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Building Better Leaders at Work

A 2014 Gallup survey found that more than 70% of Australians were disengaged at work. At the same time we know that Australian businesses invest billions in annual leadership training and leadership development initiatives. So why are trained leaders failing to engage their people?
While I only have information from this survey of Australian businesses, I have worked in other countries around the world and I can assure you that while the quanta may be different, the truth is that the vast majority of people at work feel disengaged. If this is a worldwide trend, then businesses are investing significant resources into something that is not providing them with anything like the desired outcome.
First of all, let’s look at what benefits employee engagement can bring to your company. These benefits are true whether or not you have several tens of people working for you or several hundreds, or even if you only have 2 or 3 employees. True engagement isn’t just “happy” or “satisfied”. True employee engagement means that the employee has an emotional commitment to the employer and its goals that will result in more discretionary effort. It is the difference between someone doing their job as expected or even well, and someone providing discretionary effort to do their jobs as if it enriched their own lives. In terms of service and sales, customers know the difference between someone loving what they do and someone who is competent at it, and it brings extra customer satisfaction.
Engaged employees are more productive, going the extra mile because they see the success of the company as having meaning to them. Their motivation leads to higher productivity. Studies show that offices with engaged employees were up to 46% more productive. Engaged employees lower the risk of employee turnover because they are more invested in the long term success of the company, thus avoiding loss of experience and decreasing costs of retraining and recruitment.
And if you think that’s only biting around the edges, Standard Chartered Bank found that branches with increased levels of employee engagement had a 16% higher profit margin growth than branches with decreased levels of engagement.. It actually affects your bottom line.

So the benefits of employee engagement are well known. As a result many companies send their managers on leadership and development courses and spend significant amounts of investment on building better leaders. However the amount of leadership development is not providing the expected outcome of having a better led, engaged workforce. What is the disconnect?
Leadership and development courses can be inspiring on the day but have limited follow up, lack of applicability of learned knowledge on the day to day situations, and are usually reserved for selected middle and senior managers. Training, by itself, does not build the demand for good leadership into the culture of the firm.
Training courses provide tools. However if the company’s culture is not supportive of the use of those tools, then the day after the inspiring course managers come back to “business as usual” and the tools are not practiced in the workplace. Worse, structures may actively work against the application of the tools and techniques learned in a course. On top of that of course, the course may be a once a year investment, with no ongoing follow up.
Are tools sufficient to build better leaders? Leaders can be made, not born, but it does not rest on one-off training courses but ongoing, long term and accountable development. Furthermore, you cannot train a selected level and hope that everyone then supports the initiative and will fall into place. What builds a great, and therefore engaged team, is not an individual leader – in fact engagement by all team members outweigh an individual leader’s influence. Harvard Professor John Kotter’s change process is all about building the vision, then gathering the team.
I suggest that the way forward is to provide a company-wide, structured, people development program.
It must be structured in that the program must have long term and ongoing outcomes, therefore it has to be planned over the long term and not merely consist of a series of annual training courses. It must be over at least two years. People must be able to see how each phase fits into the overall vision for the company so that they can measure themselves against it. Throughout the program there must be accountable commitment by participants. To support this, it needs systems of coaching and mentorship to be put in place.
It must be a people development program rather than a training program that provides tools. This means that alongside training, the program must provide ongoing support, monitoring and evaluation, and be centered around the development of leadership experience rather than mere leadership skill. The outcome is to develop people holistically as leaders, not provide them with a toolbox. This means that the program must include honest feedback and encourage innovative thinking about day to day real work problems.
The program must be company-wide and not targeted at management or a selected group. It is not a reward for performance or promotion – it is a necessity for all employees to develop as leaders. It can involve the organisation of people into cohorts, as long as these include all levels of the workforce. Leadership is not a position, it is a way of working that is expected of all who wish to follow it. The outcomes of the program must be about day to day live leadership from everyone that becomes the corporate culture.
In this process, everyone participates in being developed as leaders, that builds engagement, expects daily application, provides accountable development, resulting in true employee engagement.
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