Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Will This Be The Year Leaders Put Employees First?


As we approach the end of the first month of this new year, many of us are now well under way in implementing our plans and strategies to achieve the goals we’ve mapped out for the next 11 months. In terms of what leaders view as their top goals to achieve this year, a new study reveals some interesting opportunities, and with it, some key obstacles leaders will need to address if they are to help their organization move forward.

In the CEO Challenge 2014 study carried out by The Conference Board, CEOs and presidents from over 1 000 organizations around the world were asked to identify what they saw as the top challenges for their organization. While it wasn’t surprising to see innovation and customer relationships being included in the top 5 challenges, the study’s most revealing finding is how the top challenge for leaders worldwide was Human Capital – namely, how to engage, retain, manage and develop their employees.

In other words, leaders in every region of the world recognize that their employees are the defining factor both for their organization’s ability to achieve their goals this year, and as well as for their overall long-term success. As Rebecca Ray, Senior Vice President, Human Capital at The Conference Board, and co-author of this study points out:

“This emphasis on people-related issues makes perfect sense in a still-uncertain economy. Building a culture that supports engagement, employee training, leadership development, and high performance is something companies can control, and can mean the difference between growing market share and simply surviving in 2014. Moreover, if the focus of individual companies is sustained, Human Capital may well be the engine that revives economic growth.”

This is certainly encouraging news, as it reflects a growing shift from the survivalist/just treading water mindset to one that seeks opportunities for development and growth. However, we do have to be mindful of what other studies have revealed in terms of the wide gap in perception between how leaders view their organization, and the experiences employees have as members of their workforce.

For example, in a recent Towers Watson study, they revealed that organizations which effectively used their Employee Value Proposition (EVP) were five times more likely to have a more engaged workforce, and two times more likely to have a better financial performance than their competition.

Unfortunately, this study also revealed that the majority of organizations fail to tap into the full potential of this resource, with less than 43% of organizations employing a long-term strategy for how to implement and sustain these EVPs.

One of the more interesting findings of this study is how nearly half of those organizations identified as having successfully employed EVPs were also shown to consistently communicate to their employees how their needs are being met – along with the needs of the organization – through these measures.

As Richard Veal, head of Towers Watson’s Reward, Talent and Communication practice points out, the organizations that are most effective at using EVPs to drive employee engagement levels understand that they need to point out “how they meet their employees’ expectations and, in return, what behaviours they expect employees to exhibit to help them succeed”.

In yet another study conducted by LRN in conjunction with The Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California, only 3% of organizations worldwide were found to be self-governing – what they define as organizations which exhibit such traits as high levels of trust, collaboration, and commitment to the organization’s shared purpose.

What makes this study’s finding particularly noteworthy is that organizations which are self-governing have higher levels of innovation, employee loyalty, and customer satisfaction – outcomes which The Conference Board survey has revealed are top priorities for leaders going forward this year.

But the most troublesome finding in this study is the significant gap in how leaders perceive how their organization is managed compared to what their employees experience. As this last study reveals, CEOs around the world were three times more likely than their employees to view their organizations as mirroring the traits of a self-governing organization, with the gap in perception between C-suite executives and their employees being the greatest in the United States and Mexico.

In light of these different studies, it’s hardly surprising that the Gallup survey released last year revealed that employee engagement levels in today’s organizations continue to remain at extremely low levels – with only 13% of employees worldwide stating that they were “engaged”. In other words, in terms of your organization’s workforce, only one out of every eight of your employees “are psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions” to your organization.

When taken together, these studies clearly demonstrate tangible benefits in fostering a workplace environment where our employees feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their contributions. But they also highlight the problematic issue of how often the perceptions leaders have of what it’s like to work for them differs greatly from the realities of what their employees experience as members of their organization.

Given how The Conference Board’s study revealed that CEOs view integrity as the top leadership attribute, we need to recognize in light of these studies that what’s required on our part to reach those goals we set out to achieve this year is demonstrating a higher level of trust in the collective competencies of those we lead.

That we demonstrate our commitment to enable and strengthen the native talents, creativity, and insights of those under our care because we understand how this can help us ensure that we’re taking the best course of action to achieve our shared purpose.

