Leadership role in delivering employee experience

Image Credit- McKinsey

As I was writing this article, I was distracted by this new video on CNNMoney online of Anjali Sud and her career advice to young managers. For those who have not heard of her,  she is the CEO of Vimeo, an exciting video-sharing technology company and probably one of the youngest CEOs at 34. Her advice is not as critical to this piece as is her own story how she fulfilled her potential in just over a decade of a promising career to become a leader. Why do some people fulfil their early promise and why do some fall by the wayside in the career path?

Over all these 25 years of working in and with corporates, I am always excited to see how promising young management trainees are – and the prospect of how these young managers can take the senior management positions in a  decade by their early 30s. Surprisingly this never really happens. So, why are young managers not progressing as much as their potential and what can today’s leaders do about this? Can we pick these pain points through the employee journey that can ensure immediate action – at a manager-level or at an organisation level? This is the critical task of HR leadership but they cannot achieve this alone.

It’s probably the best time in management history to be an HR leader.  The core principles have always been the same, what’s different today are the technology tools that enable interventions are now available in a wide range for various kinds of applications.

I compare this phase to what happened to marketing over the past 2 decades with CRM applications and digital marketing. Suddenly the marketing manager needed to be at least as much of a techie, as much as she was about ideas and creative person. This change was not overnight – and the transition was not easy.  I should know, I was invited to a marketing conference almost 20 years back in the US, and felt so out of place that I soon realised that I needed a new bag of tricks to be relevant. The fundamentals were still the same.

The changing consumer needed a new approach, which was available through new tool kit, which was largely based on technology. Today, I look back and wonder how primitive those tools were – and yet, that is the very essence of change.

The employee journey is not what it used to be. We say this for every generation – but this time the major difference is how social media and mobile is creating the action bias to move on. So, let’s get to what leaders can do to ensure a great employee experience – to ensure both the organisation and the employee and truly fulfil their potential:

Common metrics and methodologies across employees and customers- HR is not a separate company. Employees are an integral part of an overall value chain of an organisation. As the 1990s, HBR article on Service Profit Chain, outlines, great employees deliver great service quality, which in turn ensures loyal customers through whom the organisation delivers profitable revenue. So, why are organisation systems so much in silos? If you have a customer experience metric and methodology you adopt, use the same in your employee experience measurement. The rigorous ‘measure-act-improve’ virtuous loop with dashboards and text analytics has to be put in place with frequent pulse conversations with employees to enable a near real-time action for any warning signals.

Feedback conversations across the employee journey- Employees have emotions through their work life. It is no longer valid to just undertake annual feedback surveys and base your judgement and actions. It is actually counter-productive and delusional to do that, assuming that employees have that same emotion through the year. Augment with feedback conversations at every stage of the employee journey. If employees have a great onboarding experience and early wins in their 90 days, you have set in place momentum for a great career. While this is common logic, most companies have not set in place listening devices through the journey.

Benchmark within- Don’t obsess about benchmarking with others: Every company uses their own methods and approaches. So I have never understood HR departments obsession for benchmarking with other companies. As an example, just because Blue Dart is rated higher than Google in a Great Places To Work survey(or any of the few dozen like them), does not mean that all Google employees want to leave Google and join Blue Dart. It only means that Blue Dart’s employees are happier with Blue Dart than Google employees are with Google. What HR or management conclusion you can make from this, is unclear to me. But if you can create quintiles of your own managers and see who are delivering great employee engagement and who is not, that can be dramatically impactful for your organisation. At the simplest level, you are creating a healthy competition within, celebrating the role models and best demonstrated practices, and creating a road map for continuous progress, quarter after quarter.

Creating an active listening culture is a journey- One thing I hear from HR leaders which I find disturbing,  the fear that employees will have a ‘survey fatigue’. In all our interactions with employees across 1000s of organisations, this fear is baseless – employees actually love to be asked and enjoy giving feedback. But if organisations don’t respond and act based on feedback, the same enthusiasm changes to cynicism. SO what you are confusing as survey fatigue is actually inaction cynicism. So, set the active listening platform in place and ensure there is a sustained effort in 2-way communication before and after every interaction. Ideally brand the listening program so that employees realise they have an active role to play in driving the organisation and their own careers forward through feedback loops.

So, what do we do about all this feedback that is coming through? –This is a common apprehension that I hear from business leaders. The most important truth of feedback is that the underlying emotion already exists. The feedback tools have just brought in upto surface for us to measure, act and improve. But not asking, you are causing more damage since employees will anway take their actions based on their emotions and that is counter-productive. Employees are reasonable and can empathise that everything can’t change overnight. Our research clearly indicates that ‘being heard’ is half the battle won, and while actions are important, it would serve better again to do this under a program “you said so, we did so” kind of suitably branded action program.

Running a listening program is not just an HR task- There is an old saying “Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department” – similar logic hold true for many of the employee programs. Program ownership has to be at the board level and the employe ownership has to be at individual manager level. This alone can create a world-class employee experience program. It is an everyday rigour – not a seasonal activity, and that alone create a true active listening culture in an organisation with a freeflow of 2-way communication.

The old cliche “technology is just an enabler” is still true- I find two extremes in reaction towards the new technology tools. If you drop the word AI in your application, there is hitherto unknown innovation budget that opens up in some organisations. But the standard response in most organisation is that we are ‘not yet ready’ for this. I am not sure what that means. Your employees are also consumers. They want consumer-grade applications at the workplace too. So using the right technology tools for measuring both consumer and employee experiences has become a CEO agenda across businesses.

High-impact learning organisations are clearly possible, but have been elusive – A recent Bloomberg article highlighted that there are as many job openings in the USA as there are unemployed – around 6.5 million. So while job are getting created at a faster pace, there needs to be more emphasis on the training and skilling programs. Every generation needs to undergo the route of in-depth training and ensure the strings of new age technology are kept in the learning loop. Functions and roles continue to evolve at a faster pace and they can no longer be defined for a long-term period.The organisational learning agenda has also been driven by the cross-functional teams getting formed to drive business processes.

Therefore, a continuous improvement journey for employee experience across their life-cycle is key to delivering on the customer centricity agenda of the business. Leaders have an important role to make a positive employee experience by driving the culture and ethos, not just processes.

Author- Ramesh Natarajan,Co-founder-LitmusWorld. He is an entrepreneur & executive with over 25 years of experience globally in customer management, sales & marketing and research across industries. He is the former VP & CEO, DHL Express. Alumnus of IIT Bombay, IIFT New Delhi.  www.litmusworld.com



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