The Last Mile of Employee Engagement is the Hardest to Travel
Organizations are pretty darn good at launching new initiatives, and sharing vision. They have (by now) recognized that clear, transparent communication of the mission is a cornerstone of employee engagement. Building trust and valuing truth in all its forms also get thumbs-up from senior managers.
Yet, the high levels of employee engagement that an enterprise needs to materially improve productivity remain elusive. Why?
In our work with clients, we find that failure happens while traveling “the last mile of employee engagement,” all the way down to the point where the products are made and services delivered, that the initiatives run out of gas. Only one third of workers globally succeed in engaging in their job, because the people actually doing the work in each organization never get fully engaged with the vision, and never get their specific role tied to its achievement.
We borrowed “the last mile” from the telecoms business, and the metaphor is apropos. Towards the end of the last century, huge investments were made to upgrade communication networks to fiber optic cable, which massively improved the speed with which messages could flow over a network. The biggest stumbling block to delivering this tremendous consumer benefit, however, lay in the old copper wire that connected the final network junction box to the consumer’s home. Switching all those “last mile” connections would have been prohibitively expensive, so the potential for fiber optics to transform a consumer’s entertainment options was less than promised.
These same stubborn, old connections exist in the front ranks of your employees, too. It takes a long time for a senior manager’s vision and transformative leadership initiative to work its way down and embed itself into the mindset of the people who actually have to carry it out. The larger the organization, the harder it is to keep the new idea’s momentum up through six or seven layers of management down to where the action is. To keep the telecom metaphor going: Just as a game of Telephone results in the original message being garbled by the people in the middle, so a vision that seems crystally clear when it leaves the executive suite can find itself completely transformed by the time it wends its way down to the shop floor or store front.
Teach frontline leaders how to lead.
Organizations that appreciate how hard it is to traverse this last mile put a lot of effort into transforming frontline managers into frontline leaders. These companies invest in leadership training for junior managers and supervisors, rather than hoping that senior management leadership habits filter down organically through the chain of command.
Much has been made of how the online retailer Zappos, or Southwest Airlines for that matter, keep their employees so focused on the strategic mission, and understand their role in it. But both companies are models to explore: They sweated out the details of how to make employee engagement a habit within the organization. They put development programs in place to reinforce the right behaviorial mindsets (habitualizing the right sort of behavior within each job.)
It doesn’t just apply to consumer-facing employees, though. We have clients in oil production and biotech that are actively driving this “aligned, passionate action” mindset into their production teams, too, with strong results.
They embedded this mindset in the hiring process, too (especially Zappos) to better match the person to the job. And onboarding also gets a lot of focus.
You cannot count on a strong message maintaining its strength through all the hierarchical filters a large organization contains without actively pushing it all the way through. You cannot let up, but maintain the pressure every day as an organizational priority to make sure the mission is understood, and internalized by those who actually have to carry it out.
- In what ways does your company successfully get communication and other engagement initiatives all the way out to the public storefront, the sales person on the street or phone, and the person making the widgets?
- In what way have you seen that engagement effort fail?
- How could that failure been fixed, looking from where you sit in the matrix?