Have you ever noticed that sticky notes easily fall off a flip chart? One possible reason for this is that the adhesive is not applied correctly. During a design thinking session, I learned a hack that could be useful – if you rotate the sticky note 90° and place it on the surface with the adhesive strip in a vertical position, it should hold its position much longer. Don’t believe me? Give it a try and see the results for yourself!
What’s a sticky note got to do with employee engagement? Although many organizations mean well by emphasizing employee engagement, the improvement plans and initiatives don’t stick long-term due to leadership or organizational changes; organizational flux may negate workplace improvements, or new leaders may deprioritize engagement.
But what if you turn the sticky note 90° and approach employee engagement differently? Based on my experience leading multiple engagement teams or initiatives, I’ve observed four employee engagement phases and two ways to make it stick.
Let’s begin with my working definition of employee engagement – the level of discretionary effort one is willing to put forth based on the relationship with their manager and the work environment.
Employee engagement directly affects business performance, and its influence on productivity, retention, customer loyalty, net income, and shareholder return is well-documented. Bottom line: The higher the level of employee engagement, the more successful the business will be; conversely, a low level of engagement will lead to unfavorable results.
Gallup’s findings this year are shocking: employee engagement has dropped to a record low of only 32%, meaning that almost 70% of employees are not engaged with their work.[i] This is an especially concerning figure when considering that 18% of employees are actively disengaged, meaning they are actively unhappy and potentially undermining their colleagues. This is an unsustainable situation for any organization.
If an employee engagement emphasis is the Holy Grail and is proven to drive positive results, why does it seem so elusive? And why do only 25% of companies have an engagement plan?[ii]
Maybe it’s due to leadership’s revolving door or the ever-evolving corporate restructuring. A wise man once told me that a new CEO or president’s only growth throttle was to undergo a merger/acquisition or reorganize the company.
I experienced the impact of new leadership and relentless restructuring firsthand. In my former company, I faced a constant sense of being up for re-election during my 20-year career. It felt like being a member of Congress, where I had to campaign for re-election every two years. Despite the challenging circumstances, I was able to survive 11 election cycles.
Based on where I was in the election cycle, my engagement level ebbed and flowed. I experienced what it meant to be highly engaged – to trust my managers and peers, to feel valued and that I made a valuable contribution, and to flourish in a positive work environment. I’ve had leaders that believed in me and involved me in meaningful work. On the other hand, I’ve suffered dreadful managers where I became disengaged and felt demoralized. I’ve learned from both; what to do from the inspirational leaders and what not to do from the rest.
I’ve also had the opportunity to lead employee engagement teams comprised of committed volunteers; one group drove a complete turn-around, and the other catalyzed a move from good to great. Lastly, I’ve directly managed teams where morale and engagement were low and helped turn them into high-performing teams.
Whether individually or leading a team, I’ve experienced the birth of new organizations or teams, the eager drive toward positive engagement, and delivering extraordinary results, only to be stopped in our tracks by a leadership change or organization restructure.
The Four Phases of Employee Engagement
As displayed in the chart, I’ve observed four Employee Engagement phases, including rewiring, results, rumors, and re-org.
- Rewiring phase. The new organization is announced, people are assigned new roles, and the rewiring and how things get done (i.e., how water flows through the pipes) typically takes six to eight months. Employee engagement lurches higher, but productivity is low.
- Results phase. Once the organization understands its vision, mission, and how it works to get things done, results materialize. At some point during the phase, upper management determines there is a need to focus on employee engagement. Committees are formed, charters are written, macro-level strategies are developed, and tactics are deployed. Employee engagement peaks with the proper emphasis, and productivity is high.
- Rumors phase. Changes in an organization are inevitable, and people begin to speculate. Surely enough, consultants are engaged, and HR representatives huddle in meetings. Employee engagement ebbs and productivity recedes.
- Reorg phase. The phase is filled with posturing, anxiety, and fear no matter how management roles out reorganization communication and timing. People sit on their hands and wait for the news about their job. Once their job status is determined, people exit immediately, while others stay and apply for open roles. It’s cold. It’s hard. Engagement emphasis stops. No wonder employee engagement is at its lowest point, and productivity is minimal at best.
Then the process starts all over again. In my estimation, organizations will never reach their potential if stymied by relentless instability.
Moving Toward Sticky Employee Engagement
Recently, a senior executive asked me about my Employee Engagement experience and if engagement can be improved long-term. I shared my thoughts on the above four Employee Engagement phases and clarified that it is indeed meaningful. However, durable engagement improvement depends on two factors.