To do such requires that we move beyond viewing our employees simply in terms of the functions and roles they play in our organization, to fostering meaningful connections with them so we can better identify and understand what matters to our employees, and how we can connect that to the needs of our organization.

Going forward, our ability to engage, retain and grow our employee base cannot be limited simply to the application of new measures heralding a change in our leadership approach to indicate our shift to encouraging growth over mere survival.

Rather, it also requires that we recognize the importance of building and sustaining relationships with those we lead. That we use those daily interactions with our employees to learn more about what matters to them; of what they want to accomplish as members of our community, and how we can empower them to achieve it through their collective efforts.

After all, if your employees don’t see or feel a connection between what they do and why your organization does what it does – if there’s no connection between what matters to them and what matters to your organization – how can we honestly expect them to bring their whole selves to work? How can we tap into their discretionary effort – into their native talents, creativity, and insights – if they don’t value and feel valued in what we collectively do?

If we are to be successful in our efforts this year to improve employee engagement levels, increase talent retention rates, and provide opportunities for employee growth and development, we need to openly address and manage this perceptual gap between how we view our organization and the realities our employees face, not to mention recognizing the role our employees play in achieving our shared goals.

We have to increase our awareness and understanding of what our employees experience through our leadership and how they view their contributions – not just in terms of professional growth, but also in terms of helping our organization to achieve its shared purpose.

What this all comes down to is the simple truth that we can’t demand excellence if we don’t encourage and enable commitment by connecting deeply with those we lead.

So will this be the year that we put our employees first? I guess that all depends on how willing we are to employ consistently over the long term those measures which are necessary for our employees to succeed and with it, create the right conditions that will allow those under our care to thrive.

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9 Comments » | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | January 28, 2014 by |

  1. On January 28th, 2014 at 7:40 PM Dan Oestreich said:

    Dear Tanveer~

    A great post, as usual! I especially like the way you have woven the results of surveys into your message.

    There is so much to comment on here, but there is one main reaction I'd like to share.

    It has been a stunning part of my own consultant work over the last twenty years to watch the perceptual disconnect between top leaders and staff continue to expand. Maybe it was that we didn't quite notice it so much and there is now a higher level of consciousness. I don't know, but what has remained very consistent is the general reluctance by leaders to explore the views, thoughts and feelings of employees in meaningful, informal ways. By this I do not having Christmas parties and picnics — nice as those are. I mean person to person understanding of what it's like to work in the organization, to learn from this information and from people, and to respond in meaningful ways. People feel unheard because there is no real action based on what is being said, no change in leadership or relationships. There are just way to many excuses and rationalizations for not doing this ground level work of learning, involvement, and response. While engagement is surely an issue of competitiveness and profits, many senior leaders I know do not even know how to create enough emotional safety for others to get the truth of employee views and perceptions into the open, nor do they feel they have the bandwidth to respond even if they could get that information. There often is not room to have a conversation about having THE conversation that might get real issues on the table. To counteract this deeply ingrained cultural trend (really a taboo against genuine engagement) will take much more than reporting the results of surveys — although you've done a tremendous service in consolidating and reporting some very important ones in this post. My sense is, after all these years of witnessing the same patterns, that it takes entirely different kind of core strength associated with the personal identity of those chosen to be formal positions of authority. It's far more about love and wisdom than logical arguments and business models about the financial impact of engagement. The very fact that for many organizations that's the only door left open — prove this will make us money — is evidence of the how large the barrier really is.

  2. On January 29th, 2014 at 9:25 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Dan,

    I wholeheartedly agree with you, which is why this piece is titled with a question. Since the study by The Conference Board was released, there's been a lot of press about how leaders are now focused on 'the power of people'.

    As I wrote in my piece, while this is very much needed, I'm not sure we can, as you point out, make the shift from saying that because CEOs say people are important they will actually demonstrate that notion through their actions and words.

    That's not to say that there's any duplicitous going on here, but more the fact that we need to increase our awareness of the gap in perception between how we view our leadership and how our employees experience it.

    I agree with you that this might prove to be more difficult for some leaders than others, but this is where we need to drive the conversations on leadership – not on attempting to create false constructs of challenges managing different generations or whether culture eats strategy for breakfast or not. But on whether we can create those conditions in our workplace where people find a sense of meaning and purpose in what they do, as well as a sense of community and connection with those they work with.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on this, Dan.

