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What I Learned about Engagement While I Sculpted My Seat


Yes, that seat—my butt, my posterior, my derriere. “Lift, Tone, and Burn” is the mantra of Pure Barre, a high-intensity, low-impact, whole-body workout that has won rave reviews across the United States and Canada. But this article isn’t about exercise. It is about the power of engagement.

I’m not an exercise junkie. I’m health-conscious and more than a little vain, but like the late, great John Pinette  (“I don’t do ups”), I’ve been able to quit this gym stuff any time—until I found Pure Barre. The workout was hard. My muscles ached. Yet I kept going back—500 times. I have the shirt to prove it.

My engagement epiphany came a few weeks into membership, when I was in the middle of crunches and my abs were on fire. I was a second away from collapsing on the carpet when the voice on the mike said, “You’ve got it, Jean. You’re stronger than you think.” I groaned, but I kept going, and as I lay there on the floor, I realized, “This is what good managers do for their employees.”

Engagement is a hot topic in business as leaders discover the positive changes that happen when their customers and workers feel genuine excitement and commitment. Engaged employees are invested emotionally and intellectually in their employer and in their work. Engaged customers, according to Gallup, “love your company …and say that they ‘can’t live without it.’ They recognize that their strategies and your strategies are aligned.”

Almost every Human Resources consulting firm has an employee engagement model; virtually all agree on one thing: the importance of managers and the work environment they create. Although employees perform best when their companies have a compelling vision, a culture of inclusion, and inspirational, trustworthy leadership, the first-line manager has the greatest influence on an employee’s career as well as  his or her satisfaction—or discontent—with day-to-day work life. Good managers set clear expectations and goals, communicate openly and honestly, give frequent feedback and praise, and provide the tools and support employees need to do their jobs. Good managers care.

Granted that Pure Barre isn’t my employer, here are eight ways they practice engagement.

They start with a vision. Clients know what Pure Barre stands for. It’s a place where  “women share a sense of community, in which they are inspired and empowered by each others’ fitness and lifestyle goals.” This kind of transparency attracts and retains the right people—in this case, people who care about their health and about each other’s well-being. They respect each other, thrive on challenge, and cheer each other on while they work toward a common goal.

Their people are authentic. Pure Barre owners and instructors embody the values. They are fit, friendly, and caring. When they aren’t teaching, they often are beside clients at the barre, groaning, shaking, and rolling their eyes. The message is clear: They are there for you and in it with you. They are better at “walking the talk” than any group I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

They train well and maintain standards. Instructors  are rigorously trained and operate as a close-knit team, not a stable of contractors who float from gym to gym, doing their own thing. Choreographed routines vary somewhat, but the core is the same, so that clients always know what to expect.  Classes start promptly and move quickly, with no delays or distractions. Each  is intense, well-organized and focused, showing respect for everyone’s time.

They use a common language. Pure Barre has a mantra and supporting terms: Lift, tuck, and burn. Burning is good, shaking is better. The smaller the move, the bigger the change. The size of the move? No more than an inch, the size of a paper clip. All instructors reinforce the same basic points using the same words, defining and demonstrating techniques and positions until they become second nature.

They provide personalized coaching and frequent praise.  Pure Barre instructors  concentrate on clients, moving from person to person while they call out cues. When they see a problem, they correct it in the moment–straightening a leg, adjusting a hip, or deepening a tuck–but they also love to catch clients doing something right. When your hamstring is cramping and you want to quit, a quick “Awesome focus, Jean” or “Perfect form, Kathy” keeps you going. Praise feels good and hearing others praised motivates everyone to work harder. Veterans appreciate it just as much as the greenest recruit.

They keep work(outs) fresh and fun. I’ve been a clock-watcher through running, step aerobics, spin, and yoga, yet a 50-minute workout flies by. A variety of instructors, upbeat music, challenging and changing moves, and new equipment keep clients interested and involved. We’ve had ’80s Day, when we dressed in Jane Fonda leotards and leg warmers; Diva Day when we piled on the bling; a costume contest on Halloween; and a wedding sendoff for our studio owner, when the whole class wore garters. We worked out just as hard, but we had more fun doing it.

