For Real Workplace Engagement, Empower Every Employee To Be An Entrepreneur

Make your employees entrepreneurs, wherever they may be. DHL Express U.S., which is home to a staff that's 100,000 strong, did just that and it paid off big time. Here's CEO Ian Clough on how and why it works.

When most of us think of a hyper successful startup, we envision a small battalion of enthusiastic, even maniacally focused true believers willing to brave all manner of hardship to bring a well-defined mission, and a great idea, to life.

Behind the new product, platform, or service, we imagine employees so deeply and personally invested in the enterprise that their prototypical weekend looks suspiciously like the five days that preceded it. And when customers line up, jockey for preorder position and broadcast their early adoption to their friends and to people they’ve never even met, we recognize their passion, in part, as a transactional tribute to the engaged workers who made it all happen. What follows from this recipe, of course, is profit—eventually—and growth, for the company and for its dedicated stewards.

While this startup-as-cult perception is an abridged view of reality, there is some truth to it. How, then, does a new company evolve into an established player in such a manner that, over long periods of time, it retains and even magnifies its employee power—and the bottom-line results that are borne? And for those organizations with longer track records, deep-rooted HR practices, multiple offices nationally and even globally, how can this kind of single-minded and shared focus among every worker, everywhere be replicated—even in the most remote satellite call center or distribution facility?

The answer is: "entrepreneurialize" your staff and to do it in a way that connects each of them to the bedrock of your organization.

A growing list of small and large companies are looking beyond corporate training initiatives, which educate employees about processes and principles, to employee engagement programs, which give those processes meaning and turn those principles into action. As many business leaders see every day in their metrics and meetings, and as many others have read in the pages of this publication, in coverage of Gallup’s "State of the American Workplace" report, too many workers are disconnected from their jobs, many actively undermining the mission they are tasked to complete.

The Gallup numbers are enough to unnerve any business owner, CEO, or corporate board member: a whopping seven of 10 American workers essentially admit to being mostly or entirely disconnected from their jobs, their supervisors, and their organizations. If you answer directly to your private investors or shareholders, it is unsettling to look behind the numbers and to visualize the face of an angry customer, or the back of a client who just walked away. It is troubling to picture the deals, revenue, and opportunities lost in the gap between caring and not caring at all. And, while the Gallup research is U.S.-based, those companies with global operations know that ideas and attitudes need no passports to travel internationally. In other words, employee engagement is not an exclusively American problem.

But there is something here even more disturbing than the pure math of the problem. The fact is that people are involved in the equation—real people with lives and interests and desires. A society populated by those who find little meaning in what they do is bound to make more problems than progress; an economy built by those with little attachment to it is similarly bound to repeat its simplest mistakes. The whole movement toward employee engagement, then, is meant to create better, more productive and profitable companies, but it is equally meant to establish more meaningful experiences for real people, simply because that matters, too.

If you study the subject of employee engagement long enough, you will find some basic tenets that are repeated time and again. The goal of the process, in its most general form, is to motivate employees to spend discretionary effort—to go above and beyond the call of duty—not to simply to help them find happiness or an adequate work-life balance.

Engagement, then, should never be confused with employee satisfaction, since an engaged employee may be (and likely is) satisfied, but a satisfied employee is not necessarily engaged. Programs should be established with the input of employees, should be run with their active help and guidance, and must include a significant component for managers. Defining the goals of the program and measuring results on an ongoing basis are essential to success. In the end, managers get top performance, employees find meaning in their work, and customers get great service.

Intel and Hyatt Hotels are two large companies that are often cited for their successful programs. Another company, Stryker, has been recognized multiple times by Gallup for its consistently engaged workforce. In Stryker’s case, what appears to make the difference is the aggressive commitment of the organization to obtain feedback and measurements from employees and, critically, to follow up on those results with quick action to solve any problems found. It is clear, however, that while some basic rules can help an organization create a winning program, there is no single formula that will rally the troops and rev up productivity.

At DHL Express, we designed an engagement strategy that reflects the essence of our company (one word: international), and we delivered it as we do for our customers (another word, same idea: everywhere). In 220 countries and territories, every single one of our 100,000 employees has participated in the learning and development program and has attained a new title to accompany their job descriptions: "Certified International Specialist" (CIS). Some of the lessons we’ve learned along the journey, which began in 2009 and went global in 2010, include:

Make It Personal. For employee engagement to take root, it has to be sincere. Top leaders and managers must believe in the concept, but more important, in the people they hope to motivate. With any luck, the whole idea to invest the time and money in engagement in the first place—and there will be significant cost when you act on a worldwide scale—will come from the very top. Leaders should take every chance to connect with employees directly, talk about the value of employee engagement as endlessly as possible, and promote the great qualities of the company. The program, in the end, should build morale by connecting people to the company, but the very fact that it is offered and that top leaders care says something important.

Employees (altogether now) Make the Difference. This one is a standard practice, and you have heard it a million times, but it bears repeating. For a program to work, employees must be part of the process along every step: planning, delivery, and following up. Every manager must participate (in fact, design additional programs to help managers become better at managing people), and employees should help run the learning sessions.

Find an Anchor, and Plant It. The whole point of the effort is to make employees as invested, self-motivated, and passionate as any entrepreneur—to "entrepreneurialize" everyone, no matter their positions or years of service with the organization. To accomplish this goal, find something that anchors your employees to the very foundation of the company. Interactive and experiential, our CIS program focuses heavily on giving employees a window into how the company began and how it evolved, built by real people working to make an idea take flight, package by package.

When Going Global, Don’t Go Overboard. The logistics of planning and delivering employee engagement learning internationally is of course challenging, and requires coordination among in-country leaders and HR directors on a massive scale. At the same time, organizations might feel compelled to amend, tailor, and tinker with their program region by region, believing that a certain kind of national translation of ideas is necessary. The opposite is true. While ensuring cultural sensitivity, make certain to keep the actual content exact and consistent in every global location. In this way, employees share a similar experience, and follow a shared mission.

Measure It Consistently. Annual reviews and employee surveys are common, but making the measurements work and acting on them to improve the approach is vital. We gauge employee opinion (which has improved), customer feedback (improved), and, of course, revenue (improved). We analyze the percentage improvements and adjust our surveys to get more detailed feedback. In the end, a company knows success when its employees look at the measurements and simply say, "Our whole culture has changed, and that has changed our company."

As the management practices of organizations become increasing scientific and reliant on technology, it is perhaps easy to forget that organizations are operated and managed by human beings, and that multimillion-dollar investments in infrastructure and machinery will be rendered useless if employees lack the spark to connect with customers and their work. By remembering the idealized version of the passionate startup, any business can make their mission new again.

Ian Clough is CEO of DHL Express U.S., a division of the German logistics company Deutsche Post DHL, providing international express mail services.

[Image: Flickr user Littleyiye]

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  • Ara ohanian

    Ian, valuable lessons indeed from someone who has made engagement work, thank you.  In my experience of a leader of a successful international technology company the big challenge is striking that balance between a consistent mission interpreted according to local culture.