  3. On January 29th, 2014 at 1:29 PM Dan said:

    Thank YOU, Tanveer! All the best to you.

  4. On January 31st, 2014 at 5:36 PM exemplar1 said:

    I find it quite disgusting that the level of engagement is at only 13%. I already knew the numbers were that bad. But what stops me in my tracks is that leaders of organizations either haven't recognized the problem or have chosen to do little about it.

    My tendency is to not believe the former, but the latter.

    I know big organizations, since I have spent 19 years in a fortune 50 company. They measure everything they can. It is the duty of the HR department to measure these items and come up with plans on how to resolve them. Any HR department not doing that is doing a great disservice to the company.

    Like many others though, those HR personnel are probably maxed out on the assignments they have and have no spare time or resources to go after new issues (although I don't see this as a new issue).

    What's ironic is that these abysmal figures reflect on how well those "leaders" are leading. That may be the reason why they don't wish to "face the music."

  5. On February 1st, 2014 at 1:40 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I do agree with you, Jack, that there's no way to overlook the reality that these results are very much indicative of how well today's leaders are addressing their responsiblity to enable their employees to not simply 'do their jobs', but to empower them to be active participants and contributors to their organization's shared purpose.

    Through my work, though, I've found that what's often at fault here is that perceptual gap between how leaders view themselves and their actions, and how their employees experience it – or even what trickles down to those on the front lines of their organization.

    I've had conversations with many leaders who express their frustration over how they're employing all these measures to improve employee morale and seeing barely a blip on the radar. Invariably, what comes out of the talks and sessions is a greater awareness for how they're often addressing what they see as wrong or what's necessary, and not what their employees know to be what they require to turn things around.

    So while others might read this study from the The Conference Board and think that somehow we'll see a dramatic improvement because CEOs now openly recognize the importance of cultivating and developing their employees, we do have to recognize what others studies have revealed as this significant gap between where leaders are at in their perception, and where employees are at in terms of the realities they have to manage working in their organization.

  6. On February 1st, 2014 at 4:47 PM exemplar1 said:

    Agreed Tanveer. There are always misperceptions. I see those as belonging to the leaders as well. They are responsible for communicating the vision/mission/passion of the work, the corporation, the assignment. If they don't, they miss on a great opportunity to motivate someone.

    I know of a man that could get more out of me in 10 minutes a week than most could in hours. His method? Simply come to my workstation, ask how things are going, express how my work is impacting the project, and express his appreciation for the work I am doing. That motivated me more than anything. I should have stayed working for him instead of moving on. (Although it was not my choice, he had a forced job change.)

    In my experience, I have had 3 supervisors like this… out of probably about 30. I think you see what I am saying.

  7. On February 2nd, 2014 at 11:46 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I know what you mean, Jack. Looking back at the bosses and leaders I've worked with, I could count on one hand how many of them I felt I did my best work under and who I'm be eager to work with again.

    Unfortunately, those leaders who I'm glad to no longer work for and who I'd actually advise others not to work with is far greater. It's a rather unfortunate circumstance when you think about it as our understandings of leadership and how to lead others are in large part based on our own experiences and what we've learned through our career.

    And that's why we have to be careful to not assume that just because CEOs are saying employees come first that they understand how exactly to communicate and exemplify that notion through their actions and words.

  8. On February 20th, 2014 at 8:42 AM Jim Matorin said:

    I too enjoyed the survey results. So when are leaders going to walk the talk. If true employee engagement/empowerment is ever to suceed, then it is time for most corporations to over haul their culture. That is not an easy task and takes time. Unfortunately in the process business leaders need to deliver results, if not they are toast, then the culture over haul goes in a new direction when new leaders come in.

    Another solid post Tanveer.

  9. On February 20th, 2014 at 11:51 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jim; glad you enjoyed it. Likewise, I too am looking forward to seeing when we'll see more leaders putting measures into effect that reflect this people-centered focus in their organization.

    Of course, the challenge will be recognizing that gap between what they see as people-centric measures and how those efforts are viewed and experienced by those they lead.

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