They set—and celebrate—challenging goals. Every new Pure Barre client has a goal from the very first day—complete 100 classes.  Milestones matter, recognized by rituals like “signing the barre,” segments of ballet barre mounted on the lobby wall solely for that purpose. Clients can expect their photo on Facebook, a congratulatory message on the mirror in class, and a pair of sticky socks in Pure Barre red—the only color that must be earned. Similar celebrations mark 250, 500, and 1,000 classes. It may sound silly, but it works.

Although engagement has a reputation for being complicated and time-consuming, these techniques are simple and can be adapted to motivate any workforce. All you have to do is substitute “manager” for “instructor” and “employee” for “client” and then identify goals and activities that fit your environment.

A clearly communicated vision and challenging goals; standards, and values that show respect; and an approach that incorporates coaching, fun, and recognition have as much power in the workplace as an exercise studio. In fact, the next time you need an engagement refresher to “shape up” your managers, consider sending them to a Pure Barre class. They will experience first-hand the ways good managers build exemplary teams.

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March Madness at SteelBridge: A Change Management “Dream Team”

Originally posted for SteelBridge BASKETBALLHOOPSolutions on April 6, 2016:

While the NCAA Basketball Playoffs were in full swing, the sound of referees’ whistles filled my house. I wasn’t the one glued to the TV until the wee hours of the morning, although I followed the brackets and even had the conference apps on my phone. The biggest influence March Madness had on me was that I thought a lot about what it takes to be a championship team.

You may remember when the NBA’s top players went to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Sports Illustrated dubbed them the “Dream Team”—every coach’s fantasy and every fan’s delight. Countless articles have analyzed the athleticism, skills, and competitive drive that made them so great. I don’t know the difference between a point guard and a power forward, but experience has shown me that, in general, the best teams have complementary skills, each member uses their strengths, and all have a deep desire to work together to win.

The change management teams SteelBridge works with on technology implementations like Workday are cross-functional—including HR, IT, and Finance, at minimum—so they represent different viewpoints and skills. When they operate as a team, implementations are more successful—deadlines are met, resources are shared, and the lines of communication are open. Often, however, the functions engage in turf battles or work at cross-purposes to get what they want out of the initiative. In the end, no one wins.

A complicating factor is that it takes more than day-to-day skills to manage change successfully. Call it an orientation: a mindset that puts the organization first, so that all parties cooperate to reach a solution that works for everyone; an appreciation for each other’s diversity, maintaining open dialogue and respect for each other’s point of view; and sharing best practices across silos to avoid duplication of effort and provide a fresh perspective.

With all that in mind, we at SteelBridge have assembled a wish list of characteristics for our Change Management Dream Team. They include:

  • The CEO’s competitive mindset: Thinking like a CEO means viewing change capability as a strategic advantage over less agile competitors. My Dream Team would understand the broader context in which change occurs and factor in the speed and scope of change—in social, political, and economic forces, in the advancement of technology, in the composition of the marketplace, and in the needs and demands of customers, shareholders, and the public. The result would be that every initiative would advance the organization’s mission, vision, and goals.
  • The Finance function’s ability to build a strong business case: Change management is often considered as a cost, because monies expended to plan for, communicate, train for, and implement change are easier to track than the benefits realized from it. For example, productivity, engagement, and retention are outcomes of good change management, but it is difficult to show a direct, causal effect. The rationale behind articles that urge Finance and HR to collaborate on predictive analytics makes sense for change, too: Using finance’s skills, the Dream Team could translate the language of people and change into the language of business, harness the data from HR and business systems, and develop appropriate, balanced measures to demonstrate the return on investments in change.
  • The Marketing function’s expertise in driving awareness and buy-in. Marketing’s value-add to change management goes well beyond the obvious communication and presentation skills, because the goal of change management—gaining user acceptance—is primarily a marketing exercise. Research and market analysis identify key “segments” of users with different needs and preferences. In change management, stakeholder assessments are one important research vehicle. They uncover types of users, what they want, which communication channels are most likely to reach them, and which forms of learning they prefer. Using marketing skills to tailor offerings to various groups would allow the change team to meet their needs more precisely, leading to a higher level of user adoption.
  • The CIO’s emphasis on portfolio management: IT’s evolution from a cost center to a strategic business unit has required greater control over IT project selection, execution, and status. To align IT with business goals, CIOs have learned to manage initiatives, projects, and upgrades as though they were a portfolio of investments. Given the potential for multiple initiatives and numerous process owners, taking a portfolio approach to change management ensures that initiatives work together to meet core business needs.
  • The HR function’s sensitivity to the factors that influence employee engagement and commitment: Recent studies have demonstrated the impact of an engaged workforce on productivity and profits. As we pointed out in an earlier blog, engaged employees are better at change. Their sense of commitment to their organizations and their jobs, their trust in honest, authentic leaders, and their expectations that they will get the tools, training, and resources they need to do their altered jobs are powerful forces. The factors that lead to engagement – culture, work environment, management and leadership style, challenging work, performance feedback, fair rewards, and growth opportunities—are largely considered HR’s domain. However, every line and staff function must consistently carry out the organization’s promises in order to get the most from their workforce.

