When executives' engagement is significantly lower than that of employees in the organizations they lead, CEOs need to act fast -- because engagement (and disengagement) cascades down
Just five in 10 Thai executives strongly agree that they are aware of what is expected of them at work.
In any company, engagement comes from the top. Employees look to their organization's executives to set a tone and expectations. They know that company leadership determines whether engagement is important, or even if it matters at all.
That's why CEOs must think proactively about how to psychologically and emotionally engage their executives. This is the only way to drive and sustain engagement throughout the organization because engagement at the top cascades down the line.
Recently, Gallup studied employee engagement at the leadership level in 10 organizations across different industries in Thailand. This research revealed challenges in the C suite that could in turn affect engagement across these leaders' companies. Just five in 10 executives strongly agree that they are aware of what is expected of them at work, while about six in 10 strongly agree that the mission or purpose of their company makes them feel that their job is important. Those two elements are fundamental for engagement and performance in any organization. (See graphic "The 12 Elements of Great Managing.")
Think about how this might play out in your business. Imagine that the head of your sales organization or your operations chief isn't 100% sure of what is expected of him or her at work or isn't strongly committed to the company's mission and purpose. That lack of clarity and commitment will cascade right down the line, making it much more difficult for your business to function -- or to grow.
Worse, the Gallup study found that only one-third of Thai leaders strongly agree that their coworkers are committed to doing quality work, while just four in 10 say they themselves have opportunities to learn and grow. That means too many senior executives feel that their development has stalled, and they harbor doubts about the quality of their coworkers' contributions.
Why are these problems happening? Our analysis suggests the following:
- Rapid change: Many organizations in Thailand have undergone some kind of change in management, vision, mission, or performance goals over the last few years. These changes require realignment -- such as structural adjustments and shifts in roles and responsibilities -- from the top to the bottom of an organization. During times of rapid change, organizations often end up with a few people on the leadership team who don't fit or embrace the new direction.
- Excessive control: Some organizations have highly controlling CEOs who get very specific about how things should work. In these kinds of environments, there is limited empowerment at the executive level and limited communication from executives to the CEO. This results in problems with engagement and motivation among executives.
- Poor preparation: In many Thai companies, executives rise through the ranks relatively quickly because of their role performance. But they don't necessarily receive the developmental training and opportunities they need to support their growth as effective leaders, such as programs that enhance their self-awareness or ongoing coaching and mentoring.
Though the situation looks grim, there is a silver lining. Companies that undertake a disciplined program to improve engagement at all levels will see that improvements in engagement at the C suite level cascade down to the front line. The question is whether this change can happen fast enough for companies that have ambitious growth targets or that are up against ambitious competitors. CEOs of companies that don't have time to waste on disengagement should consider taking the following actions.
Clarify executives' roles and expectations. Talent, effort, and planning are crucial for business success, but they are not enough without a unifying purpose. For businesses to succeed, CEOs must help their executives understand the company's mission and purpose and help them see how it connects to their leadership role. CEOs must communicate expectations clearly and repeat and reinforce them in different ways.
Conducting formal one-to-one sessions regularly can be effective. These sessions should be more than a casual conversation about how things are going. A CEO must act as the executive's coach for these conversations to be useful. CEOs should take responsibility for scheduling these meetings and conducting a committed discussion about the company's mission and purpose. Topics should include:
- Explain how the executive's role connects to the company's overall purpose.
- Clarify the executive's goals and objectives, especially when the organization is carrying out change initiatives.
- Discuss the impact any significant decisions or changes may have on the executive's role.
Understand individual strengths. Leadership teams are always evolving, so it's important to understand how executives' talents -- their innate thoughts, feelings, and behaviors -- manifest in their everyday actions. Leaders' talents can be developed into strengths that can improve their performance as well as the company's. Gallup has found that people who use their strengths every day are six times more likely to be engaged, while teams that focus on strengths have 12.5% greater productivity and 8.9% greater profitability. CEOs should understand their executives' strengths and help them develop and use their strengths intentionally. Starting from strengths can help make one-on-one conversations more productive and improve the company's leadership capability.
Align the leadership team's roles and expectations. An effective leadership team is like a jazz ensemble in which each player listens to the other instruments as he plays his own. The more attuned each player is to the rest of the group, the better the outcome will be.
Successful executives can break down the company's overall vision and purpose into goals and objectives for their department or function. If executives aren't listening to each other, the loudest ones will dominate the conversation, creating assumptions, doubts, and misaligned priorities among the rest of the leadership team members.
To prevent this, CEOs must help each member of the leadership team understand the priorities the company should focus on and the percentage of resources that should be allocated to them. Facilitating open conversations about priorities and resources can help executives achieve common understanding and agreement. Companies should re-evaluate priorities frequently -- at least every six months in a fast-moving business and immediately after any significant event that might change the company's priorities.
Align the leadership team's talents and strengths. It is more realistic and effective to have a well-rounded team than it is to have well-rounded individuals. To ensure a well-rounded team, CEOs must do two things:
- Assess the talents of the leadership team members scientifically and systematically to understand their overall ability to meet the demands of leadership. This is important not only for creating a well-rounded team but also as the foundation of effective succession planning.
- Understand executives' strengths and motivations and how they interact with each other. Using a commonly understood language of strengths fosters higher self-awareness and a comprehensive understanding of each executive's talents. This process also enhances communication and collaboration among the team members.
Everything executives do has an effect on the people beside them and below them. Ultimately, executive engagement drives whole companies. It's up to every business to determine if engagement is driving them forward or out of business.