Employee Engagement (70+ New Engagement Hacks 2019)

Employee Engagement

Engage Employees at Work

The focus of this blog is on employee engagement programs and initiatives at the organizational or business unit level. This begins with an examination of the macro level of employee engagement:

what employee engagement is, the factors the drive (or hinder) engaged workforces, the evolution of the concept of engagement, the state of engagement and engagement practices today, and thoughts on building a culture of engagement.


There are no formal engagement surveys. Instead, leaders have regular sessions with their teams to ask what can be done to help them work more productively and be more satisfied with their work and the company.


The workspaces look deceptively whimsical. At first glance, for instance, the customer service area looks like colorful chaos. But the ceilings and dividers are functional, diluting background noise so each customer feels as if he or she is talking to a person, not a call center.


The basement copy room, in which the main job is the logistics of shifting paper—­a high-­volume product for a mortgage company— ­is light and airy. The ceiling fixtures are playful representations of paper, and natural light is funneled from the street.


Team members know that they are key parts of the “mortgage machine” that drives company profits, not just workers in the mundane world of paper supplies.


Elements of fun and functionality are integrated, promoting collaboration and teamwork and ensuring that safety and physical comfort are met so that team members can focus on clients.


Venues for relaxation and leisure help team members regain focus. The company also offers team members free snacks, benefits such as pet insurance, and at the Detroit headquarters, on-­site amenities from child care to Zumba classes.


The philosophy is that while the company’s purpose is not popcorn and slushy frozen treat machines in the break room, those things help the company achieve its purpose because giving team members both concierge service and a sense of fun quickly transfers to customer service. Team members know what customer service is because they receive it themselves.


The Shifting Nature of Work

When you look into any kind of organization, you can see that the nature of work has changed. In some organizations, it has changed dramatically, particularly for knowledge workers in office spaces.


This change in work involves the work itself, the meaning of work, and how it is accomplished, including the place, time, and environment in which it is accomplished.


Many of these changes focus on engagement, having an employee who is more connected to the organization, and that feeling of belonging and ownership translates into more effort, more productivity, and more success for both the individual and the organization.


Many of the issues in this figure are described in this blog, and some are captured in later blogs, such as the changes in technology. They all represent important opportunities for change and improvement, and they reflect excellent topics to be addressed in the human capital strategy.


Employee Engagement Is the Critical Difference

We’ve seen the headlines from newspapers in the developed economies of the United States and Europe about anemic economic growth, massive layoffs, scarce job openings, and worker disillusionment due to the demise of the “employment contract.”


For those still working, they often find a working environment characterized by company instability, frequent management turnover, reductions in health benefits, reduction or elimination of pension contributions, and high levels of stress that result from either the fear of losing a job or having to shoulder the burden of additional work left by departed co-workers.


For those who do find a new job after long-­ term unemployment, they are often overqualified, underutilized, or hired at lower compensation levels because it is a buyer’s market.


In rapidly growing, emerging markets, the abundance of low-­skilled workers often means a booming economy built on the backs of laborers in modern-­day sweatshops and factories, sometimes with disastrous workplace tragedies.


Over the past few years in the hotter job markets (and tighter talent pools) in parts of Asia, many employees jump from one job to another in order to move quickly up their personal title and salary ladder with little commitment to a company, its customers, or its mission.


Against that backdrop, it’s hard to believe that any company, anywhere, has the kind of employee population that can make it successful, given the challenging economies, increasing pressures from new competitors, rising pace of technological change, increasing government regulation, and heightened geopolitical risk.


Yet there are companies who outperform their industry peers even when so many of the products, services, structures, and challenges are surprisingly similar. These companies excel at a variety of business metrics from shareholder value, to operating margin, to workplace safety.


They are more likely to be innovative. They have a stronger employee value proposition to retain key employees and a compelling brand to attract new talent.


What makes this critical difference? Many would argue, as would we, that the difference is an engaged workforce, which consistently delivers superior performance, creates innovative products and solutions, and serves as brand ambassadors to both drive customer loyalty as well as attract great candidates.


But how can companies stem the tide of worker malaise and distrust? What can companies do to drive high levels of employee engagement? How can organizations build a culture of engagement that fosters the kind of employee performance that can make the difference between survival and success?


And even more important, how do they measure the impact so that they know whether they are successful?


The Drivers of Engagement

There is a great deal of alignment in numerous studies about the drivers (factors that have significant influence) of engagement, which usually reflect aspects of the business culture, relationships with supervisors, and workload. Among the more well-­known assessments of engagement drivers are the following:


Towers Watson’s 2012 Global Workforce Study lists these five priority areas of focus and the behaviors and actions that matter to employees:


Leadership (is effective at growing the business; shows sincere interest in employees’ well-­being; behaves consistently with the organization’s core values; earns employees’ trust and confidence)


Stress, balance, and workload (manageable stress levels at work; a healthy balance between work and personal life; enough employees in the group to do the job right; flexible work arrangements)


Goals and objectives (employees understand the organization’s business goals, steps they need to take to reach those goals, and how their job contributes to achieving goals)


Supervisors (assign tasks suitable to employees’ skills; act in ways consistent with their words; coach employees to improve performance; treat employees with respect)


Organization’s image (highly regarded by the general public; displays honesty and integrity in business activities)


The Merit Principles Survey, which is administered to more than thirty-­six thou-sand workers by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, asks questions to elicit information about these drivers:

  • Pride in one’s work or workplace
  • Satisfaction with leadership
  • Opportunity to perform well at work
  • Satisfaction with recognition received
  • Prospect for future personal and professional growth
  • A positive work environment with some focus on teamwork


Research from The Conference Board revealed these eight drivers of engagement to be key:

  • Trust and integrity
  • Nature of the job
  • The line of sight between individual performance and company performance
  • Career growth opportunities
  • Pride about the company
  • Coworkers/team members
  • Employee development
  • A personal relationship with one’s manager


Drivers of engagement have been relatively consistent over time; however, there are now more frequent mentions of both recognition and the desire to do meaningful work (aligning with the mission of the organization).


Stages of Engagement

Engagement science has been evolving for some time, and it has already had a major impact on organizations in terms of what they do and their success. But there is a lot more potential for the future. It is through a human capital strategy that additional efforts will be made in this important area.


It is helpful to review the status of engagement through the stages of its development—­first, with research pinpointing how it arrived and morphed into a powerful topic in almost every human resources function.


Next, the status of engagement as a process and practice is underscored. Finally, its impact, the value of engagement in terms of what is being reported now, is covered.



From its humble origins as research about “employee motivation” in the mid-­1950s, predominantly among companies in the United States, to “job satisfaction,” to “employee commitment,” and finally to the current concept of “employee engagement,” these attempts have sought to link worker attitudes to productivity with the belief (even in the absence of definitive proof) that engaged workers are more productive and valuable than those who are not.


Combining all this research and making sense of it in terms of its implications for employees and their work, Myers published a book in 1970 to name and explain the concept he developed: Every Employee a Manager. In his work, Myers showed how each employee can and should manage their work to a certain extent, with some obvious limitations.


For the most part, jobs can be managed by individuals so they feel ownership and responsibility for their work, the ultimate form of engagement. Myers was able to make it understandable and put it into practice as he worked with many executives, bringing this concept to job design and supervisory practices as well as human resources programs.


Job satisfaction surveys elicit information about the way employees feel about their work environment, compensation, company benefits, and management, among other aspects of their workplace.


Examinations of the concept of job satisfaction began to appear in the academic literature in the mid-­1960s, notably The Measure of Satisfaction in Work and Retirement: A Strategy for the Study of Attitudes.


Rates of job satisfaction in the United States have suffered for a variety of reasons, including the erosion of employee loyalty in the 1980s when pension plans changed and off-­shoring, layoffs, and plant closures shattered what had become an employee expectation of stable, long-­term employment.


As part of one of the longest-­running examinations of job satisfaction in the United States, The Conference Board’s latest annual study reveals that less than half (47.3 percent) of U.S. workers say that they are satisfied with their jobs, compared to the 61.1 percent in 1987, the first year of analysis.


This reflects a steady decline in job satisfaction over the decades, which only recently returned to pre–­Great Recession levels after hitting its lowest point in 2010 at 42.6 percent. However, while these concepts are related, job satisfaction is not the same as engagement.


Academic research specifically regarding employee engagement began to appear in the early 1990s. Even then, research posited that engaged and disengaged workers offer varying degrees of “effort” and are, at various times, more or less committed to the work and the workplace, as explained in “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.”


This more esoteric academic work continued to explore the ways in which employees feel (or fail to feel) connected to the workplace.


The 2002 Journal of Applied Psychology article “Business-Unit-Level Relationship between Employee Satisfaction, Employee Engagement, and Business Outcomes:


A Meta-Analysis” was among the very first attempts to quantify engagement in terms of business results, and business leaders finally took notice, causing a dramatic shift in the level of attention paid to, and investments in, employee engagement.



Despite all the energy, effort, and resources (financial and otherwise) devoted to the issue of employee engagement for decades, the overall level of engagement in the workforce remains low and largely unchanged even in the face of the ongoing global recession.


A research report called The State of the Global Workplace reveals that only 13 percent of workers are engaged, 63 percent are not engaged, and 24 percent are actively disengaged.


There are, of course, regional differences, ranging from workers in East Asia (largely China) being among the least engaged, at 6 percent, to workers in New Zealand and Australia, where 24 percent of workers are engaged and only 16 percent are actively disengaged.


The highest levels of active disengagement in the world can be found in the Middle East and North Africa.14 In the United States, among its nearly one hundred million full-­time employees, 30 percent are engaged, 50 percent are not engaged, and 20 percent are actively disengaged.


Engagement rates, of course, differ by region, country, and state; by occupation; by gender; by seniority level; by remote versus on-­site location; by educational level; and by age.


When organizations can determine levels of engagement on a granular level (by business unit or division, by employee population or team leader) then a clearer picture emerges from the data as to the relative performance of the groups against their peers.


It is only when that data becomes actionable for the short term or even predictive for the long term that employee engagement data has any real value.


Among the most common issues that surface in employee engagement surveys are poor management/leadership, a lack of career opportunities or limited professional growth, a disconnect from the mission or strategy of the organization, a negative perception of the organization’s future, and an unmanageable workload.


In 2012, The Conference Board surveyed engagement leaders at 209 companies in twenty-­one countries to determine, among other things, what engagement practices, programs, and initiatives are most prevalent. Employee Engagement—What Works Now? reported these findings:


The engagement function reports to the CHRO 52 percent of the time and to another senior HR executive 27 percent of the time, making this clearly a process still owned by human resources.

  • Eighty-­nine percent of surveyed human capital practitioners said that they have an engagement strategy in place.
  • Fifty-­two percent report that their organizations have been focused on engagement for more than five years.
  • Sixty percent work with an external vendor and 16 percent work with a consulting firm to develop survey questions.
  • Forty-­one percent administer an annual survey and 27 percent administer one biannually, while 25 percent survey more frequently, leaving 7 percent who do not survey at all.


Eighty-­four percent indicated that their company’s approach to employee engagement strategy has changed in the last six to twenty-­four months, either greatly (26 percent) or somewhat (58 percent), with many indicating that the change was a matter of “more focus” on engagement or increased accountability.


Companies are using surveys to measure not only engagement but also leadership behaviors (66 percent), job satisfaction (63 percent), and organizational culture (60 percent).


Only 49 percent of organizations link employee performance and results to engagement.

Despite the importance of engagement, 48 percent said that they had no one dedicated full-­time to engagement activities, and another 29 percent indicated that they had only one to three full-­time employees dedicated to administering, monitoring, and analyzing these programs.



Employee engagement is critical to business performance and a success factor on many levels, from executing a business strategy to financial performance, to worker productivity, to the ability to create innovative products and services.


In a recent annual study in which more than one thousand CEOs, presidents, and chairmen listed their most critical areas of concern for the coming year as well as the strategies they plan to use to address these challenges, it was revealed that, on a global basis, human capital issues are the top challenge, first-­or second-­ranked in every region, including China and India.


Continuing its steady rise in the ranking of strategies to address the human capital challenge, “raise employee engagement” ranked second in 2014, up from third in the 2013 survey and eighth in the 2012 survey.


In addition, respondents indicated the critical linkage between “Human Capital” and their next four challenges: “Customer Relationships,” “Innovation,” “Operational Excellence,” and “Corporate Brand and Reputation.”


In fact, engagement is also a top-­five strategy to address the challenges of Innovation and Operational Excellence. Respondents in this survey have clearly put employees at the center of everything.


One of the most comprehensive studies showing the business impact of employee engagement, The Relationship Between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes, reveals that engagement is indeed related to the nine performance outcomes selected for the study, with consistent correlations across organizations. 