That is the same message we want to convey with the structure of our Change Management Dream Team: Organizations that treat change management as an enterprise-wide initiative create an environment that views functional differences not as a deterrent but as an advantage. In that environment, HR can be the catalyst for encouraging all parties to learn from and adapt each other’s unique perspectives to reach creative solutions. When organizations leverage the wisdom gained from functional diversity, strong partnerships flourish and everyone wins.


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Why your brain views change as a saber-tooth tiger


Copyright: 123rf.com

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. on February 10, 2016

Change management articles and white papers warn us about the havoc change wreaks on employee engagement. Employee fear, resentment, and resistance during major modifications to strategy, structure, culture, systems, and processes are among the biggest obstacles to successful change. In healthcare, where new mandates like electronic records are cause for concern, report by Cornerstone on Demand calls change the number one threat to employee engagement. Fortunately, the experts conclude that sound change management principles can improve engagement.

What surprises me is that hardly anyone seems to notice that employee engagement can have a positive effect on change. Engaged employees are better at change. Their sense of commitment to their organizations and their jobs, their trust in honest, authentic leaders, and their expectations that they will get the tools, training, and resources they need to do their altered jobs are powerful forces. That’s why it doesn’t make sense for an organization to defer engagement work until it is in the middle of a change.

Insight about how people react to change comes from the field of neuroscience, the study of the human brain. In Neuroscience: Helping Employees Through Change, consultant and author Hillary Scarlett takes us back to prehistoric times, when humans had more to worry about than a new strategy or a different payroll system:

Back then, the brain had one key driver: survival. To do this it worked on the simple principle of avoiding threats and seeking out rewards. Of the two, avoiding threats, such as the saber-toothed tiger, was far more important to survival and so our brains developed five times more neural networks to look for danger than they have for reward. As a result, our brains today are still subconsciously looking out for threats, five times a second.

No wonder it is hard to be engaged in the face of change, especially when the feeling of threat is contagious. Seeing our organizations in upheaval and our leaders and colleagues worried and fearful makes us worried and fearful, too. We become more emotional, less able to focus, and less perceptive. In such situations, humans revert to a natural tendency to minimize threat and maximize rewards.

Neuroscientists speak of that response in terms of two states: “Toward,” the reward state that people flock to, and “Away,” the threat state that they flee. In the “Toward” state, they are positive, focused, and willing to collaborate with others. They are innovative, creative, and more resilient. In the “Away” state, they are distracted and anxious, resulting in cortisol and stress, and a weakened immune system. They think less clearly, have reduced memory, and perform poorly.

The factors that activate the brain’s circuitry to proceed in one direction or the other are known as “domains” of human social experience. David Rock’s SCARF model identifies five:

  • Status is about one’s importance relative to others.
  • Certainty concerns being able to predict the future.
  • Autonomy provides a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe.
  • Fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people.

The parallels to the drivers of employee engagement are striking enough to support the conclusion that engaging first and changing later is has considerable merit. In an organization with high engagement:

  • Employees would already understand and buy into their organization’s mission, vision, and strategy, so they would “get” why change is necessary.
  • Leaders wouldn’t have to scramble to build employee trust or to demonstrate their support for an initiative because that would be everyday behavior.
  • Change readiness wouldn’t be an issue because organizations with high engagement keep their fingers on the pulse of employee attitudes. They already have established channels for employees to express their concerns and opinions.
  • It wouldn’t be necessary to build a change network, because engaged employees do that themselves. The actively engaged aren’t just engaged with the organization or its leaders. They’re engaged with each other, and they take responsibility for bringing along the fearful, the skeptics, and the malcontents.