First, the organization must sustain its “results phase” and continue progressing toward the vision and mission while empowering, energizing, and enabling employees. If the results phase is prolonged, the organization can reach its full potential, whether financial, innovation-based, or customer satisfaction.
The second part of the solution is to focus on “micro-leadership.” Recall my definition of employee engagement: The level of discretionary effort one is willing to put forth based on the relationship with their manager and work environment. The manager and direct report relationship is foundational. If the connection is strong, the organization will flourish. If weak, the organization will flounder.
To create sticky employee engagement regardless of the organizational circumstances, we need to develop leadership skills at the micro level, between managers and direct reports, where the rubber meets the road, including:
- Expressing empathy. Understand others, ask questions, listen, stand in someone else’s shoes, and show others you care for them.
- Building trust. Do what you say you will do, let others know who you are, share your values and what you stand for.
- Instilling purpose and meaning. Help associates understand why their roles exist, how their contribution adds value, and what success looks like.
- Coaching and developing. Conduct 360-degree assessments to identify strengths and skill gaps, create capability plans, hold frequent development discussions, and help others reach their potential.
- Appreciating and encouraging. Ensure associates know that they are valued and make a difference. Lift them during adversity and lavish praise when they succeed.
Lastly, I leave you with another question: What if you don’t focus on employee engagement?
Think about it.
Without an engagement focus, your organization will find itself in a doom loop. Morale will suffer, you’ll be surrounded by mediocrity, and your company will lose its competitive edge. Your customers will find alternate solutions. Your organization will drift into sameness and may go under. Not a pretty picture.
Be assured that investing in employee engagement will pay dividends.
Morale is an Organization’s Best Friend
Speaking of morale, I recently read an article in The Wall Street Journal about the lessons learned thus far from the Ukraine-Russia war. The author wrote, “The importance of morale to military success isn’t a new concept. More than two centuries ago, French emperor, Napoleon said morale was three times as important as the manpower and equipment on the battlefield, in a remark sometimes translated as: ‘In war, moral power is to physical as three parts out of four.’ Ukrainian troops, convinced of their moral cause and knowing they were fighting for the survival of their families and their country, beat back Russian forces who were involved in what they were told was a special military operation’.”[iii]
If you have morale, it will be your organization’s best friend.
To make employee engagement stick, I encourage executive management teams to recognize the need to stabilize their organization and develop effective leaders. If they do, they’ll reach their potential and deliver extraordinary results.
To learn more about how Preston can help your organization or team, visit prestonpoore.com.
[iii] “The Conflict in Ukraine Offers Old-and New-Lessons in 21st Century Warfare,” Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2023> Read More
I remember entering the class disheartened; the worst salesperson in the Southeast – bottom of the totem pole. Not only was I disappointed by my sales results, but I’d also become depressed – underperformance, not meeting expectations. I’d lost confidence and was fearful of losing my job. Even my outward appearance reflected my low spirits. Then, I met Jason. He was the owner of the local Dale Carnegie franchise and sales course facilitator. I came to learn he was formally the top Dale Carnegie salesperson in the world, a former PGA tour member and local radio show host. I admired him and hung on every word he said. For some reason, he took an interest in me.
The class included 20 participants wanting to learn about the selling process. Everything Jason taught was eye-opening to me: How to open a sales call (e.g., “if there were a way to increase your sales by $X, you’d want to know about it wouldn’t you?”), how to ask probing questions, listening skills, the difference between features and benefits, providing a value proposition, how to smoke out and overcome objections, and closing techniques, all with a human relations perspective.
The course’s methodology was to teach a selling principle in the classroom, apply it on the job, return the next week, and share what happened. Jason coached the participants as we practiced the principles – many times, we failed – but that’s where the learning occurred. He encouraged us to get out of our comfort zones to where growth happens. And move out of my comfort zone I did – as time passed, I applied the principles, and they worked for me. My confidence started to grow. I began fearlessly opening sales calls – gaining a store owner’s undivided attention, listening for customer needs, demonstrating how Pro Plan would benefit their business, overcoming objections, and, most of all, closing sales. Additionally, Jason called me every few weeks during the course to see how I was doing – I appreciated his interest and mentorship. I’d tell him how I was applying the new selling principles; ask a few questions, and he’d provide some coaching.
I blossomed as my selling skills improved. I began experiencing positive results, and it showed. I had more pep in my step, and my outward appearance began to reflect how I felt on the inside. I even started attending class wearing a sports coat, dress slacks, and a button-down shirt. My newfound confidence was beaming. Jason noticed and publicly commented so.
