14th December 2017
Interview: Jim Abbatt – A2B Excellence
This interview can also be found in our eBook “Creating the best workplaces: Insights from global #EmployeeEngagement Influencers” which features 25+ interviews and much more. Download now.
We at the Engagement Zone sat down with #Engagement101 fellow Jim Abbatt – Managing Director of A2B Excellence. Jim offers expert facilitated process improvement and tailored training for organisations to fulfil their true potential. In the interview, we have a deeper look into Jim’s idea of employee engagement and how he helps companies to achieve this.
EZ: What does employee engagement mean to you?
JIM: Employee engagement means ensuring that everybody is connected with the purpose and motive of the business. It’s not just about incentives (which are nice but won’t motivate employees for any length of time). Far more important is a narrative and vision which is shared and consistently demonstrated by the leadership.
When the employees in an organisation understand the vision, appreciate that what they do today will drive those outcomes, and are empowered to deliver on the promise; that’s a fully engaged team which will support management through thick and thin.
EZ: What are your three tips for companies looking to drive engagement in their organisations?
- Listen to the front-of-house. It’s your people who are closest to delivery who best understand the customer perspective and what really happens on the shop floor.
- Share the successes and challenges of the organisation, constantly. It’s an exercise in continuous learning and listening; engaging your employees in that exercise makes those challenges much easier to solve.
- Look out into other industries and the wider engagement marketplace. It’s a sector that’s always willing to communicate and share. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel, so find out what’s worked in other sectors and situations. Whatever the engagement problem, someone will have been there before.
EZ: What do you feel are the biggest pitfalls that companies should look to avoid when executing their engagement strategy?
JIM: The biggest danger is developing your engagement strategy as an executive team, on your own, in a bunker. You can’t ‘do’ engagement to an employee cohort, it must be felt and demonstrated. Yes, senior leaders must handle the commercial and contractual imperatives of engagement, but it must then be cascaded down in language that everyone can understand, evidenced from the very top in everything that leaders do, and teams must be given the free rein to put your strategies into action in their own scenarios. Mrs May’s bunker approach to the last election is exactly what not to do!
Then, there’s technology for technology’s sake. Many providers will tell you that you can chuck tech at a problem and it’ll fix everything – but it won’t. You’ll just have the same human challenges as you did before, but with another layer of technology to obscure the relationship between employees and their managers, colleagues, opposite numbers or other connections. Technology can help deliver a strategy, but it’s not a strategy in itself.
Finally, leaders must not disconnect engagement from the true purpose of the organisation. You’re in a P&L business: in order to do social good for its customers and employees, the business has to survive by turning a profit. It’s not a club or a hobby: if the commercials aren’t right, the business ceases to exist. Be brutally honest about what your company exists to do, and embed wellbeing and engagement within that context.
It helps to have a charismatic CEO who can present that message; if you don’t, then find a front-person for engagement who can give the bad news as well as the good.
EZ: Why do employees fail to buy in when companies try to ramp up engagement?
JIM: Because they don’t believe you. It’s as simple as that. Employees of all stripes (this is not just a Millennial characteristic as some commentators would have you believe) respond to authenticity. If the evidence of your actions as leaders does not marry up with your verbal commitments, it’s no surprise that employees won’t follow you. Leaders must live their values ‘in word and deed’. If you just want to run a marketing campaign to bump up your annual approval surveys, that’s fine – but don’t call it engagement!
There’s also a huge challenge with ongoing relevance. Many companies run a three-month engagement campaign and hope it’ll stick. It won’t – but it’s worse than that: you will actually lower your team’s expectations for next time. At A2B Excellence, we have often been commissioned after endless failed short-term campaigns, by which time apathy and cynicism kick in. It’s much harder to escape apathy and find latent goodwill after lots of false starts.
EZ: What skills are most useful for everyone to have when trying to move towards a culture of engagement?
JIM: Effective leaders of engagement programmes have an amazing ability to listen. Then, they also take the time to understand exactly what employees mean when they contribute to the discussion – often the subtext is very different to what is said on the surface. Too many businesses conduct staff surveys and try to infer feeling or intention from the answers, and it just won’t do. You need both quantitative and qualitative insight, and for the qualitative data to be understood in depth, even if it takes several interviews or facilitated sessions, conducted by outside experts.
You also need to be stubborn, thick skinned and able to take criticism on the chin; because at this degree of engagement – especially if you are unlocking it for the first time – you may uncover a tidal wave of grievance. Don’t try to solve everything overnight; communicate your list of priorities repeatedly, and be consistent in all your staff dealings. Run a campaign of continually knocking challenges off the list – and again, communicate those successes proudly.
Where you are unable to engender change (for example, pension issues), explain clearly why a situation is as it is; and be absolutely transparent about the fact that change is not going to happen and why this is essential for the organisation. Note again that the engagement champion’s loyalty is fundamental to the organisation, not the staff: the organisation’s strengths and successes should reflect on its people, but pure loyalty to the people can wither the organisation in an instant – and then nobody has a job! So you need to be a superb communicator to walk the tightrope between corporate necessity and the temptation of human loyalties.
EZ: You’re a judge for the Employee Engagement awards. What will you be looking for in the entries?
JIM: Engagement is not a simple toolkit because people aren’t robots. Every business is different and every organisation has its own history, so I want to see a real understanding of a specific challenge, how it was dealt with, and how the lessons of engagement are embedded more broadly across the organisation:
- Real structure of a programme: a solid methodology from challenge to solution
- Qualitative and quantitative evidence
- Widespread collaboration extending beyond roles or departments
- Avoidance of a one-size-fits-all approach, so that engagement is demonstrably applied with forethought
- Honesty about things that didn’t work
- A roadmap for continued improvement and maintenance of momentum
EZ: How important do you think it is to connect Employee Engagement to Customer Engagement and why?
JIM: Customer engagement requires leaders to think from their customers’ point of view. Employee engagement requires leaders to think from their employees’ point of view. The Venn diagram of both should be quite close; after all, for consumer businesses, employees are customers in their own right.
The techniques are also broadly the same: careful research, a commitment to honesty, and an assurance that feedback will be acted upon.
Customer satisfaction is the pursuit of exceptional value, i.e. being best in the market at a particular price-point or customer expectation, and it takes constant evaluation. Employee engagement is the pursuit of exceptional motivation, i.e. being best at precisely meeting the employment expectations of your team, and it also requires constant evaluation and temperature-taking; appreciating that they have opinions and that those opinions can be surfaced whether you agree with them or not.
EZ: Thank you, Jim!