The linkage between employee engagement and business metrics can also be found in Towers Watson’s Global Workforce Study:

Higher levels of engagement can translate into higher operating margins, from just below 10 percent for companies with low “traditional” engagement levels to just over 14 percent for those with high “traditional” engagement, to more than 27 percent for those with high “sustainable” engagement (defined by the “intensity” of employees’ connection to their organization based on three core elements: being engaged, feeling enabled, and feeling energized).


Highly engaged workers have lower rates of “presenteeism” (lost productivity at work at only 7.6 days/year versus 14.1 days/year) and “absenteeism” than disengaged workers (at 3.2 days/year versus 4.2 days/year). 


Highly engaged workers are less likely to report an intention to leave their employers within the next two years (18 percent) versus the highly disengaged (40 percent), and 72 percent of the highly engaged also indicated that they would prefer to remain with their employer even if offered a comparable position elsewhere.


A Watson Wyatt study, Using Continual Engagement to Drive Business Results, found “striking” differences in the performance of high-­engagement workers and low-­engagement workers: the highly engaged are 79 percent more likely to be top performers.


Great Place to Work, a consulting and research firm, has studied engagement in the workplace for decades and includes a trust as part of its model. Companies selected for inclusion on the “Great Places to Work” list, in partnership with Fortune magazine, exhibit a higher degree of trust and engagement in the workplace than other companies. Great Place to Work articulates these benefits of trust and engagement in the workplace:


Committed and engaged employees who trust their management perform 20 percent better and are 87 percent less likely to leave an organization, resulting in easier employee and management recruitment, decreased training costs, and incalculable value in retained tenure equity.


Analysts indicate that publicly traded companies on the “100 Best Companies to Work For” list consistently outperform major stock indices by 300 percent and have half the voluntary turnover rates of their competitors.


We live in an age where maintaining an organization’s reputation and brand is a constant challenge, especially as organizations seek to retain current customers and attract new ones.


Frontline employees are the key to success with customers. Numerous studies point to the importance of employee engagement on customer satisfaction, as listed in the Employee Engagement in a VUCA World report from The Conference Board.


For example, research indicates that the customers of engaged employees use their products more, which leads to higher levels of customer satisfaction, and that these employees influence the behavior and attitudes of their customers, which drives profitability.


The subject of a Harvard Business School case study and later author of a best-selling business book, Employees First, Customers Second, Vineet Nayar, had a then-radical philosophy when he was vice chairman and CEO of India-­based HCL Technologies: focus first on employees and make management accountable to them, as that will result in higher levels of engagement and effectiveness, making for stronger customer relationships.


Engagement (or lack thereof) can also be measured in terms of economic impact with wide-­ranging implications for countries and regions. While few employees are engaged and many more are not engaged, companies would do well to take action to mitigate the impact of the actively disengaged.


Gallup estimates that economic loss from active disengagement costs the United States between $450 and $550 billion per year. In Germany, that figure ranges from €112 to €138 billion per year (US $151 to $186 billion).


In the United Kingdom, actively disengaged employees cost the country between £52 and £70 billion (US$83 billion and $112 billion) per year.


In addition to determining the impact on business performance, human capital programs and initiatives also rely on employee engagement data.


According to a report by Bersin, 57 percent of HR practitioners indicated that the employee engagement metric was their most important in terms of determining talent management success.


A Model for Implementation

It is helpful to understand engagement from the perspective of how it is introduced and implemented in an organization. The implementation usually follows several prescribed steps, and there are many different approaches offered in terms of how engagement is delivered.


Using the focus on delivering value, we have adopted a model that brings engagement into the organization with a constant focus on the business contribution of the engagement process.


As with most important processes, engagement starts with alignment to the business in the beginning and ends with measuring the impact on the business in a very logical, rational way.


It is also presented in a cyclical fashion to show that this is a never-­ending adjustment process, always collecting data to see how things are working and making adjustments when they are not. The next nine sections provide more detail on this model.


Align Employee Engagement to the Business

The beginning point with any process is alignment to the business, and engagement should be no different. 


Business needs and business value is the beginning point that executives want to see. This is expressed through classic measures in the system, usually reflecting output, quality, cost, and time.


These critical data are reported throughout the system in scorecards, dashboards, key performance indicators, operating reports, and many other vehicles.


A new HR program or human capital initiative should begin with the end in mind, focusing on one of those business measures, such as productivity, sales, customer satisfaction, employee retention, quality, cycle times, and so forth.


The challenge is to identify those measures that should change if employees are more actively engaged. The literature is full of hypotheses on these issues, all claiming a variety of results.


This quick review can help management understand what might come out of this. The important point is that if a measure is identified, it is more likely that the engagement process will actually achieve its goal. Beginning with the end in mind is the best driver for the outcomes of the process.


Employee engagement scores, taken either annually or biannually, are impact data because they indicate the collective impact of all the engagement processes in the organization.


These data only describe perceptions, but they are still very important. Engagement, on its own, is an intangible measure in the scheme of impact measures.


Unfortunately, many organizations early in the process stop there, merely reporting improvements in engagement scores. This leads many executives to respond, “So what?” So we have to do more and doing more means that the results of engagement must be identified at the macro and micro levels.


The business impact is the linkage of engagement with certain outcome measures in the business category. The efforts of the HR team should be to illustrate the significant correlation and causation between improvements in engagement scores and outcome measures, which can typically be expressed in statements such as the following:

  • Engagement drives productivity.
  • Engagement drives quality.
  • Engagement drives sales.
  • Engagement drives retention.
  • Engagement drives safety.


Others have developed more specific measures to link to engagement, such as processing times for loans to be underwritten, purchase cost for the procurement function, or security breaches in the IT function. The point is that engagement scores can be linked to many outcomes, and the HR function’s challenge is to show that.


Another way to show the business value of engagement is to connect it to individual projects. In this case, it is not just the overall engagement score that is linked to the business measures from a macro perspective but also an individual project involving individual participants.


For example, a leadership development program for IAMGOLD, a large gold mining organization, was developed as a result of low engagement scores.


After the program was implemented, which involved almost one thousand managers and cost the company $6 million, not only was the engagement score monitored for improvement, but individual measures that were selected by the participants were also linked directly to the leadership program.


The leadership program actually challenged the first level of management to get employees more engaged and to focus their efforts on improving two measures that each participant supervisor in the program selected.


As these measures changed, the effects of the program were isolated from other influences, converted to a monetary value, and compared to the cost of the program.


This yielded a 46 percent ROI in this important job group. In another example, a manufacturing plant used job engagement to improve quality of work, and the study tracking the success of the program examined improvements in quality, converted them to a monetary value, and then compared it to the cost of the program to yield an ROI of 399 percent.


Define and Explain Employee Engagement

While there are many definitions of employee engagement, they are remarkably similar in their emphasis on several common elements. The following comes from a review of engagement definitions found in Employee Engagement in a VUCA World:


According to The Conference Board, “Employee engagement is a heightened emotional and intellectual connection that an employee has for his/her job, organization, manager, or co-­workers that, in turn, influences him/her to apply additional discretionary effort to his/her work.”


Towers Watson delineated employee engagement along three dimensions:

Rational.How well employees understand their roles and responsibilities.o Emotional.  How much passion they bring to the work and their organizations.


Motivational. How willing they are to invest discretionary effort to perform roles well.

The independent, quasi-­judicial agency in the executive branch of the U.S.government, the U.S.Merit Systems Protection Board, states, “Employee engagement is a heightened connection between employees and their work, their organization, or the people they work for or with.”


According to management consultancy and executive search firm Korn Ferry, “Employee engagement is a mindset in which employees take personal stake-holder responsibility for the success of the organization and apply discretionary efforts aligned with its goals.”


These definitions suggest both alignments with the organization as well as the willingness to expend discretionary effort as critical components of employee engagement. Further, the Gallup Organization delineates three types of employees as follows:


Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward. Not-engaged employees are essentially “checked out.” They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time—­but not energy or passion—­into their work.


Actively disengaged employees aren’t just unhappy at work; they’re busy acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish. 


Of note, one of the more recent developments in this space has been a focus on “well-­being,” which links engagement to health issues as part of a movement toward holistic work environments.


Another development is a focus on “happiness,” which seeks a holistic approach to worker contentment by weighing two components: overall life satisfaction and affect balance. 


(For an overview of this concept as well as profiles of examinations of happiness at Zappos, Google, HCL, Best Buy, and Southwest Airlines, please see The Happiness Premium: What Companies Should Know About Leveraging Happiness in the Workplace.)


Executives must communicate not only what engagement means but how it affects them and how their role will change. This part of this step in the model is very critical because it connects the executives to the process and fully explains what is involved. Some of this may involve stories that are told about what it means to be engaged.


For example, there is the classic story of the janitor at NASA who was asked, “What is your job?” while he was sweeping the floors. He answered that he was helping put a man on the moon.


Although this may appear to be an odd example, this is the kind of thinking and attitude that is sought through the engagement process. Stories, memos, meetings, speeches, and even formal documents can help define and explain the goal of the process.


Implement Policies and Programs to Drive Engagement

The next part of the process is to enact the different formal processes that will address the engagement issue. The starting point is to show the mission, vision, and values of the organization.


These are well-­documented in most organizations, but the key is to integrate some language around engagement. For example, here is what Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, says about engagement:


We have 10 core values, and when we hire people, we make sure they have similar values. 


For example, one of our values is to be humble. If someone comes in and is really egotistical, even if they are the greatest, most talented person technically and we know they could do a lot for our top or bottom line, we won’t hire them, because they are not a culture fit.


After engagement is clearly defined and the dimensions of work that connect with the definition are clearly described, a survey is usually developed that secures the perception from employees. This is an initial survey to reveal the current status of engagement, and the survey data are used to make improvements.


This is a classic survey-­feedback-­action loop that many organizations use as they survey employees, provide feedback to the survey respondents, and plan actions during the year to improve engagement.


This is not only a routine, formal practice; it becomes the principal process improvement tool as changes and adjustments are made each year based on the engagement survey results.


Engagement is usually a principal component or determinate of a “Great Place to Work.” There are many Great Place to Work programs, ranging from the most well-known, Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” to those of a particular professional field, locale, or specialty (such as diversity).


For example, in Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” two-­thirds of the determinate for being on the list is the score of an engagement survey given to a randomly selected sample of employees.


This is very powerful data, and a positive score is desired by the executive team as they build a great place to work. Being included on such a list helps attract and retain employees, and although the award itself is intangible, it is obviously connected to tangible measures, as discussed earlier.


Among HR functions, specific adjustments can be made to improve various components of engagement. For example, recruiting and selection processes can include letting potential audiences know about the organization’s efforts to have employees fully engaged.


Selection may be based on the desire of employees to be engaged in the organization, and more emphasis may be given to on-­boarding as a process of aligning people with the philosophy of the organization.


The training and learning programs can be developed to reinforce the principles of engagement; even the method of learning is sometimes adjusted to be more adaptive to individuals in organizations.


Ideally, training is perceived as just in time, just enough, and just for me. That means it is customized for individuals and provided at the time they need it.


Compensation can be adjusted to reward individuals for being more engaged. Since engagement often leads to improved financial outcomes, sometimes this means paying for bonuses, as is particularly true for salespeople.


It also can be expanded into general recognition programs where individuals are rewarded for displaying proper engagement behaviors or managers and supervisors are rewarded for reinforcing them. In essence, any HR function that involves employees and influences employee behavior can have an important impact on engagement.


Design Work to Focus on Engagement

A huge part of this process is to make sure that the work inherently allows for engagement—­for thinking and being empowered. It can be very frustrating for employees when they are asked to be more engaged but then they are still constrained by old job descriptions and structures.


Sometimes it is helpful to think about “where the work comes from.” Before work can be done, there are management functions that must be fulfilled:

  • Planning—­objectives, goals, strategies, programs, systems, policies, forecasts
  • Organizing—­staffing, budgets, equipment, materials, methods
  • Leading—­communicating, motivating, facilitating, delegating, meditating, counseling
  • Controlling—­auditing, measuring, evaluating, correcting


Traditionally, these functions are all centralized in a manager, supervisor, or designated leader, and work is prescribed for employees exactly, sometimes allowing no deviation from their job descriptions.


But with an engagement perspective, employees are expected to get more involved in planning what work to do, when to do it, how goals and standards can be met, and maybe even how to source the information or materials needed.


They may be involved in not only doing the job but controlling it, verifying the quality of the product, checking to see how procedures are working, making adjustments, and so forth.


This concept of empowerment is a vital part of the engagement. Empowered employees take initiative and are held responsible for the things they do. They have ownership in the process, and thus they become fully engaged. Empowerment programs have been implemented for some time and have become an important part of driving the engagement process.


Design Workspaces to Enable Engagement

The workspaces of organizations have changed dramatically from private offices and cubicles to rotating desk assignments, couches, standing desks, treadmill desks, and even to no desks.


