In an interview with the retired CEO of a company that he took from zero to £1 billion in 20 years, I asked him for the secret to the success of the company.
After suggesting it was just the right business and right business model at the right time, I pressed further. After all, this may be the case, but it’s still possible to get it horribly wrong, so what helped him and his team get it so right.
His answer: an unwavering focus on employee engagement from day 1.
Now this was interesting. In the UK, according to Gallup, only 17% of employees are highly engaged at work. The massive productivity shortfall in the UK is at least partly due to disengagement at work.
So how did he maintain high levels of employee engagement? Some of the things they did might appear to be straight out of a textbook on HR or leadership and management. For example, they set up a staff council (before they became vogue). However, there is a difference between setting up a staff council because a textbook or management consultant tells you it’s the thing to do and setting one up because you genuinely want to know what employees concerns are to help define corporate policy.
And that was the difference that made the difference in this case. Having a highly engaged workforce at this company didn’t happen by accident. It happened because of a set of beliefs in what was important – the CEO strongly believed in fairness, honesty, transparency and he cared about his employees as people first. These values were behind his decision-making, issue resolution and strategy development. This is what led to having highly engaged employees.
To illustrate further, here are four ways these values influenced the design of the business:
- Caring: Even as CEO, he got to know all his employees at a personal level, he knew if they were married, divorced, how many kids they had, the name of their dog/cat and sent birthday cards to them all. Quite a task when you have several hundred employees.
- Transparency: He shared the financials with all employees and explained what they meant. So every employee knew how much profit the company was making, how much cash it had and the salaries and bonuses of all staff and directors was made available.
- Honesty: With open financials, bad news as well as good news was shared openly. If profits were threatened, everyone knew and could be part of the solution. For example, the staff council asked for a less generous employee healthcare package to support the profitability of the company.
- Fairness: He believed that everybody should share in the rewards. If the company was doing well on the back of the hard work of employees, they should benefit. The company was therefore restructured to make the employees majority shareholders. This actually turned out to be a factor in the success of the company. Not only did it contribute to high levels of engagement, but it also resulted in them winning some substantial contracts. Procurement committees liked the fact the business was employee-owned.
On almost any company website and on the walls of many a head office these days, you will see the expressed values of organisations. However, too often they are barely paid lip-service and are not strategic imperatives.
But when everything you do is guided by a strong set of core values that put people first, the results can be dramatic. It can lead to world-class engagement, productivity, profitability, value-creation and market-beating growth.
Whenever you are faced with a decision, a problem to solve or a challenge in the market, assess the solutions through the filter of your core values. If a solution “feels” wrong, discard it as a solution, however logical it is. Eventually, you will find a solution that “feels” more right than the others and makes sense logically too. It may not be the right solution forever, but it is probably the right solution for now.
To find out more about developing world-class employee engagement with Engage & Grow™ and look out for specific workshops on our events page.