Over the 12-week course, class members participated in a “Sales Talk” competition where everyone took turns pitching their product or service and leveraged the new skills we’d learned. When it was my turn in the first round, I passionately demonstrated how I’d grown over the previous weeks and pitched Pro Plan using all the key selling principles and techniques. Surprisingly, my peers voted me into the finals. But Michael, a professional salesperson, future CEO, and community leader, was a formidable competitor. Are you kidding? Me versus Goliath? Winning was going to take all I had and then some.
To differentiate me and take home the trophy, I decided that the key to beating Michael would be showmanship – demonstrating Pro Plan’s real-life effect. No, I wasn’t going to ask everyone to taste a kibble. However, my idea did involve a dog. I was hesitant to execute the plan, but during my preparation, I remembered a quote in Dale Carnegie’s “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.” It reads, “I cannot write a work commiserate with Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me,” meaning be yourself, be authentic. The quote inspired me with the confidence to become a first-rate Preston Poore and not a second-rate someone else. To take a chance and differentiate myself from the competition.
The big day came, and Michael went first. He gave a passionate and convincing talk about construction and business development – his new pitch for multi-million-dollar buildings – real estate development. Smooth. Impressive. Surely, he would win. But that didn’t stop me from trying, rising to the challenge. I’d practiced my presentation and was ready to go.
I rose to present in my chalk striped gray suit, tie, and polished shoes. I conveyed confidence, filled the room with presence. In command of my presentation, I had a conversation with the audience, as if I was speaking directly to a potential store owner. After walking through my opening statement, asking questions, flushing out, and overcoming objections, it was time for the close.
I told the audience that there was no better way to believe what I was telling them, the health benefits of Pro Plan than to show them a living example. To the audience’s surprise, my wife Carla appeared in the back of the room, holding our Dachshund, Sally. I introduced Carla and Sally. Sally’s tail wagged as she recognized me. Carla put Sally down, and Sally immediately ran across the room to me. The class cheered and roared with laughter, enjoying the pleasant surprise appearance. I picked Sally up and told the audience that the “proof is in the pudding.” Sally’s eaten Pro Plan for the last year. Her coat shined, her energy level was high, and she was healthier than when we fed her grocery store-brand pet food.
I addressed the audience, “Who wouldn’t want their pet to look and feel like Sally? All it takes is offering Pro Plan to your customers.” To close, I asked, “Would you like to place the large or medium-sized rack with your first 500 lb. order?” I said thank you, and the audience stood in rousing applause. I was overwhelmed.
Then, time to vote. Jason handed out ballots and instructed the class to choose who they thought best demonstrated the sales principles. He asked them to consider passion and creativity in their decision. After a few quiet moments, Jason gathered the ballots, counted them, and announced, “You’ve selected Preston as our ‘Sales Talk Champion.’ Congratulations, Preston!” I proudly received a plaque that I still have to this day.
The Dale Carnegie Sales course and my experience over those 12 weeks set my career on a new trajectory. I developed valuable skills I didn’t have before. I stepped out of my comfort zone to apply the principles I learned. Sometimes I failed, and other times I succeeded. I learned and grew through the process. So much so that I eventually became the number one Pro Plan representative in the Southeast, opening more new accounts and increasing sales more than my peers. I grew, and my company grew. All because someone believed in me, made way for me, coached me, developed me. I intentionally leaned into the process and greatly improved my results. I benefited personally and professionally.
I learned training itself wasn’t enough. The secret sauce was in what I did with the training, the new skills I developed. I didn’t set them on a shelf and forget about them. If you’re on a development journey and want to realize your potential, I recommend employing three fundamental principles:
Apply, Apply, Apply – It’s been said that knowledge is power. Not so fast. I believe that the application of knowledge is power. You need to put what you learned into practice; turn thoughts and words into action. Bring things to life. There’s limited value in gaining knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Knowledge must inform and shape our actions. But without effort, knowledge is dead. The fuel of development is application, nothing more, nothing less. To grow, you need to employ what you’ve learned, test it, try it. Don’t let ideas, principles, or concepts move into one ear and out the other. To make a real, substantial, material change, you must do. In doing, move out of your comfort zone to the edge where learning happens, where you gain experience. PT Barnum said, “No man or woman has a right to expect to succeed in life unless they understand their business, and nobody can understand their business thoroughly unless they learn it by personal application and experience.” I stepped out of my comfort zone, employed the principles, gained experience, and succeeded. If you apply what you learn, you will too.