Given that change is a persistent condition of organizational life, shouldn’t we make it a priority to build a workforce of engaged employees who are confident in their ability to change? To date, we have pursued that result through repeated change management efforts, one initiative at a time. Neuroscience, with its insights into how our brains react to threats and rewards, offers an alternate approach: making our organizations change-capable through employee engagement.

Whichever route we choose, the goal is the same: An environment where change is an everyday practice and communication is easy—no warnings, no fear, simply, “This is the challenge we’ll be taking on next.”

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Is Employee Engagement Dead?

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc., on January 22, 2016

The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.

Mark Twain

Amid all the buzz about employee engagement programs, a growing contingent wants to throw them out. Rodd Wagner, in Forbes last year, predicted The End of Employee Engagement, calling it a “check the box exercise” at many firms. Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte, declares that engagement programs have failed us and it’s time for organizations to become “irresistible.” Both authors condemn annual engagement surveys. Wagner’s beef is that they aren’t confidential, executives and managers “game” them and employees are afraid to answer them honestly. Bersin says they lack “modern, actionable solutions.”

That’s a lot to expect of any survey, let alone one designed to be brief, so that employees will actually complete it. But what troubles me more is the feeling that we have been here before—ten years ago, when employee satisfaction was in the cross-hairs. The surveys were meaningless. “Satisfaction” and “happiness” were passé. Businesses needed employees who were committed, enthusiastic and passionate. The new goal was “engaged,” an elevated state of being that would propel organizations to unprecedented levels of performance.

Now engagement is under attack and a host of consultants and bloggers are rushing in to suggest alternatives, as if a different kind of survey or a new label for our “ideal” workforce will solve the problem. It won’t. Like the divorcee who blames her three ex-husbands, we fail to see that the problem is us—HR and the business leaders that allow HR to dither instead of acquiring vital skills. To quote Bersin again, HR still lacks people “who can translate a ‘finding’ into a program or solution that drives business change.”

That’s the point we are missing about engagement surveys: They are a source of findings and directional insights, not a comprehensive set of solutions. Gallup, the engagement pioneer, said early on that there were three keys to increasing engagement:

…measuring employee engagement, conducting impact planning based on the measurement results, and implementing changes based on the impact planning—then repeating the process to sustain or further increase engagement levels.

In other words, managers and employees were expected to work together to interpret survey results and develop plans to address deficiencies. They were meant to implement those plans and revisit them, until they got it right. Too often, we have skipped those steps. Why is that? At least part of the answer is that we haven’t developed the analytics skill set that Bersin describes as “business understanding, consulting skills, data visualization, data management, statistics, and executive presence.”

Case in point: A manufacturing client I met with last week blamed noncompetitive compensation for a turnover rate that has doubled in the past eighteen months. Knowing that turnover is never just about compensation, I shifted the conversation to the factors of engagement, but the VP of HR shut me down. A recent engagement survey showed that 90 percent of their employees were engaged and 85 percent intended to stay with the company for the next several years. Sensing my doubt, the VP sent me the survey report with a note that said, “See for yourself.”

On the surface, the results did look good. A page of summary statistics showed high engagement, year-to-year improvements and favorable comparisons to industry norms. However, in the charts that followed, by line of business, department and job group, other story lines emerged—if one knew what to look for. In addition, those “engaged” workers provided nearly 100 pages of write-in comments. They had a lot to say, and very little was about compensation. Their concerns involved management honesty and approachability, the “hostile” work environment, the lack of feedback and direction, a desire for job enrichment and flexible scheduling, and pleas for more staff, better equipment and improved technology.

It was true that the consultant’s report lacked specific insights or recommendations. However, it provided plenty of data. This organization just didn’t know what to do with it. Instead, they announced their lofty engagement rate with bold statements that their program was working, even though they—and their workforce—had to have known better.

All this to say, don’t blame engagement programs for the lack of improvement in worker attitudes around the globe. Clearly, annual surveys have their faults, but simply replacing them with real-time tools like pulse surveys won’t fix the problem, because it all boils down to data: Data that needs to be analyzed, interpreted and combined with other HR information such as onboarding and exit surveys, recruiting data, learning data and performance data—all of which needs to be integrated with customer, business and industry data, in order to uncover patterns, predict trends and solve business problems.