One constant thing in the process is that offices have become more open. In fact, this openness has been evolving for many years.


According to the International Facility Management Association, today more than 70 percent of employees work in an open-­space environment, and the size of the workplace has shrunk from 225 square feet per employee in 2010 to 190 square feet in 2013. Workplaces are smaller and more open, and this leads to some concerns.


The first concern is the actual size of the office. Since it’s shrinking, does it provide enough space? This is a concern for individuals who often need space for all their accessories, devices, files, and work. This has led to some alternative configurations that provide this kind of space apart from the actual workspace.


Another concern is privacy. Privacy issues have changed over the years as the work-place design has evolved. There has been a shifting need for privacy according to Steelcase, one of the largest makers of office systems.


According to their research, in the 1980s there was a call for more privacy and less interaction, but by the 1990s there was a need for less privacy and more interaction. Now there has been another swing in the pendulum, and there is a call for more privacy and more interaction but through interactive devices.


This leads to a concern for transparency in that now everyone has access to everything that everyone else is doing. In an open office, employees can see computer screens, hear conversations, read documents, and access all kinds of messages from different devices, making it perhaps too transparent for some. Because of this, there is a need to be less transparent.


Another concern is interruptions. Open offices invite people to interrupt frequently, as sometimes there is simply no way to shut the door in an open office. Managing interruptions can become a very difficult process.


A similar concern is a distraction within open offices. Hearing noises and seeing what is going on with other employees is a huge distraction to many people.


There are several major trends that have been occurring in workspace design. The first trend is to recognize the power of the open space environment, despite the concerns that arise from it. Assigned cubicles and private offices are certainly good for individual performance, but they are not helpful for group productivity where there is a need for collaboration that leads to innovation.


An innovative organization is in the upper right-­hand corner of the diagram, where offices are open and flexible and movement is possible between different offices, rooms, and activity areas. Collaboration is an important part of the engagement, and it is also an important value for organizations trying to encourage high performance and innovation at the same time.


Another important trend is that the space assigned to individuals depends on the time that they spend in the office. When people are using offices only a small part of the time, they will have a much smaller office. This is a departure from the traditional way in which office space has been allocated according to the title and rank of the employee.


Executives who travel a lot may in some cases have a small office because they are not there very often. On the other hand, workers involved in major projects may need extra space.


Big, private offices are disappearing. They are too expensive and not necessarily functional, and problems are created when a person is unwilling to be a part of the social experiment of an open-­space environment.


Common areas are developed, like conference rooms or meeting spaces at different places in an open environment, to give people ample opportunities to have discussions. Even little nooks can be set aside for people to meet quickly, reflect, communicate with a small team, or otherwise pull people together.


Workspaces are also being designed to get people to interact. For example, Samsung recently unveiled plans for a new U.S.headquarters designed in stark contrast to its traditional buildings.


Vast outdoor public spaces are sandwiched between floors, a configuration that executives hope will lure engineers and salespeople into mingling. Likewise, Facebook will soon put several thousand of its employees into a single mile-­long room.


These companies know that a chance meeting with someone else in an office environment is a very important activity for collaboration.


A final trend is that workplaces are becoming more agile. They are not just for sitting anymore but also standing, walking, and moving.


Research has shown that sitting at the computer all day is a very unhealthy practice, and many organizations are now trying to give employees the opportunity to get up often, move around, and in some cases even use a treadmill desk.


Design Alternative Work Systems to Maintain Engagement

In the last decade, much progress has been made with alternative work systems, particularly in allowing employees to do their work at home.


In this arrangement, actual employees (not contractors) perform work for their organization at home every day of the week. This enables huge savings in real estate for the office, but there are many other benefits as well.


Several arrangements are available. The one that has perhaps the most impact is working completely at home. Under this arrangement, employees essentially do all their work in the home environment and make very infrequent trips to the office, if any at all.


To accomplish this, the home office has to be configured as an efficient, safe, and healthy workplace. This requires effort on the part of the organization to ensure, from a technology perspective, that the employee functions the same way he or she would in the office.


The second type of arrangement is office sharing, where one or more employees share an office. They predominantly work at home, additionally spending short periods of time in the office. In an ideal situation, two people share one office, but the schedule is arranged so that the two employees are not there at the same time.


A third option is hoteling, where several employees work at home but come into the office occasionally to do work as well. A suite of offices is available for them to use, and they have to make a reservation to use an office. This office space functions, essentially, as a hotel where employees check in and out of workspaces.


The fourth type of work arrangement is flex-­time, where employees work sometimes at home, sometimes in the office, and set their own working hours as long as they work the prescribed number of hours.


This often takes the form of a compressed work week, where employees may work three days with longer hours and then have an extra two days off. It could also mean working slightly longer hours each day to have a half-­day off or coming to work early in the morning and leaving early in the afternoon.


Another option is job sharing, where two people are charged with doing one specific job. Each person works about half of the hours, and they coordinate their schedules so that they are not both there at the same time. Essentially, they are teaming up to get the job done but still working individually (each on a part-­time basis).


Finally, there is part-time work, where individuals work reduced hours, receive limited benefits, and free up office space for others when they are not there. This allows employees the flexibility of having more time off while still remaining employed with the organization. 


Whatever the arrangement, it has to be fully prescribed and have specific conditions and rules. The following box details the work-­at-­home program for a life and health insurance company called Family Mutual Insurance (FMI).


Benefits of Working at Home

There are many benefits derived from this type of program. First and foremost, this often leads to high levels of job satisfaction, as employees have the convenience of working at home and the personal savings of time and money from the elimination of their commute.


This is particularly important for employees who have to drive long distances to go to work. These employees often come to work stress, and their lengthy commutes may take many hours out of their day.


Job satisfaction often leads to retention. Some employees want to work in organizations where they have an opportunity to work at home, so this is a good way to attract employees and keep them. Most studies point to this flexibility leading to increased tenure.


Absenteeism is usually reduced with these arrangements. Sometimes employees need time to take care of personal errands and unexpected situations.


With flexible arrangements, they can work those situations into their schedule. Of course, part of the rules is for them to ensure that they are completing all their work and working the numbers of hours required.


Having a work-­at-­home situation may give them the flexibility they need to take care of emergencies or critical appointments so they do not have to take time off. Additionally, there is less sick time, because employees are not exposed to contagious illnesses that may come through an office or spread through public contact.


In offices where there is a high risk of accidents, these arrangements will eliminate those accidents. This is not a payoff for all organizations, but it is significant if there are hazards in the office where employees work.


Most studies show that employees are actually more productive when working at home. There are several explanations for this. The first is that they are less stressed and are more energized to do the work.


Second, they often give a little more, because they are saving so much time from not commuting that they do not mind a little extra effort to make sure their performance is where it needs to be.


Third, employees are sometimes concerned that their immediate manager may think they are not working a full eight hours a day, so they give more just to ensure that it does not become an issue.


Fourth, there are often distractions at work that are avoided at home, such as frequent interruptions by coworkers, longer lunch periods, and unnecessary breaks.


These productivity payoffs are observed in both businesses and governments. For example, one case study for the Internal Revenue Service showed improvements in productivity for examiners. Essentially, they could handle more cases working at home than they did in the office.


Eliminating the commute alone means there is much less stress with this arrangement. Due to stressful commutes, employees are often frazzled when they get to work, frazzled when they get home or both.


Working at home eliminates that kind of high-­stress activity and often leads to better work–­life balance. Many people credit their work-at-home program for making their work-life balance acceptable.


However, the principle payoff for the organization is the savings in office space—­but only if the office space is given up. Sometimes an organization will let an employee work at home but still keep an office for them.


This is very inefficient, as the principal benefit is not realized. When office space is given up, there is often a tremendous saving for an organization, even taking into account the costs of the modifications necessary to make the home office acceptable.


This arrangement also brings much applause from politicians and government agencies who are trying to ease traffic congestion in cities. Some major cities around the world have such congested streets that it takes employees three to four hours to make it work and back each day. Thus some governments provide incentives for employers to let employees work at home.


In the Netherlands, a proposed law gives the employee the right to work at home. The employer must prove that it will not work.


Additionally, because automobiles are taken off the streets, there are fewer accidents and traffic incidents. Although it is not a dramatic reduction, it is certainly enough to add more monetary benefits to the ROI of working at home.


Finally, the most important benefit is the effect on the planet. Although this is not an immediate benefit for a company in terms of monetary savings, it is an intangible asset, and it is certainly a very tangible benefit for the environment, because, for each automobile that is removed from the traffic flow, the actual tonnage of carbon emissions that are prevented from going into the atmosphere can be calculated.


This is why so many environmental groups uphold working at home as a way of the future. Some environmental groups suggest that this is the single greatest action employers can take to help the environment. These benefits are huge, and when compared to the cost of the program, a very high ROI is delivered.


The FMI example represents a project that was measured all the way through to the financial ROI. In this case, 350 claims processors and claims examiners transitioned to working at home.


Although their offices at home had to be equipped with the latest technology, including security software, so that they could effectively do at home what they were doing at the office, there was still a huge ROI.


The payoffs included a reduction in office expenses by giving up the office space, reduced turnover, and increased productivity as more claims were processed at home than at the office.


When this improvement was spread over one year and compared to the cost of the program, the savings generated a 299 percent ROI, with significant intangible benefits as well.


Making It Work

Obviously, the use of home-­office arrangements, although still growing, represents only a fraction of the total workforce. It is not always appropriate, and there are some rules that must be followed to make it work:


1. It should be voluntary. Forcing individuals to work at home usually will not be successful. Individuals must also be eligible. They must understand the terms and conditions, must want to pursue it, and must follow the rules.


The office must be designed properly for efficiency, effectiveness, and well-being.

There cannot be any distractions, including parental care for children or other types of concerns.For example, there can be no television in the room where the work is being done.


There must be certain transparency procedures (like logging in and logging out each day), guidelines regarding how to make up time when hours are missed, communication requirements, and so forth. Work rules must fit the specific organization and what is comfortable for the executives and management team.


Along with work rules comes the training that is needed to ensure compliance. Not all employees know how to work remotely, although they may be convinced that they do. There must be some assurance that they understand the ground rules and that they are willing to make them work in their situation.


Parallel with the training of the employees, the managers have to have training as well. They need to know how to work with employees remotely and how to adjust to not having a person always available there at the office. 


There must be effective two-­way communication so that there is regular reporting from the employee and regular follow-­up with the manager. Good, clear communications are very critical.


Engagement must be maintained otherwise it could actually dip with a work-­at-­ home arrangement. If employees are not around their support team, receiving constant feedback from their manager and coworkers, they might not feel as actively engaged. 


Career aspects should be considered in the process. Remote employees cannot be left out of career development and career enhancement planning. They are often concerned that their career may suffer because they are not considered an integral part of the group.


Finally, all legal and compliance requirements must be followed. There must be no discrimination for this offering that would violate any of the regulations for equal employment opportunities and any other contractual or legal requirements.



The reason that working at home has not become a widespread and common practice is that there are many barriers to these types of work arrangements. Perhaps the number-­one barrier is resistance from the management group.


Most managers follow the typical command-­and-­control model, and they want to see their employees regularly so that they can control their work.


A lack of trust between managers and employees will also keep these arrangements from being effective. Managers have to trust employees to act in good faith and make it work.


Having remote employees makes some managers feel that they are less valuable to the organization. After all, if managers don’t have to be with the employees, see the employees, or meet with the employees, it might be assumed that the managers are not needed.


This concern will have to be addressed so that managers fully understand the purpose of the arrangement and how they can manage employees remotely.


Another barrier is that it doesn’t work for every job, of course. Most jobs require a presence—­in a factory, hotel, retail store, and restaurant. When a job requires employees to be at a particular place at a particular time, they will not be able to work at home.


This arrangement also doesn’t work for every employee. Almost everyone may want to take advantage of this arrangement, as it is a nice-­sounding opportunity, but there are certain personalities that cannot function alone in an office setting. To work at home, a person has to be disciplined and work well without social interaction on a routine basis.


Furthermore, this working arrangement can be abused, and this keeps many organizations from making this move. Managers may worry that employees will say that they are working when they are actually not.


Unless employee output can be easily measured and monitored, a working-­at-­home arrangement may not work.


Although its potential has been proven in even creative jobs like those of graphic designers and editors, it is certainly more effective when managers can count standardized items such as processed claims or completed transactions.


Another barrier is that employees may worry about being out of sight and out of mind—­that they may be forgotten and that their career advancement prospects will suffer because of it.


There is also a fear that engagement may be reduced without the social interaction that comes from being in the same space as coworkers.


Finally, the biggest barrier is that it represents a significant change. Some executives like to measure the magnitude of their organization by the number of employees that they can actually see, the big buildings they occupy, and the large meetings that they can conduct. A remote workforce, no matter how vast, is not quite so visible.


