Engaging Employees

Business Week

July 3, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

Dr. Beverly Kaye is a great friend (from our UCLA days) and a world expert on career issues in the workplace. She is the co-author of three popular books on careers and engagement—Up Is Not the Only Way, Love ‘Em Don’t Lose ‘Em, and Love It Don’t Leave It. We recently had a chance to talk about her latest ideas on keeping employees engaged. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Employee engagement (or lack thereof) seems to be today’s “buzz.” So what’s it all about?

Countless studies continue to tell us the majority of our workforce is not engaged. Gallup’s published research further showed that engaged employees are more productive, more profitable, more customer-focused, safer, and less likely to leave their employer.

Wikipedia defines it as a concept that is generally viewed as managing discretionary effort. That is, when employees have choices, they will act in a way that furthers their organization’s interests. An engaged employee is a person who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about, his or her work. Engaged employees work with passion and are connected to their companies.

So what drives this discretionary effort?

When studies are conducted to find out what employees value in a job, career opportunities and development always appears among the top three items, typically before the expected answers of pay and benefits. Working with great people and having a great boss also hit among the top selections.

Why career development now?

Today’s business world is characterized by globalization, increasing competition, an ever-accelerating pace of change, an overabundance of information, a never-ending technology revolution, a growing number of mergers and acquisitions, layoffs, and a declining talent pool. In this chaotic world, a business can only survive if it can attract the best and the brightest to its workforce. It can only thrive if it continues to grow and develop, while retaining, the talents of its workforce.

Our 20 years of research in career development has shown that managers can create a development environment and, in doing so, make a huge impact in retaining and engaging their talent. What employees really want is a relationship with their managers whereby they can have open, honest, two-way conversations about their abilities, interests, and options. They want managers to listen to their perspectives, offer their points of view, and provide encouragement.

So who does what?

It is essential that career development be viewed as a shared responsibility between the employee, the manager, and the organization.

How does it work? 

The employees: Individual career planning can be compared to business planning. Just as business plans are the vehicles used to maximize profits, so career and development plans are the vehicles available to employees to help them maximize job satisfaction and effectiveness. Career development provides a framework to move staff from inertia to initiative, from seeing problems to seeing possibilities, from being critical of the organization to taking control of their future. The employees’ role includes:

Taking responsibility for their own development

Engaging in self-assessment and soliciting feedback

Initiating development discussions with their managers

Setting multiple career goals

Advocating their own cause

Making use of a variety of development opportunities

Creating and communicating their development plan

O.K., so what about the manager? 

Just like the athlete who uses the assistance of a “coach” to improve his or her game, the employee needs a “career coach.” The manager must use a variety of familiar management skills and apply them to the career context. Frequent discussions with staff members about what they do best and what they want to do should be routine. This type of ongoing dialogue enhances productivity and results in a partnership that aids the employee match positions or projects that maximize their talents. The manager’s role includes:

Providing time for development discussions

Providing timely performance feedback

Identifying an employee’s potential

Providing training and growth opportunities consistent with both individual and organizational goals

Communicating formal and informal advice and information on the organization

Linking employees with appropriate resources and people

So that leaves the organization.

The organization supports the career development process by developing and maintaining systems and structures that provide needed information, offer development opportunities, and establish evaluation and reward systems that encourage leaders to develop people, and staff members to develop themselves.

So where does an employee start?

As you work on your own career development, you should be asking yourself the five following questions. Asking the right questions in the right order will help you discover how to begin working on your career in a logical and action-oriented way.

1. Who Am I?

Self-assessment is the first logical step in the career development process. Employees need to examine their key interests, skills, talents, and values. They need to recognize their major strengths and accomplishments as well as areas for development.

2. How Am I Seen?

Everyone needs to know how their strengths and development needs are perceived by others. Employees need actively to seek feedback from peers, co-workers, and subordinates, as well as from their own team leader or manager.

3. What Is this Organization Like?

Every organization has its own unique culture. Understanding the culture helps employees learn about all the informal ways in which opportunities can present themselves. It is critical that employees know just what are the pressing problems and future trends at their organization so they understand what skills will be needed and what skills may be phased out in the future.

4. What Are My Options?

Moving up seems to be the way in which many people define career development and success. Actually, everyone needs to consider ways in which to enrich their current job as well as lateral moves that may offer opportunities to learn and grow in new ways. In this changing environment, employees have to look at several different paths, so if one road becomes blocked, they still have many other ways to turn.

5. How Can I Achieve My Goals?

Building practical, realistic development plans is the best way to begin moving a career forward. As you consider how you want to achieve these goals, you will need to determine what skills, experiences, and abilities you will need to acquire in order to reach your desired goal.

What steps should I consider in formulating a career development plan?

I would consider the following steps:

Assess your development needs by asking the question: What are the functional and technical skills, savvy behaviors, and knowledge I need to develop to be a ready candidate for the goal(s) I’ve set? To accomplish this, examine your goals and record all the required functional and technical skills, savvy behaviors, and knowledge required for success in the position you desire.

Identify those capabilities that are not on your list of strengths—these are your development needs.

Share and review these development needs with your manager and others in your network.

Identify development activities to pursue—these should be a mix of training and on-the-job development experiences.

Identify success factors for each development need (for example, what measure or feedback will tell you when you have successfully developed that capability?).

Establish a timeframe for successfully addressing each development need—make sure that these timeframes fall within the deadline you’ve established for the goal. Otherwise, make required adjustments.

Go For It!

Thank you! I think that the type of career reflection that you suggest will only become more important as our world—and workforce—continue to change!