I once worked at small start-up company during the dot-com heyday whose basic implicit recruiting pitch was, “Join us! You’ll make a lot of money when we go public!” And join employees did, and make a lot of money they did, as well. That is, until the stock dropped and all the money they made went away and the employees soon followed suit.
The CEO began complaining to his executive team about the lack of cars in the parking lot before 9:00 a.m. or after 5:00 p.m. He also felt the low energy in the office and the lack of excitement within the company. He was concerned that people had become disengaged from the company and no longer cared about the product.
He was, of course, absolutely right. Employees weren’t engaged and they did no longer care. The job had become just that: a job. No more, no less. Very few people were putting in the discretionary effort that is so prized by companies and which can truly make or break an organization.
While the CEO was frustrated and at a loss to explain how and why this was occurring, he shouldn’t have been. The answer was painfully obvious. He had built a culture based on money. “Join the company and you’ll make money!” had been its battle cry. When the incentive to make money went away, so the did the incentive to work hard. The other support structures that might emotionally tie an employee into the company and get her to give extra effort towards her work didn’t exist.
The company gave lip service to trust and integrity, but no one could see it being exhibited in any real way that mattered. Career growth was simply predicated on the fact that if the company grew, there would be more opportunities for people. And there was no employee development to speak of, beyond the on-the-job training for people who had been put in unfamiliar roles and had to scramble to learn what to do. The pride in the company was all around how wealthy the company would make them, not that we were building a company that was either built to last or would leave a legacy of technological advancement.
In the heady days of growth, the success of the company covered a multitude of sins. But as the veneer of success was stripped away, the ugly truth about what remained became obvious. Employees stopped caring because they were no longer receiving the benefit of the bargain they had made with the company.
Compensation is obviously a huge reason why people work and people use it, as well, as a measure of their value and worth to a company. Rewarding people appropriately and having the right compensation structures and programs in place are important to a company and its employees. One should not underestimate the foundational role compensation plays in both attracting and retaining employees.
With that said, as noted in the Conference Board findings I wrote about in my previous blog post, there are many other factors which create a compelling value proposition by which to emotionally engage an employee. In that post, I discussed the importance of creating the right culture and environment for employees to be successful. But what is clear, as well, is that an equal amount of work needs to be focused on the things that make an employee truly care and want to be more connected with both his work and his company. This is a one-size-fits-one project. Understanding what makes an employee tick and meeting those needs is a manager’s main job in both the recruiting and retaining of her employees.
The CEO’s responsibility in this is to set the example in the bargain he creates with his direct reports. His behaviors with these directs will influence their behaviors with their teams, which will then cascade throughout the rest of the company. The CEO should ensure that he understands what is important to each employee on his staff and what in turn motivates them. He should then construct an individualized plan to help meet each of these needs. Someone needs money? Great. Figure out the path to reasonably get them more. Someone likes power and title? Fine, too. Think about how to craft that in the appropriate manner. Someone wants to learn new skills and is only happy when facing a new challenge? Sounds like a good challenge for the CEO to figure out how to provide that.
There is no one panacea to increase employee engagement in every company. But smart CEO’s know how to partner with their HR leaders to both diagnose company-wide issues and to create systemic solutions to tackle these issues. They also know that engagement begins at home, with the very people reporting into them. Fostering an environment of support, respect and openness within your team is a good first step to ensuring that the people throughout your company will be treated the exact same way.