Simon Lovegrove chats to Catherine Llewellyn from Inspiring Change

Catherine, would you like to discuss some of your experiences and the reference points you have around creating engaged organisations?

This interest in engaged organisations is fairly recent. Before that, people used to talk about ‘staff satisfaction’, ‘internal communications’, ‘customer care’, etc. There has been a whole series of things that were the ‘word of the day’, as such. In my opinion, the reason that the word of the day keeps changing is because it becomes over-used and the original meaning disappears.
With engagement, what people are often talking about is that happy state where people in the organisation are involved personally and professionally. Their hearts are involved as well as physically turning up and doing the job. There seems to be two main reasons why people want this. One is because they care about people and want people to be happy. The other is the fact that if your people are disengaged you are not going to be able to compete. These days, competition is a much more sophisticated challenge than it used to be. You can no longer compete just by dropping your prices, by getting your products to market more quickly or by reducing your process end-to-end. Customers are much more sophisticated and they notice differences in how they are dealt with.
Engagement, I think, is an attempt to try and wrap up a much subtler issue which has no short answer. That is what people hate to acknowledge. Some of the people I have been dealing with are ones that are leading some sort of significant change, in such areas as organisation identity, ownership, process, system or product. These are significant changes which can’t just be achieved through pragmatic interventions.

There is there is an illusion that the more senior you go, the more control you have. It is certainly true that you have more authority and a lot more scope in terms of exercising it. But in my experience of talking to people, the more senior you go, the less control you feel you have over the specific leaders that make things happen. How do the people you have worked with describe the challenge of creating an engaged organisation?

That question itself often takes up the first several days of discussion. At the beginning of the conversation they are talking to me because they think that what they are doing could be done better. But the actual essence of that challenge is not obvious. I think this is one of the big issues at senior level; what actually is the problem and what are the levers for the challenge? The answers are not obvious and it takes a large amount of investigation to find what those are. This is hard for people to have to imagine before they rise onto the board because at lower levels of the organisation the challenges people are dealing with are more bracketed and local. Therefore, systems are less complex and it is easier to identify the problem and the solution.
When you are dealing with a larger organisation, it is so multi-systemic that it is bewildering. I would say bewilderment is a massive part of the experience for these guys. When I say that I feel I am giving away a secret because it is not talked about at that level. No-one can express any vulnerability for fear of being mocked. That is a very difficult place to be in. If you can’t access your vulnerability and communicate about it you are cutting yourself off from a massive amount of intelligence, sensitivity and empathy. Sensitivity and empathy are vital if you want to create an engaged organisation.
Quite often the first thing people want me to do is listen to them and give them a space where they can delve within themselves and bring some of these things out. These are not weak people, these are strong and resilient people. They’re human and they need space to explore so they can get to the heart of what they are trying to address.

When you have reached a point where there is a sufficient level of understanding, what are the first types of things that people then set out to do in order to move forward.

A very basic one is getting two-way communication going. Some organisations still think that communication means communicating in one direction at people. Getting two-way communication going is a massive undertaking in these organisations and a very useful thing to do. There are various ways of doing it, such as with focus groups, online questionnaires, lunches with the Chairman (which don’t often seem to work as they can be a bit embarrassing), walk-arounds which, again, don’t seem to work because it is a bit like the Queen coming to visit!! Designing how this can be done in an effective and authentic way is a challenge. This is level one.
Level two is where you start to look at what your people need from you to make a genuine difference to their experience of being at work. Generally, when that question comes up people come back with the standard answers such as bonuses, prizes or free tickets. These ameliorate people and make them feel loved. But these are inauthentic and weak little pats on the head. We are dealing with adults not children.
How can we as leaders shift from treating them as children to adults and how can we tap into what they really need? The internal staff satisfaction surveys that people do don’t really deal with this very well. They try to deal with it but they don’t get to the heart of it. These surveys often say things such as they want leaders to be more visible, for example. But what does being visible actually mean in this context?

What is your awareness of the sorts of thinking around creating systems to help people’s hearts get involved? You are talking about a very human, emotional thing and you want to create process and systems to help that to happen. Yet, you don’t want the process and system to become the issue. How do they think about balancing those things?

I think you have highlighted one of the issues which is splitting. This is where people split topics apart  rather than looking for ways to integrate them. People would say that you have systems on one side and people’s hearts on the other. Actually, what you have is a bunch of people with hearts who are already using systems.
These are systems which already affect those people and, in many ways, affect how those people feel. If you want to integrate those things you use a system improvement programme as an opportunity to involve people. You get them involved in it in a way that is realistic and useful. The specification of the system needs to be informed by the research inquiry you are doing into those people and they help decide what the system needs to give them. If you try to decide what the system needs to give them you are back in the parent/child methodology which doesn’t work.
One example of how you involve them are process-owner teams. This is a simple ideal but brilliant at the same time. It involves a series of vertical processes and each process has a team which is responsible for it. Teams are then created which are responsible for the horizontal across the vertical processes. Those teams have members from the vertical groupings working together to make sure the horizontal works as problems can arise at the interface between processes. These people are responsible for the flow all the way through.
Process-owner teams are massively enjoyable for people to get involved in. They choose people from the vertical groupings who are creative and interesting people but could be viewed as slightly trouble-making. Now this is another thing with engagement in organisations. You need to harness all different kinds of people. If you dumb down your organisation to make it compliant and run smoothly by racketing off the ‘trouble-makers’ you have also racketed off the creative people. You need to bring them back in and involve them in these endeavours because you are then tapping into what people and your organisation need.

How do those at the top know it is all working?

The first thing you need to do is be engaged yourself. This can be a scary proposition because it is a massive organisation and if you open yourself up to that it can be quite disturbing. Trusting your gut as to where to look I would always say is the first place. You do not need to trust your gut to give you the answers but to tell you that you need to go and investigate.
Secondly, you need to look at how your board is functioning. Are they:

  • Co-operating with each-other?
  • Being open and inquiring?
  • Coming up with their own points of view or simply trying to toe the line?
  • Politicising?
  • Silo making?

What your board is doing will be reflected all the way down through the organisation. If the board is harmonious whilst also being imaginative, humane and running things well that is a very good sign.
The third thing to look at is the statistics. All the standard HR statistics are extremely useful. I wouldn’t stop at the statistics though. I would look at the statistics and then look at them a bit further. Some industries should have a high turnover of staff because of the nature of the industry and the work they do. This is a healthy thing. Some industries shouldn’t. Get a sense of what is a healthy set of statistics for your industry.

It has been really interesting hearing your perspective, particularly the information on the ‘view from the top’. Do you have any final tips for the senior people we have talked about or people trying to help them?

Don’t underestimate the importance of your own state, your own well-being and your own ability to create engagement and to help other people create engagement.

If you have issues with disengaged staff enquire about HR in flow’s LBD system!


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