With 2016 almost here, many business leaders are looking ahead and asking how they can energize and engage their employees in the New Year. Rockland Trust’s “Talking Business Advice Series” asked Lisa DeAngelis, Director of the Center for Collaborative Leadership at the University of Massachusetts Boston, to answer that question. She offers some very concrete advice to jump start businesses when the calendar turns to January.
Q: How can we energize and engage our employees to hit the ground running in 2016, regardless of whether we are building on a strong 2015 or powering up for a stronger push to leave behind a less than successful year?
A: This is a question often posed by CEO’s at this time of the year. To find the answer, we’ll start by asking three more questions: How do we acknowledge and learn from 2015? How do we encourage our employees to get the rest and rejuvenation needed? And, how do we help employees to understand how they contribute to the success of the organization?
Whether your organization has excelled or fallen short, a smart business practice is to reflect on what went well. How did we hit our year-end budget targets after a slow first half? What did it take for HR to bring in the talent that enabled us to grow? What made that Q4 product launch so successful?
This exercise helps the company to focus on the behaviors and practices it would like to continue, and those that it would like to replicate across the organization. The military has established a strong debrief practice that can easily be adopted in organizations. For simplicity sake, I’ll summarize it as:
- Gather those involved – This could be a team in a department, a full department, the senior leadership team, etc. In other words, this can, and should, take place at all levels in the organization.
- Articulate the objective of the meeting – For example, it could be “To understand the progress made toward achieving our 2015 goals in order to leverage that success in 2016.”
- Set the ground rules – Two that I recommend are (1) the room is a safe place for participants to speak the truth and (2) zero in on what can be learned or leveraged. First, for an individual to be truly invested in outcomes, he or she needs to know that his or her voice matters. The second point is critical to the language and focus of the exercise. Ask questions such as: What went well? What did we learn? What are we proud of? These same questions can be used where things didn’t go as expected. This allows you to re-frame the discussion from “What’s wrong or broken” towards using the experience as a learning tool.
- Summarize and Share – Ensure that your organization is celebrating successes and actively learning from one another. This can be done formally or informally with things like Town Hall meetings, intranet or a message from the CEO. You may be surprised at the way that knowledge from one area of the organization informs work happening in another area.
- Monitor and Measure – This is the old, “Inspect what you expect.” The metrics look at how success is recognized and celebrated, how the organization talks about failures, and how cross-organizational dialogue reinforces learning.
Q: What about those efforts or innovations that did not work out as planned?
A: The way that your organization addresses failures can be a competitive advantage. Encouraging employees to think like entrepreneurs will lead to breakthroughs. This mean your organization must be comfortable taking more risks and accepting failures - both within the prudent range, of course. Think of it as creating a culture where failures are viewed as prototypes, honored for their role in moving the organization towards success. Along the way it is important to acknowledge the learning and encourage continued progress.
A good example of this is Apple. They are known for their disruptive technology and the quality of their products. Behind these brand attributes are rigorous research and development, trial and error, iteration and innovation. They see each step as providing useful information that helps them to move forward – even when the decision is not to continue with that particular product/design/application, they use the acquired knowledge to inform other projects.
Q: You mentioned rest and rejuvenation for employees. How is that best approached, since it’s a lot easier said than done today?
A: Innovation rarely comes from employees who are tired and stressed. Research has shown that employees are more productive with breaks and yet, culturally, the U.S. has a terrible penchant of priding itself in being “on” 24/7. Leverage this “holiday lull” to encourage your employees to disconnect. One suggestion is to give them permission to not to check email during non-standard hours. If this is too radical for your environment, you might start by letting them know that if there is something urgent where you need their response, you’ll text or call them. This frees them from feeling obligated to check their devices endlessly when out of the office.
Also, ensure that employees take all their allotted vacation time and encourage managers to monitor their teams for excess workload, hours and stress. Everyone understands that in today’s business world, there will be periods of additional work required and most employees willingly rise to those occasions. But unrelenting demands sap employee endurance, creativity, productivity and engagement. Encouraging your employees to use their earned time benefits everyone.
Q: So how do company leaders get started in 2016?
A: As employees return from the holiday break feeling more rested and refreshed, there is an opportunity to reset alignment and generate renewed excitement toward accomplishing the organization’s goals. There are four components to doing this effectively: (1) a clearly articulated mission, (2) defined organizational goals that support the mission, (3) action steps to reach those goals, and (4) an understanding of employees’ strengths that power their actions.
- Take the time to thoughtfully read and consider your organization’s mission statement. Does it still resonate? Is it concise, clear and easy to understand at all levels of the organization? Do you have buy-in from your board and senior leaders? If these questions raise doubts, consider a determined effort to reexamine the mission statement and redraft it. Bring together a broad group of stakeholders – board members, employees, partners, vendors and customers – to engage in this process. A clear and compelling mission or organizational purpose is critical to achieving alignment of your other components. If the mission statement continues to reflect your organization’s principles, clearly restating it may be as simple as reviewing and discussing it during the first meeting of the senior staff in the new year and then sharing it with all employees to renew their sense of purpose.
- Apply the same steps to organizational goals. If you are concerned that they may not be clear, have changed since they were drafted, or do not directly support your mission, invest the time at the start of 2016 to reexamine and reset them. If they remain valid, strongly and clearly restate them. One method for gaining alignment throughout the organization is to use a strategic dashboard where metrics for achieving organizational goals are cascaded throughout the company. One tactic for this is to take the benchmarks the CEO is being held accountable to and determine how the work of his or her direct reports contribute to achieving these goals. Then employ that method down to subsequent levels of the organization, aligning level-appropriate goals. This gives each employee a clear line of sight as to how his or her individual goals link to the achievement of the organization’s mission.
- Managers throughout the organization should sit with each of their direct reports at the beginning of the year and lay out the employee’s goals and explain how they support the goals of the organization. Clearly state the tasks, projects and responsibilities the employee will be asked to accomplish or contribute to, explain the specific deliverable and outline how he or she will be judged. Put it in writing. Schedule check-ins during the year to evaluate goals vs. achievements. This clarity eliminates confusion or uncertainty and increases the likelihood of individual productivity and success, as well as company success. It will also help during formal annual employee evaluations.
- Help employees understand how their unique strengths can help to accomplish goals. While reviewing responsibilities, make an effort to explore and define how an employee’s specific skills can be applied to reach each goal. Tapping into each employee’s strengths and motivations energizes that person to bring his or her best self to the role. These discussions can build confidence and also find areas where professional development can improve the skill set of employees worth investing in.