Self-Reflect – Once you’ve applied the acquired knowledge, it’s time to reflect – think deeply about your experience. Why? Peter Drucker said, “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” By looking back thoroughly at your actions. What worked well? What were your successes? How did you see your strengths come to life, and how will you build upon them? What didn’t go well? Did you fail? That’s ok. What did you learn? What problems did you encounter? What were the root causes? What adjustments do you need to make? What are limiting self-beliefs holding me back? I recommend keeping a journal to record your thoughts. Writing helps you know what you think. Ask yourself, did I succeed or fail today? Why? How did it make me feel? How can I improve? If you journal over time, you’ll be able to return to your reflections and see growth.
Be Accountable – To achieve the results you desire, it’s good to have a coach, mentor, manager, peer, or friend to ask probing questions, give advice, and encourage you. Connect with someone you trust and share your plan with them. Be vulnerable with the person by sharing your ups and downs, where you are in your development journey. Similar to the above self-reflection questions, empower your accountability partner to ask questions like:
- Wins: What’s going well? What are you most proud of? What did you learn? How will you replicate or build upon it?
- Challenges: What’s not going well? Why? What did you learn? How will you course correct?
- Goals: What do you want to accomplish moving forward? By when? How do you define success? Do you anticipate any challenges? How will you overcome them?
- Support: How can I help you?
Training isn’t enough, but it’s the start of reaching your potential. If you apply what you learn, reflect, and are transparent with someone who will encourage you and hold you accountable, you will grow. You’ll transform the capacity, raw talents, and abilities you have into power, influence, and positive effect. Your potential will become potency. Because of your growth, you’ll grow everything around you – cultures, communities, companies, churches, schools, you name it. What are you waiting for?
Want to uplevel your skills or become a leader others will gladly follow? Visit my website, prestonpoore.com, today!
Preston> Read More
After completing my short-term stint with Hershey’s Sales Development department, I anxiously awaited my next assignment. I’d invested two years learning everything about the confection business and knew that my new role could be anywhere in the U.S.
The phone rang. “Hi, Preston. This is Dave. We’d like you to become the Giant – Carlisle key account manager and stay in the Hershey area.”
My heart began to sink because I’d heard how difficult it was to call on Giant.
Dave continued, “Your role won’t be easy at first. As you know, Giant is in our backyard. A majority of our employees shop in Giant’s stores. You’ll be under a microscope.”
Microscope? – I imagined thousands of Hershey employees complaining about something.
“And, our company has a lot of baggage with Giant. Things haven’t gone well with them over the past few years. We’ll want you to “bend the trend” – restore relationships, turn the business around and deliver results. Are you up to the challenge?”
With a lump in my throat, I quickly processed the opportunity and said, “yes.”
Dave said, “Great, and welcome aboard. I’ve already set up a meeting with Giant’s confectionary buyer tomorrow. I’ll brief you on the way to the meeting. No better way to do than to begin.”
Boy, this will be a quick transition. It’ll be sink or swim.
Dave briefed me on Giant and Matt, the candy category buyer, in the car ride to our appointment. He told me that Matt was one of the most stringent buyers in the Northeast. In his opinion, Matt was arrogant, very demanding, and hard to get along with. He was ambitious and only approved innovation or promotions that made him look successful. No one at Hershey had been able to materially breakthrough with him. The most recent Key Account Manager was run over by Matt and was highly ineffective.
The two company’s relationship was purely transactional with little hope of developing a strategic one. To complicate matters, our key competitor took advantage of Hershey’s challenges with Matt, and he showed a preference for their brands. It didn’t look or feel good having our key competitor beating us in our home market.
Dave and I met Matt for lunch. Right off, Matt was defensive and began telling us all of the things that were wrong with Hershey’s customer service. He said we had great brands, but we didn’t deliver on promises; he’d throw us out if he didn’t absolutely need us.
The conversation turned to the “baggage” Dave mentioned. Giant made big plans to promote Hershey brands during last year’s Halloween season. However, Hershey couldn’t deliver the product due to an untimely SAP data platform conversion; multiple candy truckloads were “lost” in the system and never made it to Giant’s warehouses. And as a result, Giant lost millions of dollars in sales. Matt felt burned – he didn’t receive an incentive, and he’d lost favor in management’s eyes.
After lunch, Matt looked at me and said, “I’m not sure you want this role. I’m not going to be of any help to you or Hershey.”
Leaving the meeting, I wasn’t fearful; something arose in me, and I embraced the challenge. I figured if I could somehow breakthrough with Matt, we could turn the two company’s relationship and business around.
I began with a series of short sales calls to connect with Matt. I asked him questions about Giant’s strategy, operating model, and what mattered to him. I listened to him with an open mind and a solution bent.
