WE: How great leaders create an engaged workforce

Always fascinated by insights and research on how leaders inspire and engage people, I recently talked with Kevin Kruse, author of the best-selling book WE: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement.

Based on millions of employee surveys with organizations around the world, Kevin and his co-author Rudy Karsen found that the three most important drivers of engagement are:

  1. Growth: Team members need to feel they are growing in their careers and learning new things.
  2. Recognition: Team members need to feel that their ideas and accomplishments are appreciated.
  3. Trust: Team members need to trust senior leadership and feel confident about the future.

Here are highlights of our conversation: 

What attracted you to writing about engagement? Why does the world need this book, at this time?

Well as a business leader I always cared a lot about trying to create an empowering culture for employees, and I had won a Best Place to Work in PA award and things like that. But one night, during our annual holiday party, the wife of someone who worked for me came up and said she wanted to thank me for making her marriage better. I really had no idea what she was talking about. She went on to explain that her husband used to be so grumpy when he came home from work, but since he started working for me he went back to being the man she married.

That was pretty powerful. It was long before I understood how our emotions at work spill over to our personal lives and cross over to those around us. But that was when I got the idea that I really wanted to dig into “engagement” and figure out ways we could make it more accessible to everyday managers. As it turns out, job satisfaction is at a record low according to the Conference Board so I think the timing is really good for a book on the subject.

What are the qualities of employees who are especially engaged with their work? What makes them that way?

People who are engaged at work are highly satisfied with their jobs, but they also exhibit more pride and advocacy about the company they work for, and stay with the company longer. All this leads to higher levels of service and productivity, which of course drives higher levels of sales and profit.

In terms of what drives engagement, it’s of course situational. But based on Kenexa surveys of over 10 million workers in 150 countries and on my own experience as an entrepreneur, it usually comes down to three things. Employees want an environment that fosters growth, recognition and trust. Those are the three keys.

If you were on a board interviewing potential CEOs, what qualities would you look for — and why?

Funny you should ask! I am on the Board of a community bank and we just hired a new CEO. Whenever I’m hiring a leader for one of my businesses I always look for high energy–someone who talks and acts like they’re on a deadline, who is driven by growth. And they need to be able to succinctly state the challenge and action steps ahead. I’ve never had a business plan that was longer than one page. We don’t need to make things more complex than they are. All businesses have three constituents: investors, employees and customers. What must we do, right now, to improve metrics in each area. That’s it.

What questions should people ask during job interviews to assess whether the corporate culture is positive, collaborative and flourishing?

Well, it’s always best to talk to people on the inside. Like Kevin Bacon, everyone should be only a few degrees of separation from someone on the inside and having a healthy LinkedIn network is one way to do that. But in the interview itself you should ask what happened to the person who held the position before it was open. You should ask about which decisions are made as a team, which are made by a single individual. Make sure to get a tour of the office you’ll be working in so you can sense the vibe. Is it quiet like a library or mausoleum — or are people working together and making a buzz? Do people have a lot of fun personal effects in their cube — or just bare walls? Tall cube walls — or open space? There is no one right answer, but just make sure it fits your own work personality.

There’s so much written about employee engagement today. What are the three most important things for leaders to understand about this topic? Conversely, what do people obsess about when it comes to engagement that doesn’t matter all that much?

Engagement is all the rage both because it’s important to growth and profits, and it’s also really low in most organizations. Business leaders first need to realize that they need to care about it. Second they need to act like they care. I mean, they need to measure it, reward to it, make sure it’s not a fad. When Doug Conant took over Campbell Soup to turn it around he focused on two metrics: shareholder return against comparable companies, and the number of engaged versus disengaged employees.

The biggest misconception is that employee engagement takes a lot of time and money. It doesn’t. It means using your existing time differently. Managers meet with their direct reports all the time, but they need to make sure to spend some of that time talking about the career goals of team members. Managers have a hundred interactions with their team each day…but how many of them are to say “thanks” or “good job” in a sincere way. CEOs routinely hold “town hall” meetings or send company wide announcements, but how often are they repeating their big hairy audacious goal like a broken record. These are things that count.

What could the United States be if more citizens were engaged?

Let me answer this two ways. Our emotions at work impact all areas of our life. So if more of us were engaged at work, we all would be healthier, have stronger marriages, our kids would do better in schools and incidentally we’d gain about $350 billion in productivity according to Gallup. When it comes to engagement with our country, while I don’t know what our nation would “be”, I can tell you that the reason why we are so disengaged with government and our leaders in Washington is because we don’t feel like we’re growing or advancing and we absolutely don’t trust our leaders to take us to a better place.