Along with the barriers come the enablers, and there are many of them, as this section has already detailed. As evidenced by studies, there are many benefits of working at home for employees and for the organization.


It is a good financial investment for an organization to pursue. Perhaps the most important benefit is the reduction in traffic congestion and environmental pollution.


This is why this kind of arrangement is pushed by government agencies, environmental groups, and technology companies who indicate that they can now duplicate the work at the office in the home office. The technology is there, the reasons are there, and this should be an important consideration going forward.


Involve Top Executives in the Engagement Process

The role of top executives is very critical in any process, but particularly with engagement. With so much evidence that engagement adds value and so much potential for it to add more, most executives are willing to step up and commit resources, time, and effort to make sure that engagement works. This involves several areas:


Commitment. The first executive action is committing resources, staff, and other processes to make sure that engagement is properly developed, implemented, and supported in the organization.


Communication. Employees carefully weigh messages from the senior executive team, and what the team says about the engagement process sets the tone for others.


It also shows the position of executives. Top executives should be involved in major announcements, the rollout of programs, and even progress assessments. When major actions are taken as a result of engagement input, top executives should be involved as well.


Involvement. Top executives must be involved in these programs. They should kick off programs and moderate town-­hall meetings about engagement. They should participate in learning programs on preparing leaders and managers to build engagement in the organization.


Recognition. Top executives have to recognize those who are doing the best job. The best way to recognize exemplars of engagement is to promote them, reward them, and publicly recognize them. Engagement data should be placed alongside key operating results for this to be effective.


Support. Support is more than just providing resources and recognizing those who achieve results; it also means supporting the programs, encouraging people to be involved, and encouraging others to take action. This shows that leaders genuinely support these programs and their success.


Long-Term Thinking. Engagement cannot be seen as a fad that comes through the organization only to be abandoned for the next fad.


Too often this occurs in organizations—­executives work on “engagement” this year, and “lean thinking” the next year, and “open-­book management” the next. The key is to stay with it and make it work.


Reference. Refer to engagement often, as a driver of gross productivity, a driver of sales, and a driver of profits. Making reference to engage regularly in meetings, reports, press releases, and annual shareholder meetings brings the importance of the process into focus.


Collectively, these efforts from top executives, which are often coordinated by the chief human resources officer, will make a difference in the success of the engagement effort.


Empower Managers and Leaders to Build Engagement

First-­level managers are key in the organization. They are in the position to make or break engagement, and they have to be prepared for it.


The first step is to conduct learning programs where the issue of engagement is discussed—­how they can encourage it, support it, and build it in their work teams.


This provides not only awareness of engagement but skill-­building around the components of engagement to make the process successful in the organization.


Most important, first-­level managers must understand why engagement makes a difference. They must become role models of engagement and take an active part in ensuring that employees are empowered, are involved in key decisions, and assume ownership and accountability for what they do.


Managers must demonstrate what has to be done to make the engagement process work, and they must genuinely support it. They must reinforce the concept of engagement, reinforce what it means to them, and reinforce their roles in the process.


Much of this involves learning—­learning what engagement is about and what makes it work but also learning what it can do for the organization.


Position engagement as a process similar to sales training for a sales team, or production training for the production group, or IT training for the IT staff. This is an important process that managers must learn, apply, and use to drive results.


This also means that they have to redefine success. Success is not just knowing something but making it work and have an impact. Making it work involves the behaviors that are exhibited as people collaborate to complete projects, but the impact must show up in improved measures of productivity, innovation, quality, and efficiency.


First-­level managers are critical, as they must use all the tools generated around engagement. The HR team offers the many processes and tools to be implemented, but the frontline leaders can make the difference in the success of the process by using the tools appropriately, following up to make sure they work, and reporting issues and concerns back to the HR team.


Measure the Progress and Impact of Engagement

Measurement for this process involves several issues. The first one is measuring the progress with engagement through an annual survey. This assesses the actual perceptions of employees about the progress they are making. The annual survey must include several major elements to make it successful.


It must be carefully planned, sometimes even with input from those who are being assessed.

The data must be collected anonymously or confidentially. This is a time to collect candid feedback on the progress being made.

The data must be reported back to the respondents quickly so that they can see what the group has said locally and globally.


There must be follow up, some immediately, some later—­all in reference to the engagement program. This survey- feedback-action loop will ensure that the process is taken seriously. 


Another measurement issue is linking the engagement scores to a variety of outcome measures such as productivity, sales, retention, quality, safety, and so on.  It is an important way for the organization, executives, and the HR team to see the value of this important process.


Success should also be measured in terms of individual projects, such as leadership communications, coaching, team building, management development, and leadership development. These are all programs that often involve parts of the engagement process.


It is helpful to connect particular programs not only to engagement but to individual measures that may improve in this process. An example of this is a program involving managers at a retail fashion store where they were involved in a variety of leadership initiatives that also played into the engagement process.


Finally, measuring ROI is the mandate for many top executives. If the CHRO can show executives the return on investing in engagement, it reinforces their commitment to make this process work, and it often improves not only their relationship with those involved in engagement but also their respect for the entire talent management and human resources function.


Pushing at least some of the programs to the ROI level is very helpful, and ultimately it is possible to show the ROI of the entire engagement process. This is something that is covered amply in other resources.


Implications for Human Capital Strategy

This blog has highlighted the importance of engagement, which causes employees to become more involved in and committed to their work. Several elements affect employee engagement. The human capital strategy should consider these issues:

  • The definition of engagement
  • The role of engagement in the organization
  • The organization’s structure and process to drive engagement
  • Responsibility for the implementation of engagement
  • The engagement implementation model
  • The measurement strategy for engagement
  • Workplace design to enable engagement
  • Alternative work systems to maintain engagement


Build Global Leaders

This blog discusses the importance of developing global leaders and the human resources role in that challenge. Few things are more important to an organization than having great leadership, as leaders make the difference in the organization’s success, sustainability, and impact on shareholders, customers, employees, and the community.


Opening Stories

Investment in leadership development is at an all time high. Here are three examples of leadership development approaches.


Agilent Technologies

This manufacturer of instruments and equipment for life sciences, healthcare, and the chemical industry has introduced a leadership effectiveness analysis program, which has led to improvements across a number of key business outcomes.


Introduced by incoming chief executive Bill Sullivan, the program has changed the strategic intent of the company through leadership excellence and created a set of expectations for leaders to fulfill.


The analysis takes the form of a leadership audit, with the questions adjusted over time to reflect not only changes in the business but also changes in leadership measurements.


The results of the surveys are measured against external norms rather than against previous survey results. Once scores for particular traits have reached a level that is considered top quartile and it is clear that particular leadership quality has become embedded in the company, new questions are introduced.


This leadership effectiveness analysis has enabled Agilent to develop different expectations of leaders at different levels, based on a “core” of expectations running all the way through the business. The analysis has become part of the DNA of the company and has a participation rate of 89 percent.


The program was implemented from the C-­suite downward in order to ensure that when leaders began participating in the program, their own managers were already fully supportive of it.


The analysis provides Agilent’s twelve thousand employees with a reliable, consistent understanding of what leadership is and ensures that every business leader is following the same path.


This has helped Agilent, which operates across many sites and has made a number of acquisitions in the past six years, ensure that its leadership is aligned across the company.


In addition to surveying its employees, Agilent also surveys its customers, and it has found that customers and employees give similar feedback, underlining the value of the program.


It should come as no surprise that Agilent’s customer loyalty and customer satisfaction ratings are better than those of its best-­in-­class competitors.


In addition, the program has helped to create a company-­wide understanding of the direction of the company, as set out by the chief executive, and employee retention is better than the market average. The program has also helped Agilent attract new talent, with acceptance rates now above 90 percent.


Ultimately, Agilent has seen a marked improvement in the leadership of the company, as the analysis has helped identify managers who are struggling to lead their teams effectively and the specific areas in which they are struggling.


This has enabled HR to provide targeted support for these leaders, pairing them with mentors, teaching best practices, and working closely with them to improve their leadership skills.



This food and beverage company based in New York is focusing heavily on leadership development programs to support its managers. While the company generally takes a top-­down approach to training, the company found that new managers have a high risk of failure without the right support.


This led PepsiCo to begin its leadership program with individuals assuming a management role for the first time.


The First Time Manager program was implemented because new managers benefit from greater support following their promotion.


The program is a global one, and as the company works on a governance model, all the company’s sector chief HR officers were in favor of initiating the leadership transition suite of programs by first focusing on the transition from individual contributor to manager.


In addition, a global task force was set up to assist with the design of the program. It takes the form of a two-­day residential course, followed by eighteen months of continuous learning, with participants undertaking regular tasks, readings, and so on to provide a combination of both active and passive learning.


The course focuses on teaching newly promoted managers the value of the role of a manager and adapting to a “manager mindset,” and it provides guidance on how managers should adjust their time usage to ensure that they are properly delegating while at the same time building on the talent within their team.


PepsiCo has also introduced a Leaders of Managers program, as the second offering in its leadership-­transition suite of programs, for the managers of managers.


It covers a number of core skills, including business acumen, strategy, collaboration, talent management, and global mindset, and the course is a combination of leader-­led learning and business simulation.


As a highly diverse company, both geographically and sectorally, with twenty-­ two billion-­dollar brands, PepsiCo believes that the biggest impact of its leadership programs has been in helping managers to take a more global and cross-­functional approach—­giving them a greater understanding of the impact of decisions made at the local level on the rest of the company.


The program has also assisted managers in building networks throughout the company outside of their own region and line of business.



IAMGOLD Corporation is a mid-tier Canadian gold mining company engaged inter-nationally in mining and the exploration of gold. IAMGOLD has operations in North America, South America, and West Africa.


The foundation of the company’s culture is a belief in engaging, empowering, and supporting employees to build a company where the pursuit of excellence and an industry-­leading vision of account-able mining exist in harmony. 


IAMGOLD was facing a typical challenge. Survey data taken from its employee engagement survey was much lower than expected, indicating that the first level of management needed leadership help and pointed to a need for formal leadership development.


In response to this, IAMGOLD Corporation designed and implemented its comprehensive Supervisory Leadership Development Program (SLDP). The objective was to build a leadership pipeline while developing supervisory capabilities to engage, empower, and support employees.


The program was highly visible, linked to key business objectives, and required substantial resources for the design and implementation, which covered a three-­year timeframe.


The project involved fourteens days of leadership development coupled with 360-­degree feedback processes and a team of individuals to make it successful. In all, nearly 1,000 managers would be trained at a cost of more than $6 million.


These factors and a need to measure program success and improvement opportunities led to an evaluation study using the ROI Methodology.


It is important to note that many of the supervisors in West Africa and South America lack formal education and many even have literacy problems. Consequently, SLDP was experiential in nature and offered creative, engaging activities for learners to explore and arrive at new meanings.


Transfer of learning was built into the program, and each activity seamlessly linked to the next segment of learning. The program was delivered in three languages to meet the specific linguistic needs of each site.


The evaluation study found that the SLDP favorably impacted several of IAM-GOLD’s key business measures, and a positive ROI of 46% was realized. Other intangible benefits not converted to the monetary value included improving supervisory effectiveness, which ultimately impacted employee engagement.


From a program perspective, this evaluation highlighted the importance of top-­down leadership development. With all of this in mind, IAMGOLD is now pursuing the development of a Manager Leadership Development Program (MLDP).


As the MLDP is implemented, pieces of SLDP will also be redesigned for use with the general employee population, ensuring effective sustainability of the program.


Global Leadership Is Crucial

In a world of strident shareholder demand, shifting business priorities, disruptive innovation, rapidly changing demographics and geopolitical forces, regulatory changes, and increasingly competitive business environments, leaders who envision and execute today’s strategy as well as anticipate and prepare for tomorrow’s challenges are more critical than ever.


Leaders are expected to demonstrate a deep understanding of their organization’s business as well as its products and services, master the nuances of global markets, and conduct themselves in ethical ways.


They must respond quickly to competitive maneuvers, foster innovation, communicate a compelling vision, and develop not only their globally distributed teams but also the next generation of leaders, all while delivering long-­term value measured by short-­term results.


Becoming such a leader is like reaching the Mt. Everest of leadership development—­and attainment is elusive. The results of failure to produce such leaders are often public, usually pronounced, and always profound.


Yet strong leaders can be developed if organizations, business leaders, and those who head leadership development functions create the systems, processes, involvement, and accountability that are crucial to success.


Some organizations seem to have reached the summit. Others struggle against the vertical climb. Still, others remain unable to gain a foothold. It’s not going to get any easier.


Global Leadership Defined

What makes an effective, successful global leader? What does it take to be successful, and how is that success determined? Is the success to be evaluated quarterly and based on results delivered to the satisfaction of analysts and shareholders?


Is it to be judged by results delivered during the tenure in the role, over the course of a lifetime of leadership, or ultimately by the future success of the company, business unit, or team after the leader has departed?


