Employee Engagement Tops Biz Leaders’ Challenges

The two top challenges facing today’s leaders are employee engagement and effective strategy execution, according to a survey of 1248 senior directors and executives, of which 10 percent come from the Middle East.

The top five challenges also include talent management, driving work across organizational boundaries and collaborative working across teams.

These are just some of the findings from the London Business School’s Leadership Institute study that explores the issues facing the world’s leaders of business and other organizations.

“Importantly, these top five issues are all intertwined: disengaged employees are unable to put strategy into place effectively. The commercial imperatives are clear. Without an effective strategy which the workforce fully supports, organizations suffer and results fall,” explained Randall S. Peterson, Academic Director of London Business School’s Leadership Institute.

He explained that this is pertinent today given the growth in the service economy. People really are an organization’s most important asset. So for success, employee engagement has never been more important.

“Furthermore, this widespread study demonstrates that four of the top five issues facing organizations relate to managing the workforce. The UK, for example, is plagued by poor productivity, so organizations need to address the full range of people management issues to up their game,” Mr Peterson added.

To engage staff, leaders may be tempted to simply ‘sell’ reasons for staff to be passionate about their role. But this approach won’t succeed. The best performers are motivated by work that is rewarding in itself: work that gives meaning to their lives or develops their skills.

Aligned to this, the survey also asked respondents about the most important skills required by leaders for success. Communicating purpose ranked as the single most important skill.

Mr Peterson argues that firms need to be focused not only on issues such as staff needs, fair pay, a safe working environment and resources, but also on individuals’ goals and aspirations which also support organizational goals.

“Ensuring staff and stakeholders share a joint sense of purpose encourages them to go above and beyond what’s required. This is critical for long term organizational success – and is complemented by the other key leadership skills highlighted by the survey, namely, integrity, setting direction, critical thinking and practising what you preach in terms of beliefs, values and behaviors,” explained Professor Peterson.

Drive Change Through Collaboration
Almost 80 percent of respondents said that change was driven, or mandated, by senior management while only 10 percent was driven by people lower in the organization and 9 percent consider that their organization resists change.

“In an age when change is increasingly accepted as a constant, it’s important to approach the development and execution of change initiatives in a way that works in organizations facing 21st century challenges,” said Vyla Rollins, Executive Director of the Leadership Institute.

“For example, according to our study, a ‘bottom-up’ approach to change is rare and the prevalence of senior manager-led initiatives may go some way to explain why employee engagement is such a concern for many organizations. It’s therefore well worth organizations acquainting themselves with some of the emerging collaborative approaches to change, whereby senior leaders’ responsibility is to facilitate and orchestrate change, rather than mandating and driving change via clusters of individuals in senior roles,” she said.

Managing Failure
The survey also explored how organizations deal with failed initiatives and there is an overwhelming feeling that such projects are met with negativity.

In fact, 59 percent of responses suggest that the results of failed initiatives are not shared across the organization, or else not talked about. However, what’s more concerning is that a further 11 percent of responses demonstrate that individuals involved typically disappear from the organization, while 14 percent suggest that the results are shared but the individuals concerned are stigmatized.

Only 11 percent of responses reflect that results from projects which have failed are celebrated as important learning opportunities. Startups and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) appear more likely to embrace failure than larger organizations.

“For any organization to succeed at innovation, they must develop ways to make it acceptable to talk about projects that don’t progress as planned and then turn them into learning opportunities. It takes a real shift in beliefs, mindsets and behaviors for companies to start to innovate more effectively,” Mr Peterson said.

To help organizations thrive, leaders must learn how to manage failure. Naturally you need to minimize potential downside costs by beginning with a small pilot project, for example, but also by maximizing benefits and extracting as much value as possible from what is learnt. Simple questions can be valuable, for example: ‘What went well, and why?’ and ‘What could have been done to help bolster possibilities of success?’

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