparel brands and has consistently been included in Aon Hewitt and Fortune's list of the Top 25 Companies for Leaders, is devoting a considerable amount of effort to ensuring its managers understand the importance of being a good leader who can rally employees around the business' goals.  

"Good leaders build organizations and teams so that even if they themselves aren't there to lead, they'll still get successful outcomes," says Lawrence.

Leaders who are effective at engaging employees share three fundamental traits, according to a recent whitepaper from Aon Hewitt. 

"Engaging leaders have all had early stretch experiences that have shaped them; they have a unique belief system; and they behave in ways that positively and exponentially impact the engagement of those around them," says Ken Oehler, a partner in Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Aon Hewitt's global engagement practice.

The whitepaper, titled The Engaging Leader, is based on information culled from Aon Hewitt's large database of engagement surveys. The researchers conducted a qualitative study looking at what differentiates leaders with high engagement scores from others and followed that up with in-depth interviews and focus groups of employees.

They discovered that engaging leaders are ones who, among other things, willingly took on tough assignments, successfully navigated through ambiguity, saw themselves as driven by purpose and believed that a calm demeanor, structure and a sense of empathy are needed in the face of ambiguity.

Navigating through ambiguity, for example, "gives you a sense of humility -- you learn you can survive through mistakes and it makes you a better leader," says Lorraine Stomski, a partner in Aon Hewitt's leadership practice and one of the whitepaper's co-authors.

Personality tests and 360-degree reviews can help organizations select for engaging leaders, while coaching and development can provide the early experiences necessary for impacting belief systems and engaging behaviors, says Stomski. 

"We believe there are definitely some of those personality attributes that some people are naturally hardwired to have, but other aspects can absolutely be taught," says Stomski. "The teaching part is elevating the self-awareness of the individual leader."

A leader's ability to engage employees is more important than ever, says Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill.

"Younger people seem to have unreasonable expectations, or heightened expectations, around the satisfaction they expect to get from work," says Hill, author of the new book Collective

Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation.

Yet some managers complain that focusing on engagement is a distraction from their main role, she says.

"Too often, managers will say 'I'm paid to produce results, not engage people,' " says Hill. "But it's a false dichotomy."

Employee engagement is a necessary ingredient for successfully meeting goals, not a distraction, says Keith Caver, the North America leader for talent management at New York-based Towers Watson. 

"How do you inspire individuals to bring their true and best selves to work every day to work toward a common goal -- is that not the role of a leader?" he says.

Caver cites the work of Warren G. Bennis, the recently deceased management expert and author of the best-selling On Becoming a Leader, who wrote about the importance of willfully embracing the responsibilities associated with leadership.

Towers Watson's most recent Global Workforce Study finds that leadership is the "top driver" of sustainable engagement, or the intensity of employees' connection to their organization. However, the study finds that less than half of employees (48 percent) agree that senior leadership is effective.

Good leaders are ones who can build up engagement by showing employees how the work they do matters, says Caver.

"Can those associates see the linkage between what they do and the larger work going on in the organization? Can they see how their work contributes to the organization's overarching goals and strategic objectives?" he says.

The problem is that many employees don't understand what their employer's business model is and how their behavior can help determine whether or not it succeeds, says Hill. 

"To the extent that you help people truly understand how the business works, you're going to get more engagement because they themselves can see the impact of their work," says Hill. 

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Unfortunately, the importance of doing this doesn't appear to have resonated at many companies, says Stomski.

"We don't see a lot of programs geared toward helping people connect what they do to a larger purpose and the greater good," she says. "And that's one of the key drivers to being an engaging leader."

One of the most important components of VF Corp.'s efforts to develop engaging leaders is making sure they understand every aspect of their division's business goals and strategies so that they, in turn, can explain it to their employees, says Lawrence.

The company recently overhauled its internal portal to make much greater use of video, so that managers can watch videos about different businesses within the company during their lunch breaks. This is a great improvement from the "really dull, text-based information" that was previously available, says Lawrence.

"It's as much an entertainment experience as it is an educational experience," says Lawrence.

The company has also introduced a new feature called "SocialCast," which is intended to serve as a sort of internal Facebook to encourage managers to connect with one another, he says.

"We're very aware that a lot of the work that gets done within organizations is not through a formal hierarchy, but through invisible networks of connections," he says. "We're trying to be more thoughtful about how leaders here connect."

The company also sponsors "GPS Days" (GPS stands for Global Performance Strategy), in which employees at each of the businesses within the company gather to hear presentations on that year's objectives from the senior management team during the morning, then spend the afternoon in departmental meetings to discuss how each department will align its goals in support of those objectives.

"If you're a frontline employee at Vans, for example, you'll know exactly what the CEO of that business is trying to get done because you'll have heard it directly from him that day," says Lawrence.

The goals are revisited throughout the year and then rated at year's end, he says.

"We have a lot of measures that say the things we're doing are working," says Lawrence. VF Corp.'s voluntary attrition rate among its top 1,000 leaders is less than 3 percent, he says, while its employee-engagement surveys find that intent to stay and pride and satisfaction with the company are above 90 percent.

"Leading is about more than task accomplishment, it's also about helping employees realize their potential," he says.

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