What role does character play in this examination of business impact? What characteristics and competencies of a leader distinguish the “best” from the merely “very good”?


As a core criterion, the expectation of leaders has always been to “get the job done” by managing assets and people in a complex global environment. Often missing has been a more holistic view of the process in terms of how to motivate, engage, reward, and lead employees.


Twentieth-­century research began to crystallize the way effective organizational leaders are viewed and subsequently developed. Few depictions of effective leadership have withstood the test of time as well as that of Peter Drucker, who articulated the eight core practices of the effective leaders he worked with over his sixty-­year career.


According to Drucker, effective leaders do the following:

  • Ask, “What needs to be done?”
  • Ask, “What is right for the enterprise?”
  • Develop action plans.
  • Take responsibility for decisions.
  • Take responsibility for communicating.
  • Are focused on opportunities rather than on problems.
  • Run productive meetings.
  • Think and say “we” rather than “I.”


As he saw it, these questions “gave them the knowledge they needed . . . helped them convert this knowledge into action . . . [and] ensured that the whole organization felt responsible and accountable.” Jim Collins offered that in addition to IQ and technical skills, these five emotional intelligence attributes characterize the true leader:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skill

“Level 5 leaders,” as he described them, credit others with success yet assume personal responsibility for failure. These leaders are characterized by humility and a will to succeed that does not tolerate mediocrity; they are quietly and calmly determined to succeed.


Over the years, we’ve seen the “one-­minute manager” joined by the “situational leader” and the “servant leader” and by those leaders who are “values-driven,” “principle-centered,” and searching for “true north” or “multipliers.”


While definitions will undoubtedly continue to evolve, the fundamental description of a leader as one who delivers results in a way that affirms, engages, inspires, and respects others is unlikely to fade from view.


The Forces for Effective Global Leadership

Effective global leadership is critical to success, and often the survival, of corporations. In recent years, we have witnessed the demise or serious crippling of companies because of the inability of leaders to competently and ethically lead, creating a breach of trust with the public as well as with employees.


Newspaper headlines and, in some cases, high-­profile trials remind us of the failures of leadership.


They are not confined to a particular region or industry, as scandals surrounding such companies as WorldCom, Satyam Computer Services, Adelphia, Parmalat, Tyco International, Clearstream, Enron, Global Crossing, and Arthur Anderson can attest. While most companies do not make the headlines for their leadership failures, they are all accountable for business results.


CEOs Care About Leadership

In the years since the global financial crisis, companies and their leaders have been shifting from survival mode to a business growth approach. It is no wonder that leadership development was on the minds of CEOs around the world when they responded to The Conference Board’s annual CEO Challenge survey.5 When asked to rank their top challenges for the coming year, they ranked business growth first.


The surprise was that, after an absence from the 2009 and 2010 “top ten” findings, talent emerged as the second-­most important global challenge; Asian CEOs ranked it number one, ahead of business growth.


CEOs thought talent, innovation, and cost optimization would fuel business growth. When asked about the strategies CEOs would implement to address the talent challenge, these were the top ten:


  • Improve leadership development programs; grow talent internally.
  • Enhance the effectiveness of the senior management team.
  • Provide employee training and development.
  • Improve leadership succession planning.
  • Hire more talent in the open market.
  • Promote and reward entrepreneurship and risk-taking.
  • Raise employee engagement.
  • Increase diversity and cross-­cultural competencies.
  • Flatten the organization, and empower leadership from the bottom up.
  • Redesign financial rewards and incentives.


Even a cursory read of the top strategies indicates a focus on internal leadership (improving the existing internal leadership base, especially at the top of the house; up-­skilling all employees; improving leadership succession) before fighting for talent in the open market.


In Asia, where talent was scarce before the global financial crisis, “hiring more talent in the open market” was ranked eleventh, with an internal development and retention focus being preferred, as qualified talent is both scarce and expensive.


Asian leaders understand that they must build leaders faster than the global competition. Two things distinguish the approach of Asian companies: attention to the specific developmental needs of the individual leader and (2) the speed with which they accelerate the development of key talent through experience, exposure, and customized training programs.


Customers and Consumers Care About Leadership

We live in an age when maintaining an organization’s reputation and brand management is a constant challenge. Of the many ways corporate reputations are made and lost, few factors are more important than the quality of their leaders.


Consumers are negatively influenced by headlines of errant and unethical behavior and positively influenced by lists of most-­admired companies, especially those touted for their strong managerial practices.


Consumers and customers have strong brand affiliations, product dependencies (e.g., prescriptions or replacement parts), and business affiliations that would be difficult to replace, and they take note of leadership behaviors.


Knowing that raw materials are harvested in a sustainable way, that clothing is not manufactured by the use of child labor, that executives are not “tone deaf” to the average citizen, and that the stock market is still a fair and level playing field is important to consumers.


In a world of choices, they will provide feedback by remaining loyal to a brand or by choosing a competitor for essentially the same prod-uct. They often share their thoughts and feelings among the members of their social networks with messages and postings that seem to never fade from the Internet.


Shareholders Care About Leadership

Those shareholders whose investment dollars and pension funds balance on the edge and are subject to mismanagement lost revenue, and missed opportunity costs pay close attention.


They are looking for superior returns and believe that those returns are the result of well-­run companies led by ethical leaders. Analysts agree. There is mounting evidence of a direct correlation between effective leadership and business results.


In their examination of CEO performance at publicly traded companies, researchers found that the “best-­performing CEOs in the world” came from many countries and industries, and on average, those CEOs delivered a total shareholder return of 997 percent (adjusted for exchange-­rate effects) during their tenure.


On average, these top fifty CEOs increased the wealth of their companies’ shareholders by $48.2 billion (adjusted for inflation, dividends, share repurchases, and share issues).


Internal Stakeholders Care About Leadership

In an era of increased scrutiny of virtually all expenditures, accountability for the development of leaders, particularly at the top, will only increase. Significant resources continue to be devoted to developing leaders.


The Association for Talent Development (ATD) estimates that, even in the midst of the global financial crisis, U.S. companies alone spent just under $126 billion per year on employee learning and development; slightly more than 10 percent of that expenditure was devoted to developing leaders and managers, and an additional 4 percent was expended on executive development.


The inability to determine whether or not resources have been expended wisely cannot be sustained in most corporate environments, even when we intuitively believe that leadership development (along with all employee development) is a noble pursuit.


Current and Prospective Employees Care About Leadership

Effective leaders create a culture that serves as a magnet for attracting top talent. With each generation entering the workplace, a greater emphasis is placed on continual development, as these new employees know that they are unlikely to stay more than a few years; it’s about what they can develop, acquire, and take with them to the next step in their career journey.


We know that effective leaders are one of the most important influences on levels of engagement. Recent research reaffirms the correlation between engagement and the leaders’ ability to do the following:


  • Develop a positive and significant relationship with each employee.
  • Provide constructive performance feedback often.
  • Coach employees.
  • Provide opportunities to grow and develop.
  • Set a clear direction—­at whatever level is appropriate.
  • Communicate not only corporate strategic goals but also progress toward those goals.
  • Act in ways that are consistent with words.


Higher rates of engagement translate into higher rates of retention, an important factor in retaining talent in an increasingly competitive job market. In a world in which fewer than one in three employees are engaged, trust in executives can have a significant impact on engagement.


Other Stakeholders Care About Leadership

In an increasingly interconnected world, there are many stakeholders whose fortunes and fates are inextricably linked to successful leaders and the leadership development (LD) programs that create and support them:


The families of employees who have offered their talents and energy in return for current compensation and, in many cases, future retirement and security. Taxpayers called upon to “bail out” specific companies or even entire industries when economic stability hangs in the balance. 


Communities that stand to benefit from business profits that are poured back into the community in the form of goods and services purchased from local companies, as well as scholarships, endowments, and sponsorships.


Current Status of Leadership Development

There is no doubt that leadership development is important, and it has changed dramatically in the past decade. Starting many years ago as typical classroom training on the principles of leadership, it has evolved into a critical part of organizational growth and development.


How leaders are selected for programs and the specific ways in which programs are offered and structured are significant issues that define the current status.


How Leaders Are Selected for Development

Because leadership development can be one of the most expensive types of development (it is not uncommon for it to be four or five times the expenditure made for other employees), the selection is usually a thoughtful process.


At higher levels in the organization, participants in LD programs are often selected by one or a combination of the following methods:

Cumulative data from performance management systems and/or past talent review discussions


Assessment results

Individual assessment (including a 360-­degree instrument and/or psychological profiles) and custom developmental plans based on the outcomes of that assessment


Participation in an “assessment center” exercise

Testing (the test needs to be subjected to validity and reliability checks to determine the value of administration)


Behavioral or structured interviews

At lower levels, participants are often “selected in” versus “screened out” and enter into an LD program by virtue of a promotion or a change in job title. For example, all new supervisors may be automatically enrolled in a particular program.


How Leaders Are Developed

Lewis Carroll, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, wrote, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” This is also true with leadership development.


Unless there is a clear roadmap, it is indeed a lovely journey but one without a destination or committed travelers. The methods for development are varied, and many are combined into programs and initiatives of infinite variety:


  • Formal training, usually in a classroom (a virtual or “brick and mortar” one)
  • Informal learning including self-­guided or structured content (books, online learning, audio/video podcasts, etc.)
  • Action learning (with a focus on strategic planning or innovation)
  • Job shadowing
  • Coaching (either internal or external)
  • Mentoring
  • Experiential learning
  • Stretch assignments
  • Simulations
  • Community involvement
  • “Community of practice” or network involvement
  • Short-term rotational assignments
  • Long-term international assignments


Years ago, researchers created assignment log, a way of mapping standard leadership competencies to specific opportunities for development, such as serving on a task force, chairing a major initiative, or assuming a role with a greatly expanded scope.


The science of knowing what developmental experiences will result in specific competency improvements (and, by extension, what will not) is an extraordinary global positioning system in a world of increasingly fewer marked paths.


The Myth of 70–­20–­10

The time devoted to learning about leadership is a critical issue. For decades, there has been an assumption that 70 percent of the time should be spent on the job with actual experiences, 20 percent learning from others (usually through coaching, mentoring, shadowing, and role modeling), and 10 percent in formal leadership development programs (in the classroom, e-­learning, or blended learning).


This ratio comes from leaders who were asked to reflect on how they learned effective leadership.


As you can imagine, there has always been a small amount of time in classroom leadership development, so their input naturally reflected a small amount in the formal learning category.


The rest of it was their best guess of what has hap-pened—­it was never meant to be a prescription of what should be done! It’s safe to assume that there is not enough formal learning provided during a person’s career, at least in most organizations.


A better approach is to ask leaders how they want to learn—­what their preference is. A recent study by The Conference Board and Development Dimensions International (DDI) involved more than 13,000 leaders, 1,500 global human resources executives, and 2,000 participating organizations.


The 70–­20–­10 ratio is the perception, but the reality in terms of time spent for this group in learning about leadership is closer to 55–­25–­20.


When this data was sorted for those individuals who have the highest-­quality leadership, the ratio is 52–­27–­21. While this reflects the reality of what is happening in organizations, the important issue is what is preferred.


This same group was asked to indicate how much additional time they would like to spend on leadership development per month.


The average response was that they spent 5.4 hours per month now, and they desired 8.1 hours, with a difference of 2.7 hours, almost an additional week for a year.


When asked how they would prefer to spend their time, 76 percent of them said on formal learning, whereas 71 percent said learning from others. Only 26 percent said they wanted to spend it on the job.


These data clearly show what many have experienced: that the 70–­20–­10 rule does not reflect reality, and it should not be used to prescribe a process; it is merely a reflection on what has occurred in the past. It is much better to plan the proper mix around the needs of the organization and the needs of the leaders.


How Leadership Development Programs Are Structured

There will always be a need for a structured process of developing leaders. Simply dropping talented and successful individual contributors into the “manager’s chair” robs them of the opportunity to continue to be successful in a completely new situation. It also runs the risk of doing not only professional harm to the individual but also organizational harm to those he or she impacts.


This critical juncture in a career should be carefully managed, and all stakeholders need to be involved for mutual success to occur. Deploying new leaders to different environments or challenging situations without careful planning and support is not a recipe for success.


Simply hiring a new CEO from the outside without considering the cultural assimilation challenges, as well as the internal communications and talent implications, is terribly shortsighted.


Assess the bench strength of the current leadership, and develop targeted plans to address deficiencies or placement issues for individuals as well as organizational talent gaps that could impact the execution of the strategy.


  • Identify possible successors for critical roles.
  • Enhance the effectiveness of current leaders by building specific competencies and/or reducing the potential for “derailers.”
  • Accelerate the development of high-­potential and emerging leaders.
  • Develop a strong leadership bench.
  • Set standards of behavior and cultural norms.
  • Leverage leaders’ ability to develop and engage their employees, leading to increased levels of productivity, engagement, and retention.


