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Creative Leadership: John R. Ryan

Keeping Employees Happy in a Post-Recession World

Employees performed their jobs with a higher level of engagement during the recent global recession, according to research my colleagues at the Center for Creative Leadership conducted in partnership with Booz Allen Hamilton. As layoffs increased throughout the workforce, employees became more engaged.

Why did that happen? Jennifer Deal, a senior researcher here at CCL, thinks one explanation could be that people feel more engaged with their jobs when they have fewer employment options. She also pointed out that the economy is starting to show signs of life again, so businesses will soon face a new challenge: maintaining employee engagement and retention as the job market slowly begins to improve.

Many business leaders tell me that keeping employee engagement and retention high is an increasing concern of theirs. It's on our minds at CCL as well. Like so many organizations, we asked our men and women to make financial sacrifices and take on extra work that helped us weather the worst of the downturn. Now we're starting to look again at ways to reward those employees, and the findings of Deal and her fellow researchers offer insights on how to proceed. Compensation, benefits, and development opportunities play key roles in retaining employees, according to our research. The greatest predictor of how long talented workers will stick around, however, is the relationship they have with their immediate boss.

Here's what the CCL/Booz Allen study found: Among those who strongly agreed that they work for a manager who cares about their well-being, 94 percent said they intend to stay with their current employer. Of those who strongly disagreed that their manager cared about their well-being, just 43 percent planned to stick around.

feedback, coaching, and challenge

That striking disparity reminds us how crucial it is to develop effective leaders at every level of our organizations. If we just leave employee-manager relationships to chance, we're putting tremendous amounts of talent and productivity—not to mention the overall health of our companies—at risk. The good news is that creating rock-solid, productive relationships with our direct reports isn't mysterious or particularly complicated. In fact, our research confirms an adage about those we are privileged to lead: "People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Remembering this principle and regularly practicing a few fundamental skills can go a long way toward keeping your employees satisfied:

Give feedback: Don't just wait for annual performance reviews to tell your men and women what they're doing well and how they can improve. They deserve to hear from us frequently. How else will they know what we're thinking? How else can they keep getting better?

I meet biweekly with my direct reports at CCL. These conversations have several intended outcomes. First, we want to create relationships with our colleagues to foster honesty about skills and performance. We also want to prevent employees from feeling defensive about constructive criticism; consistent communication helps with that. During my three decades as a U.S. Navy pilot, every flight of my career—whether I ranked as ensign or vice-admiral—got debriefed. It was a great chance to learn what went well and what needed to be done differently. This kind of deliberate, consistent process made me a better pilot. It still serves as a reminder that feedback is truly a gift from people who care about your role, your professional development, and the organization's mission.

Start coaching: Beyond giving specific, timely, on-target feedback, we should also be coaching the people we are privileged to lead. Effective coaching gets people to look at situations in new ways. It prods them to broaden their thinking and to identify and pursue worthy goals. It's another positive way to cement relationships with the people who work for us.

Alan Mulally is leading a remarkable turnaround at Ford (F), in part because of his skill at getting individuals throughout the company involved in decision-making. As Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported last year, collaborative leadership hasn't always been one of Mulally's strengths. As a rising star at Boeing (BA), he was advised by his boss to get outside his division and take a broader view of how to run the whole organization. He learned through further coaching that he wasn't a particularly inclusive leader and that people needed more feedback from him. Mulally acknowledged his shortcomings and worked hard to overcome them. He carried his improved collaborative style with him to Ford, where he has used it to change the culture and deliver new levels of performance.

Challenge yourself: As leaders, we can get so busy dispensing advice and providing feedback that we forget to look at our own behavior and the impact it has on colleagues. In his highly insightful book What Got You Here Won't Get You There, executive coach (and fellow contributor) Marshall Goldsmith advises: "If you really want to know how your behavior is coming across with your colleagues and clients, stop looking in the mirror and admiring yourself. Let your colleagues hold the mirror and tell you what they see."

I have taken Marshall's good advice. At the end of each month, members of CCL's executive team take time out to give each other feedback. We examine how we're faring on the team's top three priorities. Each executive team member has also picked two areas in which to improve personally. We give each colleague feedback on how they're doing with those, and they do the same for us. This approach fosters candid communication and keeps us focused on getting better—both as a team and as individual team members. Teams really do get better when there is a sense of mutual accountability and perpetual self-discipline.

We've all waited a long time for business to start picking up again. As conditions improve, it's tempting and indeed necessary to charge ahead with innovative products, marketing campaigns, and improved business processes. Still, in the flurry of activity, it's crucial not to lose sight of the wishes and needs of the women and men who are ultimately the cornerstone of our success. When they are satisfied, focused, and engaged, you see the results in the bottom line.

John R. Ryan is president of the Center for Creative Leadership, a global provider of executive education. He was previously chancellor of the State University of New York and superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. He was a pilot during a 35-year career in the Navy, retiring as a vice-admiral.

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