Sandy talking about how to engage as an employee

NKD Connect: What It Means To Engage

We speak with Sandy Willoughby about what engagement means to her, and what it really means to engage as an employee.

In Conversation With…

Sandy Willoughby

Sandy is a Consulting Director at NKD. She has over 25 years of experience working with organisations across the globe and across business sectors, including hospitality, logistics, airlines, banking and IT, helping them to realise their vision through their people.

‘You know when your people are truly engaged because their performance isn’t dependent on a manager telling them to do it. It’s because they want to do it. That’s the key.’


NKD: You have years of experience in Employee Engagement and Learning and Development. What does ‘engagement’ mean to you?

Sandy Willoughby: I think engagement is about people not only understanding the reasons why, but having an emotional connection to the reasons why.

NKD: How does it look and feel when you interact with people who are engaged?

SW: When people are engaged, they’re seeing the bigger picture. They’re thinking ahead – it’s not just doing the bare minimum, it’s not just the task. It’s about recognising what the small tweaks or the extra bits can do, which makes things better for their colleagues, their customers and for themselves, ultimately. It’s actually much more fulfilling, so I guess the obvious answer is it looks like people are actually committed to their job. But I would go further to say that when they’re really engaged, even when its tasks they’d rather not be doing there’s still a degree of enjoyment in it – they’re happy doing it.

NKD: We talk a lot about purpose at NKD, and that’s sort of underlying the big picture that you described. And it doesn’t stop with the individual, does it? It spreads.

SW: That’s it. When you see teams that are really engaged, the engagement is not just with the task or the company, but the engagement is with their manager, and their colleagues and their divisions – they’re totally inextricable when you’ve got that level of engagement.

NKD: So, how do you start to approach engagement? There are structural things you can do like remuneration and role development, but what can you do beyond that?

SW: I think that engagement really links to leadership. Because it’s about the relationships. So, people can feel engaged through their purpose – I may work for a charitable organisation because that sings to my heart, but the level of engagement in what I’m doing is beyond the purpose of the company. There has to be something linked to how you’re made to feel within that company. The best thing that managers can do to engage their staff is to spend time with them and to listen to them. It’s not about towing the company line or spouting the strategy. It’s about asking them, how does the strategy relate to you? What does it mean to you, how can we make that work? It’s about really being on their agenda. It comes down to the leader making time for that person, and that’s the key to driving engagement.

NKD: This is maybe even more important for huge organisations, because it’s easier for people to feel lost within them.

SW: Totally. The interesting thing is, in small companies, having sight of the CEO is really important. Having worked in really large organisations, I’ve seen that when it comes to engagement, it’s less important. What you need to be engaged in a large organisation is that commitment from your first-line manager. Of course, everyone needs to feel connected to the business and the wider picture, but it’s really about feeling connected to their first-line manager, and the manager above them within their division or department. Because then they feel like their piece of the puzzle fits. Years gone by, we would have called engagement ‘loyalty’, and the ‘loyalty’ part would have been to the organisation. But, actually, engagement should be loyalty to their manager and their team, in terms of not wanting to let them down and wanting to support them.

Having a compelling vision that translates to everybody across the business, where they can see how they can contribute to it, makes a big difference. Having leaders who are committed to that, and are committed to the ‘people’ side of the business, and really make time to have those kinds of conversations – that, I think, drives engagement.

NKD: And when employees are engaged, what are the outcomes or benefits?

SW: So many. You can take it on different levels. Personally, they have a more satisfying day at work. The great thing is, when employees are truly engaged it doesn’t mean that everything goes swimmingly for them, but they’re able to deal with the challenges and the adversities so much better – and in fact, see them as something to overcome and feel good about. So, they benefit, they grow, they learn, and they feel satisfied in their work. Colleagues benefit because, engagement requires a more positive mindset. So, in the same way as they’re willing to go the extra mile for the customer, they recognise the need to go the extra mile for their colleagues too – so, the team benefits. And the business benefits. There’s that discretionary extra 10% that people give when they’re truly engaged. And ultimately the customer benefits. So, people work within the guidelines of processes, but they’ll find ways to make it right for everybody. They’ll look beyond the obvious, they’ll stick their heads above the parapet and see what they can do. Everyone’s a winner when you’ve got that level of engagement.

NKD: You mentioned the benefit that customers get from engaged employees. Is engagement more important in customer-facing industries?

SW: I think it’s important across the board. Studies have shown that when people are engaged, their productivity increases. As I said, people go that much further, and that level of engagement drives that loyalty to the team, to the customer, to the business. So, yes of course its hugely important, because the customer feels it and you have satisfied customers, which creates more revenue. But even internally, people really benefit from an engaged, motivated workforce.