The structure and effectiveness of LD programs are highly variable and, on the whole, disappointingly ineffective. Research indicates that these programs are “immature,” according to a leadership development maturity model:


“Inconsistent management training” is the lowest level of maturity, reflective of a program that lacks development process and has no involvement of business leaders but where content is available and viewed as a “benefit” to employees (47 percent).


“Structured leadership training” is characterized by the development of competencies and a clearly defined curriculum, where management begins to embrace and support initiatives and programs (27 percent).


“Focused leadership development” is culture-­setting and future-­focused, where individuals are assessed and thought of as corporate assets and where the organization’s leadership needs are factored into the process (16 percent).


“Strategic leadership development” is where development is championed by executives who take their own development seriously and all aspects of talent management are integrated (11 percent).


So is anyone implementing leadership development well? Research by the Hay Group highlights many companies and their “best practices” approaches to leadership development, characterized by the following:


  • Strong executive involvement
  • Use of tailored leadership competencies
  • Alignment with the business strategy
  • A “leaders at all levels” approach
  • An integrated talent management strategy in which leadership development plays an integral role


These findings are echoed in Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s most admired companies, which provides insight into the choices these companies make about leadership development. The Hay Group’s research also reveals the following about successful organizations:


  • Ninety percent expect employees to lead, whether or not they have a formal position of authority.
  • One hundred percent manage a pool of successors for mission-­critical roles.
  • Ninety percent collect leadership development best practices from subsidiaries and share them across the organization.
  • One hundred percent give all employees the opportunity to develop and practice the capabilities needed to lead.


The structure of leadership development will naturally shift to reflect the organizational models it supports. As command-­and-­control hierarchies intersect with social networks and team organizational structures, so will formal, rigid development programs morph into more flexible, customizable solutions for developing leaders.


Leadership in the twenty-­first century is about leading at all levels, not restricting it to the title. As organizations become flatter, the best leaders are learning they must check their egos at the door and become increasingly sensitive to diversity, generational, and geographical issues.” 


One such customized approach can be seen at Bristol-­Myers Squibb, which has found ways to customize leadership development through the use of blended learning, coaching, mentoring, and social networking.


Managing Versus Leading

An important challenge in organizations is to increase the number of time leaders actually spend on leading instead of managing. Leaders spend much of their time on classic management activities of planning, organization, and control.


For example, developing plans, controlling the budget, and handling administrative work are all more managerial activities. Leading involves skill sets that include interaction with employees. The study found that leaders who spent more time interacting are more effective at these skills:


  • Coaching and developing others
  • Communicating and interacting with others
  • Developing strong networks/partnerships
  • Fostering employee creativity and innovation
  • Identifying and developing future talent


This has been a classic issue with organizations that value spending more time on managing and less time on leading. In this particular study, 41 percent of leaders’ time spent was spent on managing versus 25 percent on leading.


However, leaders preferred to spend 22 percent on managing and 40 percent on leading. The Communicating and interacting with others

  • Building consensus and commitment
  • Coaching and developing others
  • Managing and successfully introducing change
  • Developing strong networks/partnerships
  • Identifying and developing future talent
  • Inspiring others toward a challenging future vision
  • Fostering employee creativity and innovation
  • Leading across generations
  • Integrating oneself into foreign environments
  • Intercultural communication


Leading across countries and cultures the challenge for organizations, therefore, is to encourage and build environments to support, spending more time on leading, which is where most of the payoff will be.


Global Versus Local Leadership Programs

For global organizations, an important challenge is to determine who controls the leadership development and talent development programs. In some organizations, the programs are dictated by the corporate headquarters to ensure consistency with the mission, vision, and values of the organization.


At the opposite extreme, programs all are locally owned, developed in the countries where their leaders reside to address the needs and cultural issues in that area.


Both of these extremes are not ideal. The better approach is to have a good balance of both corporate and local control. Certainly, corporate should be more involved in mid-­ to high-­level leadership development, whereas frontline leadership development should typically be a balance between local and corporate control.


Succession planning, on the other hand, is a local issue, involving candidates in specific areas, and local leaders often know their areas best. Balancing leadership development is an important consideration in the human capital strategy.


Common Challenges in Implementing Leadership Development

For those of us who have labored in the leadership development field for years, the challenges of getting it “right” at any company are at once unique and yet quite common. The details may be different at each organization, but these common challenges are ubiquitous:

  • No clear vision of what individual leadership looks like at the organization now
  • No clear vision of what organizational capacity looks like now
  • No clear vision of what leadership should look like in the future

Failure to gain consensus and commitment from senior leadership about the leadership model, behaviors, and pertinent corporate policies


The absence of accountability of leaders to develop others and lead by example

  • Lack of specific, descriptive behavioral anchors that help leaders clearly understand what is expected and accepted
  • A patchwork of leadership development programs that do not link to each other or to other talent management practices
  • Lack of a clear definition of success for a program or initiative
  • The absence of executive sponsorship, particularly by the CEO


The perception that this is an “HR thing”

  • Disconnection of leadership development from conversations and presentations about strategic direction and/or key performance indicators
  • Lack of adequate resources to fully execute programs and initiatives
  • An inability to articulate the impact of LD programs, initiatives, and resource deployments in business terms


The Success and Failure of Leadership Development

The success factors for leadership development are identified from the barriers and enablers of successful leadership development. When leadership development is successful, the enablers to that success are identified and isolated. When leadership development fails, the barriers that caused the failure are isolated as well.


A failure does not necessarily mean that the program did not deliver a positive return on investment or even influence significant business impact measures.


A failure is described as a program not living up to its expectations—­not achieving the established impact or ROI objectives. It could have been more successful if adjustments or changes had been made; it will achieve success if changes are made going forward.


The data for the success factors are identified in a variety of sources. The most important sources are the ROI studies conducted by the officers, consultants, associates, and partners of the ROI Institute.


Each year, this team is involved in approximately 100 to 150 leadership development studies, and each study reveals important issues about failure and success factors. In the case of disappointments, the data show the cause of the disappointment (i.e., barriers that must change in the program to generate more success).


From time to time, the ROI Institute conducts reviews of these studies to determine the general barriers and enablers to success. Failure is divided into three categories. In the worst-­case scenario, the studies are negative, delivering less value than the cost of the program.


These are failures that present serious disappointments and the lessons learned are very clear. The second category is when success has not been achieved at the minimal targets defined by the impact and ROI objectives.


While these programs have positive results, they do not meet expectations; there are opportunities for improvement that will drive more success. A third category consists of programs that exceed the objectives and show additional potential.


While these programs are successful, if adjustments are made, they can be more so. These adjustments are vital because maximization of the value delivered is always a goal of success.


These distinctions are made because of the impact of leadership development, when properly designed and implemented, can be considerable, sometimes ranging from 300 to 1,000 percent return on investment.


Consider the impact created when a leader changes his or her behavior and it affects the entire team. For example, for a first-­level team leader in a call center with twenty direct reports, the impact would be the improvement of the team.


If productivity (e.g., call volume) improves because of the leadership development, the team’s productivity is measured.


When the monetary value from the team’s improvement is compared to the cost of the formal learning for the team leader, the ROI value can be significant.


In our experience at the ROI Institute, when this leverage or multiplicative effect is explained to chief financial officers, they understand the value of leadership development.


Consequently, we should expect high returns on investment from leadership development; if they are not there, we should determine what can be done to improve them.


In addition to examination of ROI studies, research began with an examination of the literature, probing into both the failures and the success factors of leadership development.


Next, a survey was conducted with LD organizers: those who organize, coordinate, or facilitate leadership development and are often aware of the causes of failure. For the most part, these results parallel what the ROI Institute team has uncovered in the analysis of its studies.


What Does the Future Hold for Leadership Development?

The ability to develop leaders more quickly and efficiently will become a competitive advantage for those companies who do this successfully.


This concept of flexible and adaptive leadership is well suited for our turbulent times. One of the best crucibles for developing adaptive leaders in the military. Four principles have served military leaders well:


  • Create a personal link, which is crucial to leading people through challenging times.
  • Make good and timely calls, which is the crux of responsibility in a leadership position.
  • Establish a common purpose, buttress those who will help you achieve it, and eschew personal gain.
  • Make the objectives clear, but avoid micromanaging those who will execute them.
  • Success factors for leadership development.
  • Align the program to business measures in the beginning.
  • Identify specific behavior changes needed for the target audience.
  • Identify the learning needs for the target audience.
  • Establish application and impact objectives for LD programs.
  • Involve the right people at the right time.
  • Design leadership development for successful learning and application.
  • Create expectations to achieve results and provide data.
  • Address the learning transfer issue early and often.
  • Establish supportive partnerships with key managers.


  • 10. Select the proper data sets for the desired evaluation level.
  • 11. Build data collection into the process and position it as an application tool.
  • 12. Always isolate the effects of the program on impact data.
  • 13. Be proactive and develop impact and ROI analyses for major programs.
  • 14. Use data collected at different levels for adjustments and improvements.


Another core skill for future leaders will be the ability to thrive (not simply survive) in a permanent crisis; this VUCA world (VUCA is a term that originated in military circles, which means volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) means a never-­ending series of strategy refreshes, setbacks, and unexpected opportunities.


Many believe that effective leaders in this environment will need to foster adaptation, embrace disequilibrium, and generate leadership at all levels of the organization.


Where will we find such leaders? Some suggest that we expand our search to include different markets, emerging economies, and differing cultural values—­ finding leaders who have forged their leadership skills in the crucible of resistance to apartheid, the growth trajectory of emerging markets, or during stints with mission-­driven entities addressing humanitarian crises around the world.


The models are there; the largest India-­based companies provide leadership lessons in terms of where and how they focus their energy and their emphasis on being transformational leaders.


So many types of experiential learning are finding their way into corporate leadership development programs at industry-­leading companies such as UBS and IBM.


Leadership development will morph and adapt, just as the leaders, it attempts to create must do. But one thing will remain constant: the need to articulate the impact of such a major investment.


The journey is always the same for leadership development; at the end of the day, learning to effectively lead people remains a transformational process. It is always about how willing someone is to make himself or herself the lesser so that someone else can be the greater.


Many approaches can be successful, given the right support, the right timing, and the right alignment with corporate imperatives. While setting the course is difficult, attaining the results is even more challenging.


One study of leadership competencies that matter most for growth (which, according to the authors, constitute “the Holy Grail of corporate strategy”) reveals that great leaders are very rare indeed.


Some companies have found a way. There is no one path; there is no one correct answer. There are, however, correct questions:

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • How aligned are you with the organizational strategy?
  • Who will be the champion(s)?
  • What specifically will you do? For how long? In what way? What methods will you use?
  • Who will be selected to participate, and on the basis of what criteria?
  • How integrated is this into every other aspect of talent management?
  • How will you measure success?
  • How will you articulate success?


Competing Product Managers

We had one development team and two product managers, Alex and me. I needed the development team to work on my product upgrade. I made an appointment for a one-on-one with Alex to work it out.


I asked, “Alex, I need the development team to work on my product upgrade. When are they going to be done with your product?”

“Not for another three months.”


I sat up, concerned. “Wait a minute. You’ve had that team for six months already. My product needs another release sooner than that. I have requests from our customers, and the corporate roadmap says I need to release in just three months. If they can’t work on my project, how can I get a release out in three months? What’s the delay from?”


Alex sighed and said, “Well, we had trouble getting the requirements done, so that was a delay. Then we had trouble with the functional specs.


It turns out the requirements were still a bit vague, so we had to revisit everything during the spec stage. I insisted that they work on all the features at the same time, so the testers can’t start because nothing is done enough for them to test.”


I left and walked around the floor a couple of times to calm down. What was I going to do? I turned around and strode into my manager’s office. I said, “I need help. I won’t get the project team for months. I’m so frustrated. We need to work toward the whole organization’s goal, not just one product manager’s goal.”


Alex and his managers made several classic mistakes:

Thinking that his project was alone—not considering the rest of the portfolio in his planning

Insisting on a serial lifecycle when there was a known time constraint for his project

Not encouraging the project team to implement and test by feature, so they could stop at some time, even if that time was not when the project would complete all the requirements


If Leah and Alex—or their management—had reviewed the portfolio more often, Alex would have avoided the first mistake of thinking he had the only project and would have had a chance to revisit the other mistakes earlier in the project.


Without someone making portfolio decisions, Alex quite correctly thinks he has access to all the people he needs for as long as he needs. That’s fine for Alex’s project, but not for the rest of the organization.


Incentives Push People Toward Zero-Sum Behavior

Sometimes your organization inadvertently encourages behavior they don’t want. For example, some incentives encourage managers to think about their project or customer first while you really want everyone to think about the overall picture.


These incentives are based on an individual’s ability to push through his or her initiatives using a common pool of developers, testers, and business analysts, regardless of whether that individual’s project is a higher rank than any others.


