Employee Engagement

A business is nothing more than a bunch of people working together (one would hope) to achieve a common goal or goals. Of course there are myriad ways to look at a business that make the thing seem a lot more complicated than that, but essentially, that’s what it is.

And when you have to drive performance, as I have had to for more years than I care to remember, it can be tough to balance the needs of individuals with the needs of the business. It can be so tough, in fact, that some businesses start to behave as if they’ve forgotten that people are their lifeblood. To be sure, there is a fine line to tread between making your company or team a happy one and a really effective one, and you can kill people with kindness. But the most successful businesses manage, for the most part, to be both positive and effective.

After my third successive meeting of the week with a senior professional in which this subject arose, I reflected that there seems to be an increasing gap between how companies say they manage people and how they actually do. We’re in a challenging period for businesses, where strong professionals are in a commanding position, so I think it’s important that companies practice what they preach about employee engagement. (There’s an even more challenging issue for our industry which is very closely related to this subject, and which I will come to towards the end of this article).

One useful way of understanding this issue is to look at the changing face of HR. Everybody knows that HR functions are being tasked with being more strategic and more analytical. I have heard the trend referred to in some circles as “people-accounting”. Having been responsible for strategy myself, and often acting in a strategic function now on behalf of my clients, I can understand why HR is changing in this way. But let’s not forget that there is still a place within businesses for getting people to achieve fantastic things, and that the way to do that often has little to do with a balance sheet.

During a recent conversation about where the role of employee engagement should sit, a client of mine neatly summarised his frustration with the whole people-accounting approach to HR. “Just because you keep weighing a calf, it doesn’t make it fatter,” he said.

He went on to observe that employee engagement is something that is increasingly handled by PR and branding activity, when it should be about culture. Give people something to buy into and they will buy into it. Surely the best employee engagement strategy is to have such a great culture that you don’t need an employee engagement strategy.

All of this is not an irrelevance – and this is that challenge that I promised I would come back to. In my role at Ennis & Co I have a good window onto the automotive industry, and I can tell you that loyalty right now is at a premium. That goes right across the industry: loyalty from employers to employees, loyalty from individuals to their employers, and – crucially – customer loyalty. As we have touched upon before, there is a crisis of identity facing our industry today, and the need for a workforce motivated to deliver a great service has never been stronger.

If companies don’t engender loyalty within their own people, how can they expect their people to engender loyalty in customers? And isn’t customer loyalty something the automotive industry really needs?