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Carolyn Nevitte

People Insight

Marketing Director

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How to create confidence in senior leaders


Top performing organisations strive for employee engagement excellence as they know they’ll be more productive, grow faster and innovate more. They develop thriving cultures and winning people practices that propel them into the upper quartile of engaging organisations. But how exactly do they do this?

People Insight is a consultancy supporting hundreds of the UK’s top organisations measure and improve employee engagement. We have created PIPER (People Insight Peak Engagement Research), a new study asking the most engaged employees in the most engaged organisations what exactly makes them buzz.

This is the first in a series of themed articles which shares the secrets from top performing organisations – practices and behaviours that we know have worked; because employees themselves have said so.

Cancer Research UK and Henderson Global Investors

Both Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and global asset manager Henderson Global Investors are in the top quartile of organisations, defined by having an engagement score in the top 25% of the hundreds of organisations we survey. They couldn’t be more different in terms of sector, but the key engaging practice that unites them is how they build relationships between leaders and employees.

What’s clear from the PIPER research is that strong and credible leaders connecting with staff, inspiring innovation, encouraging input and communicating transparently, create confidence in and engagement with the leadership of the organisation.

Building trust through effective communication

Insights from CRUK show that innovation starts at the very top. Leaders are perceived as intelligent experts in their field. They encourage employees to suggest ideas to take the strategy forward rather than dictating it as a ‘done deal’ and actively encourage them to challenge the status quo.

Staff members feel passionately about the cause CRUK are championing, but engagement goes well beyond the emotional. CEO Harpal Kumar and the Executive board are vocal in communicating the strategy, which sets out the ambition that in 20 years, 3 in 4 people will be surviving cancer. 

In general, leaders are perceived as open-minded and authentic in their communications, which earns the trust of their employees. They are extremely transparent about progress, which helps employees believe in the strategy. There is also increasing acknowledgement that achieving the strategy cannot be done without teamwork and that learning fast from errors, or failing fast, will be crucial.

By empowering employees and inspiring them, success becomes more likely. The CEO gives quarterly briefings to all staff while local updates happen through ‘hit the floor’ style directorate gatherings. Some directorates have launched an internal ‘Progress and Insights’ newsletter, while others have ‘lunches with leadership’. Through the various two way communications leaders make an effort to truly understand what is happening across the organisation.

Connecting with employees

The ‘door is always open’ is as much a mental image as a physical one at CRUK. Directors often send personal thanks to employees when they’ve performed well, for instance in recognising the success of World Cancer Day in February 2015.

This culture of involvement runs throughout much of the organisation with divisional leaders encouraged to make themselves accessible and enable employees to connect with one another.

« Its very collaborative and we are working toward a common goal – you dont get that everywhere. Employees are very focused on end goals and shared values. People come together and pull their weight and make transitions. The executive board are good at painting the vision and getting people behind it. »

Henderson Global Investors also cultivates a visible, approachable leadership style and encourages what a number of people described as a ‘family feel’; refreshing in what might have been considered the more formal, hierarchical world of finance. Henderson proves that treating staff as people, not numbers directly impacts engagement; they score 14 percentage points above the financial services engagement score benchmark, and maintain a confident, flourishing workplace.

1,000 names not 1,000 numbers

For Henderson’s CEO and Executive Committee it is vital that every one of their employees understands the direction of the company. As one employee put it, ‘we are 1,000 names not 1,000 numbers’. Leaders are acknowledged as having successfully communicated the ‘Growth and Globalisation’ strategy with an impactful launch followed up with clear and consistent communication, connecting each individual to the bigger picture.

Naturally employees want to see senior figures lead from the front. Strong leadership is vital in a progressive business but, rather than creating an ‘us and them’ division, the open-plan approach in every sense of the word has enabled Henderson’s leadership to earn the respect of their people. A lot is discussed in the open, creating a strong sense of transparency.

Leaders show up physically and sit down face to face with staff. They don’t make requests by declaring ‘I need this done’ but engage in general conversation and, importantly, remember names and previous discussions with employees. This active listening increases confidence in leaders. By leaders being visible and interacting with staff of all levels, everyone feels part of the process.

Two of the comments from Henderson’s employees bear this out. Of the leadership team, one said: “We feel we are aligned because we see them so often”, while another added: “Leaders behave as they want other senior managers to behave. They walk the talk.”

While operating in two different worlds, both organisations understand that in order to lead effectively you have to set the ultimate example. Trust is earned, not automatically assumed, passion is infectious and communication is key. The PIPER research, from the voice of the employee, provides the evidence of the impact of Henderson’s and CRUK’s efforts to engage through impactful leadership.

Leaders behave as they want other senior managers to behave. They walk the talk.

Is your organisation in the top quartile of engaging organisations?

Talk to us at People Insight to find out how your engagement levels compare with your peers, and what you can do to improve.

To be in with a chance of achieving recognition and receive your free engagement report, enter The Employee Engagement Awards’ Employee Choice Award 2015 here.

One Response

  1. An excellent piece,
    An excellent piece, demonstrating how companies can gain real insight into what makes people engaged and happy at work, and what we can learn from top performers in a way that is practical and achievable.

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Carolyn Nevitte

Marketing Director

Read more from Carolyn Nevitte

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