This confusion happens when an organization misapplies Management by Objective (MBO) and senior managers respond by optimizing from the bottom of the organization instead of from the top.


We Can Suggest, Not Commit

We were having trouble with our projects—every single one was late, everyone had too many defects, and the customers always wanted something different once they received the product. We had too many concurrent projects. So, we decided to organize the portfolio.


It took us the better part of a day, but we finally came up with a ranked list of five projects. We assigned people to those projects and put the other projects on our unstaffed work list. That worked for all of three days.


Then our director, Dave, came up to Susan and asked why she wasn’t working on Project. She replied at the time, “Because it’s not on our list of projects to do now; it’s on our list to start after these five projects.”


People Are Arguing Based on Position, Not Principle

Sometimes, when everyone brings a strawman portfolio, someone is attached to a particular project or attached to a particular ranking. If that occurs, it can feel similar to the zero-sum game. In this case, read Getting to Yes [FUP91]. The authors’ negotiation scheme is to do the following:


  • 1. Separate the people from the problem.
  • 2. Focus on interests, not positions.
  • 3. Generate a variety of possibilities.
  • 4. Use an objective standard to judge the results.


This is why everyone needs a principle they can articulate before arriving at the portfolio meeting. If you and I can state our principles, we can separate the people from the problem.


If you and I have different principles and we discuss that at the beginning of the meeting, we have a good chance of resolving that problem before we start fighting about the portfolio.


You Are Geographically Separated

If you are geographically separated by more than four hours so it’s difficult to collaborate in a meeting, separate your geographically distributed problems from each other.


You need to agree on which projects you tackle first, and you need to meet in a way that works for all of you. Let’s assume you have teams who can complete pieces of functionality in their own sites and your problem is to know which features or projects have to be completed first.


If you’ve built enough trust as a management team or a group of peers, have one in-person meeting initially to define your first portfolio. Now, you’ve likely built enough trust with your peers to have remote meetings for the rest of the year.


However, consider using email for pre-work, such as each of you articulating your principle behind your choices for the portfolio, showing each other your strawman portfolios, and discussing any constraints.


For the portfolio meeting, use as many online collaboration tools as possible so you can all see the data. For example, you won’t be able to see physical cards or stickies on the wall when some people are remote. However, there are electronic card sites and applications. You can use those.


I do not recommend you start with a tool just because you are geographically distributed. Tools can prevent you from visualizing what your organization needs to see in your project portfolio. Once you’ve ranked and reviewed several times, you will know what value a tool can provide for both ranking and visualizing your project portfolio.


Managing the project portfolio especially when you are geographically distributed is knotty and delicate work. Expect your portfolio evaluation meetings to take much longer than if you could have the meeting with all of you in one place.


Unfortunately, when you have teams that cannot complete pieces of functionality at their sites and instead the team members need to rely on each other, make sure the most senior level of management decides on the portfolio.


Lower-level managers and project managers have enough aggravation trying to get an entire piece of functionality done to worry about the portfolio.


If you are part of that most senior level of management, I urge you to reorganize your team bits into site-based teams that can complete pieces of functionality.


Until you do, you need to make the decisions about which projects are which rank, and you will need help knowing who to assign to which projects.


A kanban approach, where you limit the work in progress, may help you, as in Stabilize the Number of Work Items in Progress.


This might seem like a lot of work to you. It is. You might even think you can delegate this to other managers below you in the hierarchy. Don’t delegate these decisions—these decisions are the core of the value the organization provides. You created a situation in which the project teams have limited bandwidth, so you need to solve this problem.


You may find you have other barriers to collaboration. Recognize that the barrier is a symptom of an organizational problem, and think about how you need to solve it.


I See These Risks

Sometimes your manager will come to you with a demand for a doomed project or a pet project. You can’t make a case for this project. Try saying, “Here are the risks I can see.” Explain the risks you see. This is good if you can explain risks in terms of customers.


  • Whatever you do, don’t just blindly accept more work into your portfolio.
  • Explain which work you will not be doing to accomplish this work.


Give Us One Timebox and We Can Estimate the Rest

Sometimes, a manager wants to push a project into a smaller overall duration than the project team’s estimate or your experience suggests is reasonable. Instead of saying no, ask for just one timebox worth of time, where the team can measure velocity. 


First, say, “If we do one timebox worth, we can estimate how long it will really take.” If the team’s velocity meets the project duration, you return to evaluating all the projects. But if not, this project goes on the unstaffed list.


Please Explain Your Principle Behind Your Ranking

If you’ve been working with your peers, and a senior manager (especially a CIO, VP, or equivalent) insists that you need to staff a particular project, ask that manager for his or her principle behind the selection of that project over others.


When you ask for an explanation, be careful. The person hearing this can hear sarcasm or feel defensive without you meaning to sound that way. You do not want a non-career-enhancing conversation.


Showing your curiosity, say, “Please explain your ranking of this project.” If the senior manager has a principle that makes sense, rerank the portfolio, and make sure everyone can live with the resulting ranking. If the senior manager appears to have a pet project, see whether the ideas in Killing a Senior Manager’s Pet Project will help.


Never say “maybe” to an additional portfolio request. It doesn’t matter what level you are in the organization. Saying “maybe” leads to disaster. When you say “maybe,” your managers hear “yes.” Your peers and staff hear “no.” You can’t win.


Fund Projects Incrementally

Since you commit to a project only for a short period of time, consider funding the projects only for a short period of time as well. Make sure each project has the people it needs to make progress.


That’s the whole point of assigning teams to projects and stopping when you run out of people (see Rank with Business Value Points). Don’t starve projects of money either. Fund them money as they need it.


When my children were old enough for a clothing allowance, I asked them if they wanted all the money at once (with my heart pounding) or if I should give them money quarterly or half-yearly. They each decided on half-yearly. That way, they had enough money to buy fall clothes but not run out of money for the summer.


Periodic decision making about the portfolio allows you to fund projects incrementally. That’s because


As you show value to someone, preferably your customer, you are much more likely to get more funding. This works with fixed-price contracts, internal customers, and external customers. 


If a project isn’t showing value early and often, you may not get feedback early enough to change the portfolio before you start a death march for something your customers don’t want.


You can start highly risky projects because you’re not committing a ton of money and time to that much risk. You’re just committing two, three, or four weeks. Because the projects show you visible progress, you have enough information to make the commit/kill/transform decision. You never have to throw good money after bad.


Inefficiency Is the Enemy of Success

Pricing strategy is a key component of disruption. Agencies motivated to change will shift away from the inefficient legacy system of billable hours and move to more results-driven, value-based models.


This presents the opportunity for agencies and independent consultants to disrupt the industry with lower prices and potentially higher profit margins.


The traditional billable-hour system is tied exclusively to outputs, not outcomes, and assumes that all agency activities—account management, client communications, writing, planning, consulting, and creative—are of equal value. It is a broken model.


The number of professionals are paid does not have a direct correlation to the quality or value of the services they provide.

There are countless factors that can affect a professionals efficiency, but distractions, time tracking, and motivation are three of the biggest culprits.


The guiding principle in hybrid marketing agency pricing is that it must be value-based, meaning prices are determined based on perceived and actual value rather than the number of billable hours something takes to complete.


Talent Cannot Be Replicated

Model agencies are constructed one employee at a time. They do not allow market demand or outside expectations to dictate their growth, and they do not sacrifice the quality of their hires to satisfy short-term needs.


They take a controlled, almost methodical, approach to expansion. They develop talent from within and construct teams based on shared values, innate abilities, and complementary character traits.


Constructing an agency filled with top talent establishes a distinct and formidable competitive advantage.

Although intelligence and experience are key, their character, internal drive, personality, and innate abilities are the intangibles that truly differentiate great candidates from good ones.


Hybrid agencies are built on a culture of we, succeeding and failing as one. Professionals are passionately loyal to the agency and to each other. Client acquisition and retention must be driven by the collective strength, reputation, and capabilities of the firm. 


Professionals who are unmotivated or who fail to live up to their potential can negatively impact the team's performance, but more important, they drag down the morale and momentum of peers and leadership.


Professionals are given unparalleled opportunities for career advancement and encouraged to build strong personal brands. The top firms, which will lead industry transformation and deliver the most value, are built from within. In order to excel and continually differentiate, agencies must have a solid strategy to recruit, advance, and retain emerging talent.


Hybrid professionals are trained to deliver services across search, mobile, social, content, analytics, web, PR, and e-mail marketing. They provide integrated solutions that historically required multiple agencies and consultants.


The Best Plan Is to Prepare for Perpetual Change

Change velocity principles dictate that trying to plan for anything beyond three years is an exercise in futility. Have a vision for the long-term, but make infrastructure decisions based on current and short-term realities.


Doing Is the Key to Differentiation

The marketing world is full of thinkers, talkers, and self-proclaimed gurus, but after a while, they all start to sound the same. What we need are more doers —agencies and professionals that drive change by practicing what they preach.


A hybrid agency is defined by the collective strength of its employees’ personal brands. Your job as an agency leader is to clearly establish the agency brand, and then give your team the freedom and support to build and evolve theirs. 


Treat your agency website with the same care and attention that you do your clients’ websites. Continually analyze track, and monitor its success through inbound links, traffic, referrers, and website visits by keywords, among other metrics.


When building your agency marketing strategy, be sure to think beyond prospects.

Agencies have the ability to reach and influence audiences directly at the exact moment they are searching online. In essence, they are granting you permission to market to them, but you have to be there and provide value. Social media is about listening, learning, building relationships, and bringing value to the communities relevant to your agency.


Content marketing enables you to differentiate your agency while driving acquisition (leads) and retention (loyalty). It requires that you understand your audiences and continuously publish compelling, multimedia content.


 Public relations is about listening to your audiences, sharing your unique story, creating connections, gaining influence, and building loyalty in a measurable and meaningful way.


Everything Is Sales

You are always selling. You are selling an idea, vision, service, agency brand, personal brand, and believe that your firm is more capable and qualified than the next one.


However, in a professional service firm, sales happen at every level of the company. It is often the account executives that have the most direct client contact, and, therefore, regardless of whether they are charged with it, they function as the agency's primary salespeople.


They are the ones whose performance, behavior, and ability to build strong client relationships determine if an account stays or goes and whether clients provide referrals and testimonials.


Selling is both an art and a science that requires experience, education, and intimate knowledge of the agency. Concentrate on creating a sales system that meets your current needs for lead generation and that is scalable with your long-term growth goals.


When building your sales system, your most valued asset is your team.

No one individual sales or business development manager can possibly deliver the value and lead volume that you can create through a collective and strategic effort.


Sales processes help define responsibilities, set performance expectations, give professionals the knowledge and resources to excel, and connect actions to business goals. In order to maximize the lead-generation and nurturing process, and increase the probability of conversion, it is important to understand how organizations make marketing-services buying decisions.


All Clients Are Not Created Equal

Although agencies need to make every client feel valued, the reality is that some accounts are far more important to the stability and success of your agency, and they need to be treated differently.


These priority accounts have a greater appreciation for your services; they value your people and treat your agency as a partner, not as a vendor. They pay bills on time (or early), have realistic expectations, and reasonable timelines and they commit the time and energy needed to make the relationship work.


The need to build strong client relationships must be ingrained in an agency's culture. Employees should be 100 percent focused on the happiness and success of their clients. 


Become indispensable through your hard work, insight, consultation, services, expertise, friendship, and professionalism. Do the little things that build relationships, and take the time to show clients that you care about their successes, both on individual and organizational levels.


The greatest value you can bring to clients is staffing their account teams with A players. These professionals are analytical, confident, creative, detail oriented, highly motivated, and strategic—all traits that consistently translate into success for your clients.


Use nonbillable exercises to educate and train your team while enhancing the value you deliver to clients. Agency management, as it relates to client loyalty, comes down to two things: intelligence and action. In order to take the actions necessary to retain and grow accounts, leaders have to have their finger on the pulse of the agency.


An Agency Value Is Measured in Outcomes, Not Outputs

Leading marketing agencies turn information into intelligence and intelligence into action. They build campaigns that consistently produce measurable outcomes, including inbound links, website traffic, leads, and sales.


Hybrid agencies must shift away from arbitrary metrics, such as media impressions, reach, advertising equivalency, and PR value, and become measurement geeks who are obsessed with data-driven services.


Marketing agencies from every discipline—advertising, PR, social, SEO, content, and web—have the opportunity to evolve and play an integral role in bringing structure and meaning to the wealth of information available to businesses. 


Take a scientific approach to marketing, and develop processes to analyze data for insight that can increase efficiency and maximize ROI for clients.


Turn your hybrid professionals into analysts. Teach them to make decisions based on logic and reason. Show them how to gain insight from information, and how to use that insight to educate clients, build consensus, and drive action. 