After learning what was essential to Giant and Matt, I began proposing promotion or new item opportunities aligned with Giant’s strategy. . .. He said “no” to me so many times I lost count, but I kept plugging away.
Matt continued to keep me in the penalty box because of the previous year’s Halloween delivery debacle. To prove his point during my first few months working with him, Matt only ordered 10% of his regular Halloween candy order. The small order put our business in a huge hole, and I needed to figure a way out of it.
I decided to take a different approach and win Matt’s heart first; then, I’d ask for his hand. I took a risk and invited Matt and his girlfriend to a Washington Redskins football game. Why? Matt told me that he was a huge Redskins fan but hadn’t ever been to a football game in D.C.
My wife and I rented a chauffeured limousine, picked up Matt and his girlfriend, and made our way to the stadium. I secured four company tickets in the second row. Matt wore his Redskins jersey; he was like a kid in a candy store (pun intended). He was genuinely excited and seemed to loosen up. I was very intentional not to bring up business during our conversations and wanted to connect with him personally.
Shortly after we arrived at our seats, Matt brought up business. He told me that I’d been in the penalty box too long; “nothing personal,” he said. He’d seen how hard I’d tried and really appreciated some of the business opportunities I’d shared with him. I asked him what it would take to turn our business around and restore the relationship between Giant and Hershey. He told me, “do what you say you’ll do.”
I responded, “Ok, I’ll do everything in my power to deliver. With that in mind, what can I deliver?” We began brainstorming ideas for a game-changing promotion where both companies would benefit. He shared best practices other manufacturers used to help grow Giant’s business. I listened to all of his ideas, and we aligned on a plan. I asked him if Hershey delivered on our collaborative concept, would Giant be aligned? Matt answered, “yes.”
I went to work with my cross-functional team to develop a “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” movie tie-in and partnership with Coca-Cola. We developed a shopper marketing program before shopper marketing was cool. The program included joint POS, in-store merchandising, an exclusive movie premiere, and supporting radio promotion.
I presented the plan to Matt, and he loved it. I showed him how the plan’s execution would grow his business and align with Giant’s strategies. The proposal met all of the promotion elements we discussed. Only hitch. . .. The moment of truth. . .. The close. . ..
I took a risk and asked for an unprecedented order. I asked Matt to quadruple his Holiday candy order versus last year. I knew that If Matt did, the order would overcome the Halloween deficit and put Hershey over our annual plan. Matt didn’t hesitate and said, “Ok. Write a suggested store level order and have it to me by next week.”
“One other thing,” he glared and demanded, “you’d better deliver!”
I confidently grinned and replied, “We’ll do what we said we’re going to do.”
And, we did. The promotion was a smashing success. Giant and Hershey both exceeded their annual business plan. It was gratifying to play a role in bending the performance trend and restoring relationships. To boot, my team won Hershey’s prestigious “President’s Cup” – the highest sales performance in the company versus the prior year. And Matt got promoted.
What about me? Well, that’s a story for another time. Let’s just say that bending the trend sometimes comes with a price.
If you are faced with the opportunity to drive positive change, I recommend you:
- Connect with Others. John Maxwell’s Law of Connection states, “Leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand.”  Begin implementing a change by getting to know the key stakeholders. Find out their interests, ambitions, hopes, dreams, challenges, and fears. Listen intently and be authentic. Make changes based on the feedback you hear. You’ll find trust and credibility begin to develop as you make the genuine effort to connect with others.
- Create Momentum. Once you know what makes someone tick and understand what they want, help them get it. Secure quick wins that will help you create and build momentum. Work hard and follow-through; deliver on your small commitments, and they’ll have the potential to turn into big ones. Create momentum and consistently pursue your goal. You’ll eventually experience a breakthrough and go beyond what you thought possible.
- Be Persistent. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Don’t give up. Always be willing to try something new if what you’re doing isn’t working.
If you’ll connect with others, create momentum and be persistent, you’ll become a trend bender too.
Want to discover more about becoming a leader others will gladly follow? Please visit my website, prestonpoore.com, today!
Maxwell, J. C. (2007). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership: follow them, and people will follow you. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.> Read More
I’m a disciple of Christ and an executive at a Fortune 500 Company. In my blog, The Discipled Leader, I draw on my diverse business experience to help Christians connect their secular and spiritual lives at work.
As a certified coach, speaker, and trainer with the John Maxwell Team, I help others grow their relationship with Christ, develop their leadership skills, and understand how they can make a positive difference in today’s chaotic world.
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I draw on my diverse business experience to help Christians connect their secular and spiritual lives at work. I invite you to subscribe to my blog and learn how to develop Christlike character, influence your culture and change your world.