NKD: In terms of training and trying to build this engagement, Learning and Development is one approach amongst other solutions. How has the field of L&D changed over the years?

SW: That’s a good question. I guess that the field has changed in as much as historically we have had a different approach to leaders. When I was working as a leader in a large organisation, the leadership team and the front-line staff were viewed as having very distinct pathways. We used to run big engagement events, to get the strategy out there, get people fired up and ready and committed – which was great. It’s great to set people up on that path. Leadership training was focused on skills, and was seen almost as a separate thing.

At NKD we have always seen them as sitting together. You need to have a common platform of engagement – connecting people to the company values is as important as connecting them to the strategy. I think there wasn’t always that values-driven approach to things. For me, engagement is about making sure leaders have the skills to engage and actually sustain it.

100,000 or 50,000 people could have just gone through an event, and they understand the strategy and are really fired up and feeling high levels of engagement, but if that’s not sustained when they go back to work – if their engagement isn’t sustained – their performance is probably going to tail off. So, I think we recognise that it’s a bit like the spinning plate analogy; we get the plate spinning, but the leader needs to keep tweaking it to make sure that the plate keeps spinning and doesn’t fall. So, there’s a lot more emphasis on the leader and the sustainment element of the process.

NKD: And that’s why in our design process, the ‘Embed’ or ‘Sustain’ part is so key.

SW: So key. Because otherwise it’s a bit like investing your money in something that’s not going to give any interest back. By putting the effort in and investing it right, you get a premium on that investment – you get a dividend every time they perform.

NKD: To make sure it keeps on giving.

SW: Exactly.

NKD: With regards to leaders sustaining engagement, how have you seen this work really well?

SW: I think, particularly for the front-line manager sustaining engagement can be challenging, but when they do, it yields huge rewards. Supervisors who understand the ‘people’ side of their role have seen terrific results. When they are empowered to hold team meetings, walk the floor, bring in doughnuts for the team and generally interact with their people on a personal level, everyone benefits.

Through our work with DHL Express, we’ve seen engagement increase massively through their Performance Dialogue meetings. Every morning teams meet to talk about the previous day’s performance and to get a heads up for the day ahead of them. Not with the purpose of saying ‘here’s our target, let’s go for it’, but much more about reviewing what happened yesterday – did we achieve our targets, did we do what we set out to do? And if not, what stopped us and what can we learn from it? That’s really powerful. What’s brilliant about the Performance Dialogues is that they always start with a check-in with the team. Everybody says how they’re feeling about work today, and that gives them a chance to air how they are feeling and what might be stopping them from feeling great. It’s a chance to explore how we can make today better than yesterday. We encourage the supervisors to start with their people first. Start with how they’re feeling, and then relate it to performance.

NKD: And that will directly affect performance?

SW: Yes, that will definitely affect performance. That was quite a revelation for them. Talking to the team members, the fact that their supervisor started with ‘how’s everybody feeling today?’ Showing a human interest in them meant that they were actually much more pre-disposed to thinking about how they individually affect the performance of the business.

NKD: I imagine it makes them feel like they really count.

SW: They count, above the figures. I think that was really important. So, going back to engagement, it’s not about the intellectual understanding, it’s about the emotional connection to what they’re doing. Making people feel good means that you’ve got greater leverage in terms of getting them to do good.

NKD: So, it seems that a human approach is really important.

SW: It’s really, really powerful. These Performance Dialogues are literally 10 to 15 minutes long, maximum. But, that morning check-in makes a huge difference to how people feel. Also, keeping them in the know – you’re sharing information with them, you’re being inclusive and breaking down that wall between managers and staff. Seeking their advice, because they probably know better; they’re closest to the customer, they’re closest to the front-line.

NKD: That must be very empowering.

SW: Totally empowering. Totally involving. And it becomes our problem, rather than your problem, or their problem. From an engagement point of view, people really feel committed to it. Because we’re asking them to make suggestions, it’s their solution, and they will make it work for you.

NKD: Looking at engagement as that emotional connection is very useful, not just on an individual level, but as a community. It’s a very egalitarian way of interacting.

SW: It makes a huge difference. With the Performance Dialogues, the supervisors are now getting their team members to run the sessions, they’re developing it and taking it on – it’s theirs, it’s not an imposition. They have ownership.

That’s how you tell when people are engaged. John Kotter said that ‘culture is how people behave when the leader’s not there’, and I think that’s also true of engagement – engagement happens through its people. You know when your people are truly engaged because their performance isn’t dependent on a manager telling them to do it. It’s because they want to do it. That’s the key.