What Makes Someone an Engaging Leader
“How can we have the highest profitability in five years and still have gaps in employee engagement?” asks an executive at a large industrial products company. The reality is that the two don’t necessarily go together. This management team, like many others, has fought to increase profitability through business transformation, restructuring, and cost-cutting, without devoting much thought to keeping employees engaged and connected. As a result, the company may find it hard to sustain the gains, much less drive future growth. Organizational agility, innovation, and growth are really difficult without engaged employees.
The research team at AON Hewitt has made it a priority to understand what is going on in enterprises where both financial performance and employee engagement levels are soaring. Our ongoing study of the companies we’ve labeled Aon Hewitt Best Employers – firms that achieve both top quartile engagement levels and better business results than their peers – finds that they do have something in common. It’s the prevalence of a certain kind of leader, not just at the top, but throughout the ranks of the organization. These individuals – we call them engaging leaders – are distinguished by a certain set of characteristics.
What do these leaders of highly engaged teams have in common? Through extensive interviews we learned that they tend to have had early stretch experiences that shaped them; tend to share a set of beliefs about leading, and tend to exhibit certain behaviors that help to engage those around them.
Formative early experiences. Engaging leaders don’t just start out this way. “I started in the call center,” a CEO from a financial services business unit told us. “I know what it’s like and I still like to go sit with agents and listen.” We often heard in our interviews, as Warren Bennis and Bob Thomas did in their crucibles of leadership research, about early experiences that leaders felt had shaped them. They were not always of the unpleasant, mettle-testing sort; sometimes the person had a caring, attentive mentor; a stretch assignment that “chose the leader” instead of the leader’s choosing it; an assignment that required them to win over people who used to be their peers. The common thread is the reflection on the early experience that allows a leader to learn something, and gain self-confidence, humility, and empathy.
Guiding beliefs. Underneath an engaging leader’s behaviors are a powerful set of beliefs. They feel it is their responsibility to serve their followers, especially in times of crisis and change. Many expressed core beliefs about the importance of personal connection. For example, a CEO of a beverage company asked to name the most important responsibility of a leader, said it was “to create the emotional bond between our people and the organization.” Another CEO declared that “Leadership is a contact sport.” When we talked to a leader in an engineering department about why he thought he was regarded as an engaging leader, his thoughtfulness about human relationships came through. “People won’t remember what I did,” he said, “but they will remember how I made them feel.”
Engaging behaviors. We also noted a set of common behaviors, no doubt driven by the beliefs we’ve just been discussing, and clustering around five themes. Engaging leaders step up, opting to proactively own solutions where others cannot or do not. They energize others, keeping people focused on purpose and vision with contagious positivity. They connect and stabilize groups by listening, staying calm, and unifying people. They serve and grow, by empowering, enabling, and developing others. And they stay grounded, remaining humble, open, candid, and authentic in their communication and behavior. These behaviors are continually validated in our leadership workshops, where we see people in action and hear about recent challenges they have worked to overcome.
These are the hallmarks, then, of engaging leaders – and almost every company has at least some of them. Few workforces, however, enjoy the general condition of having engaging leadership. That’s a systemic belief in the power of engagement that transcends the personal strengths and discretionary actions of individual managers. The organizations trying to make engaging leadership part of their culture are figuring out how to do four things on an ongoing basis:
- Measure engagement levels. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. The CEO needs to own the engagement survey and follow-through. Enough said.
- Develop engaging leaders. Workshops and coaching are required to help leaders reflect on their early experiences, find their own beliefs and purpose, and make engaging behaviors more habitual. When the number of engaging leaders amounts to a critical mass, their energy, and mutual support can change the engagement culture of the organization.
- Assess and select engaging leaders. Filling a lot of high-impact roles with engaging leaders should be the objective. Now that we have a good understanding of the experiences, beliefs, and behaviors that typify engaging leaders, it should be possible to use personality instruments, structured interviews, and 360 instruments to predict whether someone is likely to be engaging or not in a leadership role.
- Measure and reward engagement achieved. Tying incentives to engagement survey scores is tricky and can lead to unintended consequences. However, we are seeing more organizations get serious about recognizing leaders who are engaging and holding those who are not accountable.
Engagement is a leadership responsibility – but by and large, leaders are failing in this regard. Our research suggests that, for most companies, the turnaround won’t happen quickly. The fact that the most engaging leaders are the products of early experiences and deeply held beliefs means that new ones can’t be minted overnight. It will never be a matter of running through some behavioral checklist. But there are steps that employers can take to give more teams the benefit of engaging leadership – and, over time, to reach the levels of innovation, quality, and productivity that can only come from highly engaged people.