Organizations with a high level of employee engagement operate like a high-performance engine, with every piston firing. Employee engagement can help organizations more successfully navigate change, and engaged employees are better able to cope with new and unanticipated situations, especially when leaders cannot be there to guide them to the answer.
However, employee engagement should not be taken for granted. The Real World Leadership series, a global study by the Hay Group division of Korn Ferry, shows there is a critical need to improve employee engagement — and to develop leaders who know how to foster cultures in which people are highly engaged. The survey, which included data from more than 7,500 business and human resources leaders in 107 countries, found that across all leadership levels, an average of only 36 percent of employees are “highly engaged.”
Employee engagement is a way of looking at everything an organization does, from community involvement to developing leaders. In this context, it becomes a dialogue between senior leaders and the organization’s most valued asset — its people, whose alignment with objectives, priorities and goals is key to successfully executing strategy.
As CLOs examine how their talent development programs can increase engagement, it’s important to understand the objective is not about making employees happier, per se. Rather, employee engagement seeks to improve performance and increase productivity by creating conditions that foster commitment to organizations and a willingness to go the extra mile. Evidence of employee engagement can be found everywhere, from pulse surveys and polls conducted to comments on internal and external social media, as well as annual engagement surveys.
Engagement tends to be deeper among employees who feel that they have opportunities for growth and development. Beyond monetary awards that are fair and recognize their contributions, employees are increasingly seeking experiences through which they can acquire new skills and competencies that prepare them for future roles. The problem for companies is that demand for such opportunities frequently outpaces the available supply. A powerful way to achieve twin goals to generate greater employee engagement and develop leaders is to leverage the organization’s corporate social responsibility agenda.
In the aforementioned survey, roughly 87 percent of respondents said linking an organization’s social responsibility efforts to leadership development has a positive impact on overall engagement and performance. Unfortunately, only 59 percent of respondents said their organizations actually link the two.
When talent development programs target employee engagement — specifically bringing in a purpose-driven CSR — the results can be compelling. For example, Korn Ferry Hay Group’s partnership with Fortune magazine to identify the World’s Most Admired Companies highlights the factors that contribute to making these organizations both highly regarded and highly successful. As recent findings show, 94 percent of executives in the World’s Most Admired Companies say their efforts to engage employees are a significant source of competitive advantage and have reduced employee turnover, while 84 percent said they have strengthened customer relationships.
So how can companies achieve these kinds of results? A key component is leadership development that not only changes behaviors at the top of organizations, but also produces highly visible role models for others to follow. Real leadership development doesn’t happen in the classroom; it happens on the job and increasingly in the way organizations give back to the community. Where there’s purpose, there’s a sense of meaning and value, which is part of the reason opportunities to give back and serve are perfect places to develop leadership.
Developing a culture that provides employees with meaning and purpose is not only critical to learning but to talent recruitment and retention as well. Over the years, CSR has evolved from focusing on reducing harm to the environment to a more expansive view, with commitment to making a positive contribution in the world through the core business and charitable activities that are aligned with an organization’s purpose.
A primary driver of job satisfaction is working for a company with a culture aligned to personal values. But organizations and their senior leaders can do more. Progressive organizations use CSR goals to help develop leaders with purpose and enhance a mission-driven culture. CSR-based development, for example, may include serving on the board of a community organization or leading a fundraising effort. Or, team-based community involvement may help up-and-coming leaders connect with co-workers as well as community leaders.
For example, Exelis, an aerospace and defense company recently acquired by Harris Corporation, donates resources to community-based veterans’ organizations, and incorporates volunteer initiatives into its formal leadership development programs. Companies often find that, by pairing service initiatives with leadership development programs, they more effectively sow the seeds for a generation of leaders who are prepared to drive their organization’s CSR agenda in the future.
For some companies, though, this is a missed opportunity. The survey revealed that 41 percent of organizations are not leveraging CSR agendas to develop leaders. Fortunately, help is available. The Americans for the Arts organization released an essay in March detailing how the Arts & Science Council’s Cultural Leadership Training Program in Charlotte and the Center of Creative Arts’ COCAbiz program in St. Louis are working with businesses to help employees learn how to serve on boards, develop leadership and communications skills, and enhance creativity and collaboration.
Organizations seeking to increase employee engagement and accelerate leadership development can succeed by leveraging CSR. To be successful, they must align their CSR plans and programs with their core purpose and values in order to make them meaningful and relevant. Further, participation should be a requirement for emerging leaders, which sends a strong message about the importance of CSR. Through CSR and leadership development, companies can unlock the power of purpose to foster future success.
Mark Royal is a senior principal within Korn Ferry Hay Group’s employee research division and co-author of the book, “The Enemy of Engagement: Put an End to Workplace Frustration – and Get the Most from Your Employees.” To comment email editor@CLOmedia.com.