That’s a tall order, and so far, we haven’t had the heart for it, we haven’t had the skills for it, we haven’t made the time for it and we haven’t invested in it—either enough dollars or the right resources. In short, we have treated engagement like any other human resources program and that’s a mistake. It’s time to ante up, skill up and harness the potential of the biggest weapon we have in our strategic arsenal. Whether we label it satisfaction, engagement or irresistibility is beside the point, unless we call it what it is: a business priority.


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Taming the Change Management Monster

Originally posted for SteelBridge Solutions, Inc. October 20, 2015

“Abominable! Can you believe that? Do I look abominable to you? Why can’t they call me the Adorable Snowman or…or the Agreeable Snowman, for crying out loud? I’m a nice guy.”

The Yeti in the movie, Monsters, Inc.

As Halloween approaches, my thoughts keep turning not to ghosts and goblins, but to the big, hairy monster we know as Change. Lately it seems that all of my new clients have one thing in common: They view change management as huge, complex, and scary. One is so terrified of it that he won’t speak the words, referring to our work as “user adoption.” Another knows that change management is critical, but she frets that her company doesn’t know “how to do change.”

Change is rarely a walk in the park, but stark terror of change still surprises me, for one simple reason: Change is a daily occurrence in our personal lives. Whether it is a new haircut, a move to a strange city, a different job, marriage, or the birth of a child, we deal with change, sometimes happily, sometimes not, knowing it is part of life. So why is change a catastrophe when we encounter it in our organizations and our jobs?

The truth is, it can’t be. Change is how we do business. The days of five-year strategic plans are ancient history, replaced by agility and the need to turn on a dime. Agile organizations survive and thrive through the mantra, “Without change, we die,” yet many others seem to believe that “Change will kill you.” How did we arrive at this disturbing dichotomy?

I’ve concluded, regretfully, that I’m partly to blame—I and the other change management practitioners who have perpetuated the myth that change is abominable. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the way we present change to CEOs and change sponsors. First, we make calamitous pronouncements like “seventy percent of large-scale transformative initiatives fail”—a spine-chilling statistic whose legitimacy can’t be proven. We pile on jargon like stakeholder assessment, leadership alignment, and mitigation plans when we should be speaking plain English and asking simple questions. And we trot out tools like a “change curve” that is based on the five stages of grief and littered with terms like “fear of the unknown” and “the valley of despair.”

We must sound—to our clients—like prophets of doom. “People hate change,” we tell project teams. “Be prepared for resistance at every turn, from sluggishness to out-and-out sabotage.” As experts in change, it’s our duty to coach them, yet we end up scaring them out of their wits. The same can be true of employee communications. A statement like, “Change means new ways of doing things” is fraught with risk, prerequisite for failure.

Clearly, we need to reconsider the way we think about change. Remember the Abominable Snowman, that supposedly scary monster? It turned out that beneath that frightening exterior, he was a real softy, profoundly misunderstood—just like change. Change is innocuous. It means “to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone.” That’s hardly scary, especially when change in our context offers benefits such as cost savings, improved efficiency, enhanced quality, or an enriched customer experience.

Is change hard work? Most certainly. Can change be abominable? I have to say yes, because ill-conceived, badly executed, and poorly managed change is a monstrous betrayal of everyone it touches. Consider, for example:

  •  Knee-jerk Change—based on hasty decisions made without due diligence or sufficient input from affected parties
  • Cinderella Change—expecting to succeed without seeking out and addressing the reasons for the failure of previous initiatives; requires a Fairy Godmother
  • Do As I Say Change—when leadership teams speak the right words but do not demonstrate their commitment through actions
  • Yo-Yo Change—unpredictable, exemplified by ever-changing priorities, plans, and promises
  • Tightrope Change—when employees are asked to “work without a net” of education and training to perform their altered jobs
  • Dishonest Change—featuring communication that is unclear or glosses over expected negatives like possible job loss

Pitfalls like these can make Change a big, hairy monster, but when you get to know the beast, it can be a real pussycat. Organizations that commit to make change a strategic capability gain a powerful vehicle for learning and growth, for progress and renewal.

 “Terrifying Change! Can you believe that? Do I seem terrifying to you? Why can’t they call me Invigorating Change or Stimulating Change, for crying out loud? I’m not a monster! I’m a good thing!”