Every campaign should start with performance benchmarks, including current lead volume, inbound links, website traffic, content downloads, blog subscribers, and social media reach.


Builders are services designed to set the foundation for future success, while drivers are intended to produce short-term results. Your agency's ability to succeed and bring value to clients requires a balanced and strategic approach to both.


Never Hesitate to Head in a Direction That Others Seem to Fear

Disruptors need to be willing to take risks that established agencies cannot or will not. While traditionalists try to fix their models, you should be focused on continually reinventing yours.


Failure builds character, teaches us humility, shows us how to cope with adversity, and challenges us to continually test, revise, and improve. Marketing agency leaders have to make difficult choices to break from traditional agency-centric pricing models, invest in technology, recruit and retain hybrid professionals, build scalable infrastructures, and transform their services.


Traditionalists, along with soloists and specialists, have to put their fears aside and confront the challenges ahead. They have to think and act more like start-ups. They have to become disruptors themselves.


  • Be willing to deconstruct your brand and business model to remain relevant, and position yourself where the market is going.
  • Do not wait for desperate times to evolve.
  • If you are not scared and unsure when creating content and pushing new ideas, then it is probably not worth pursuing.
  • Give people something they did not know they wanted, and take them places they did not expect to go.


It Is Purpose, Not Profit, Which Defines an Agency

We are programmed to set revenue goals, target growth rates, and measure our importance and value based on financial returns. We compare ourselves to industry benchmarks, flaunt our client lists, and tout our awards because they create the perception of success and make us feel good about ourselves.


There is nothing wrong with having financial goals and achieving milestones, but these are simply means to an end. If you believe that your agency exists solely to make money, then you are likely falling short of your potential and cheating your employees of opportunities to realize theirs.


In order to find happiness, we must be a part of something greater than ourselves, something that we truly believe in.

True entrepreneurs will never be satisfied with riches alone. They have to effect change, and they will risk everything to make their visions reality.


Purpose evolves as the agency and its employees mature and as their perspectives and priorities change.

To create an enduring brand, you need to assemble a team of talented and intrinsically motivated employees, build partnerships with like-minded organizations, and surround your agency with clients who value your professionals and services. Success requires persistence, perseverance, and an uncommon drive to achieve remarkable things. There are no shortcuts and no guarantees. 


The truly transformational agencies, the ones that will thrive and lead in the new marketing-services ecosystem, will pursue purpose.


Managers: Do Management Work

If you’re a senior manager and your mission is to create opportunities, does that mean you start projects to create opportunities? Sure. Does it mean you manage those projects? Almost never.


If you’re a senior manager, your job is to create a whole-organization environment in which people can work well. You can’t do that if you’re trying to manage a project—any project. Even if you think it’s just a one-person project to investigate some possibilities, assign someone from your group to do that work and report to you.


If you’re a mid-level manager, your job is to create that environment (of enabling great work) for your groups or teams and to see other projects or work to build on the higher strategy.


If you’re a first-level manager, your job is to create an environment in which your group or team can work, to remove obstacles, and to consider strategic work that might make your tactics easier to manage.


As a manager, your most important job is to talk to the consumers of your projects and see where they are headed. If you keep a narrow view of your business, eventually your business will go under. 


As for nitty-gritty management work, you will have plenty to do if you keep up with incremental funding, evaluating the portfolio, hiring people, and mentoring and coaching your managers. But it’s all management work. It’s not technical contributor work.


Draft a Mission from Scratch

An actionable mission contains a verb related to the results of the organization. If you’re an airline, a mission might be “Fly people and their luggage together.” If you look back at the missions to Define an Actionable Mission for the Organization, you can see that each mission grabs the reader with a strong verb.


To draft a mission with your group without looking at your current work, try these steps:

1. Brainstorm the mission pieces. Define what you do for whom and the value people received from that work.

2. Specify strong verbs.

3.Eliminate adverbs.

4. Iterate until you feel comfortable with the mission.


Don’t worry if you can’t define your mission in a quick thirty-minute meeting. A team of individual contributors focused on the same goal might be able to define their mission in an hour or two. Once you have several teams, especially if they have varying goals, the mission will be harder to define.


The more managers, the harder the mission will be because they all need to have a mission that supports their work but is greater than any one of them.


If you have more than one group, work bottom-up if you have no overall mission. That is, make sure each group develops their mission first and then works to create the greater mission that supports everyone.


Brainstorm the Essentials of a Mission

If you’ve never written a mission statement before, try brainstorming the elements of your mission:

  • 1. Invite the members of your group to participate.
  • 2. Give everyone thick markers, blank paper, and plenty of sticky notes.
  • 3. Divide people into smaller working teams of two to three people.
  • 4. Ask people to think about the work they do and then to think of what drives their work. The driver might be the verb.
  • 5. Ask people to think about the boundaries of their work—what’s in and what’s out.


  • 6. Ask everyone to write down these words: the driver, the boundaries. One word to a sticky.
  • 7. Post the stickies on a wall so everyone can see all the stickies.
  • 8. Now, ask people to work together in small groups to draft a mission statement.

Once the mission statements are written on stickies, post the statements on the wall, making sure to keep one statement on a line. If you’re curious, the following picture of “My Mission” is how I started to write my mission.


Now everyone can review every other group’s statements. Encourage the group discussion as people review the stickies. Once people have discussed enough, somewhere between five minutes for teams who really know what they’re doing to twenty-five minutes for teams who can’t agree, you have a decision.


If people really can’t agree on the work they need to do, adjourn the meeting for now, and agree to meet in a few days or a week to see whether you can decide then. Between now and then, make sure you aren’t asking people who perform different work to try to agree on a mission.


Four Groups, One Manager, Four Group Missions, One Department Mission

I had a group called Development Services. That meant I had all the testers, writers, release engineers, and continuing engineering as part of one group.


I had led for each of the groups and thought I could write a mission with all of them together for our group. Wrong-o! You never saw such fighting about what we did and didn’t do.


First, I had to work with each group to write their mission with them. Once each group had a clear mission (which took just one one-hour meeting), I gathered the leads again and asked that now that they each knew what their mission was, could we work on the department’s mission? A piece of cake. But we had to separate the group missions from the department’s mission.


This would have been easier if we’d had real managers instead of leads—that would have triggered us all to think a little differently. But we didn’t. We finally figured it out.

As people agree on the pieces of the mission, order the stickies so you create a mission statement from the stickies.


Refine the Mission

Once you have the elements of your mission from the brainstorming, make sure you have strong verbs and have eliminated adverbs and jargon.


Derive Your Mission from Your Work

You may find brainstorming difficult. In that case, try using your work to help you define your mission.


Ideally, your organization would have an actionable mission that you could use to help define your project’s or group’s or team’s mission.


But even if the organization has a great mission, the levels of managers between you and the top may not have created actionable missions for themselves and their groups. In that case, you’ll have to derive your mission from your work.


Sometimes, you need to use your work to define your mission, as in Make Your Mission Possible. A colleague explained how he and his group decided their mission when he was tired of his senior management’s apparent lack of direction.


My Management Can’t Decide What’s Important

I was minding my own business, working on a pretty strange problem in the database. My manager, Cindy, walked over and plunked herself down. “Can you add a report to this release? Remember the report we postponed from this release?” I nodded. “It’s back in again.”


“Look, we took that out for a damn good reason. A few good reasons. One, it doesn’t belong in this release. Two, it’s not where we want this product to go. It’s supposed to go into the next product. Three—”

“I know. But my boss rolled over my objections. I really hate coming to you like this.”

“Don’t then.”


Cindy rolled her eyes. “I have an idea. Let’s organize our work in a way that makes sense to us, and then maybe I’ll have more ammunition.”

We bucketed all the work we had to do and organized a project portfolio around the buckets. It has been more than a year, and Cindy’s boss has been listening to her objections and making reasonable decisions.


Here’s how to define your mission from your work. First, look back at all the work you collected in Know What Work to Collect. Now categorize your work into three buckets:

  • Work that seems to make sense for our group
  • Work that needs to get done, but maybe not by us
  • Work that we are doing but we don’t understand why


If you’re a development manager, developing systems makes sense for your group. Helping sales or service people with installations is work that needs to be done, but maybe not by you. If someone in the development’s group has a role answering the phone as a first-line service tech, that’s work you’re doing but you don’t understand why.


As you collect the work that needs to be done but not by you, think of a group inside the organization that should do this work.


If that group exists, create a sticky with the name of that group, and organize the work under that group’s name. If there is no group that looks like they should do that work, create another sticky with “We don’t understand why we’re doing this work.”


If you define your mission from your work, make sure you check in with your boss and see whether he or she agrees. You might need to modify your mission—and the work—in order to come to an agreement with your boss.


How to Define a Mission When No One Else Will

I’ve worked with senior managers and technical leads who worked in organizations that did not have a mission or a strategy. Sometimes those organizations grew quickly and had not paid attention to strategic planning.


Sometimes, they suffered from a leadership vacuum at the top, such as no CEO. In any case, your organization doesn’t have a mission.


But without a mission, you or your managers can’t decide what is most important. To protect your team and accomplish anything, you will need to decide. You can use the portfolio and generate a mission based on the work you think is most valuable to the organization.


Make sure you bucket the information as in Derive Your Mission from Your Work. Now, look at the team you have. Look at the work. Use the work you can accomplish to drive your mission building.


Is this perfect? Not by a long shot. On the other hand, if you say, “Here is the work we are doing to move the organization forward.


If you don’t like this, let’s change our mission and then reevaluate and rerank the portfolio,” then you can at least get some work done that makes sense to your staff and to the rest of the organization.


Beware of the Mission Statement Traps

As I’ve worked with managers, I’ve noticed a number of mission statement traps. The most common is the service-level agreement trap.


The Service-Level Agreement Trap

If you have a lot of emergency projects and you’re now trying to manage the portfolio by defining your mission, you’re going to start saying no to some work. When you say no, some people are going to tell you that you need to respond more quickly than you are.


Or maybe you feel bad about saying no to some people in the organization. You might even be tempted to set a response time: “We’ll finish that in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours.”


Promising a service level for a product development group (development, testing, business analysis, documentation, whatever) is nuts. It guarantees technical debt unless you really can interrupt what you are doing, finish that work, and then restart what you were doing. Your chances of success are minimal.


On the other hand, if you are a group that does some sort of support work (support operations, tier-three customer support), you may want to have some sort of service level for that work. Service levels for projects make no sense.


The problem is you are working on projects. Service-level response times interfere with project work and cause multitasking. Maybe someone has to do that work, but maybe not you.


Or, if you do have to do it, someone else can rank-order the work, and you can work in short timeboxes so you have a chance of completing the necessary-to-the-organization work without multitasking.


It does make sense to provide a date in some relatively short period of time. But remember, software product development is not a service. It is product development (or system development, if you prefer).


Support work is problem-solving or checklist work. The risk in support work is in the time required to solve the problem. For product development, the risk is in whether you can solve the problem at all, not just in a short time frame.


When leads or managers promise short turnarounds—or as one test manager said, “Test all products as they evolve, 24/7/365”—they create an environment where the people can’t succeed.


The testers can’t learn enough details about the product to be effective, and if there are only eight people “supporting” a technical staff of a few hundred developers, then they are understaffed for all the work.


Some Group Owns Total Responsible for Quality

After the service-level agreement trap, a common trap for software organizations is that one group is “responsible” for quality. That group is usually the testers. They have a mission like this one: “Ensure we release high-quality products.”


Testers, no matter what you call them, cannot ensure quality. Testers report on the quality, among other things, of the product. Developers might be able to “ensure quality,” if senior managers don’t hamstring them. But the real people who ensure quality in an organization are the managers. Those people create an environment in which quality can flourish—or not.


The Mission Statement Is Too Long

If you try to be all things to all people—and be tactical when you need to be strategic—your mission statement is too long.

Here’s a test to know whether your statement is too long. After you develop the mission, ask someone to face away from the stickies or the paper on the wall, and ask that person to tell you the mission statement. This is impossible if you have jargon and adverbs in your mission statement. Iterate and refine the mission.


Mission Statement Has Stretch Goals

Yes, you want to make your mission statement inspiring. But a mission statement is not a place for stretch goals. Make the mission statement believable and achievable. Otherwise, how will you select projects that meet the mission?


One development IT manager had the mission “To be the best in software development” when everyone in the group had just two years or fewer in development. The developers knew they were not the best.


And they knew that the projects they needed to complete were not going to make them be the best in development. That mission was not inspiring for the people to continue to work there. Instead, over the course of a couple of years, each person left to pursue that “best” for himself or herself.


Make the mission statement interesting (inspiring if you can), to the point, and congruent with the organization.


Test Your Mission

When you’ve written your mission, test it. Or, if you prefer a test-driven approach, use these questions to drive your mission development:

  • Is this mission something the people in this group can do?
  • Is this mission something the people in this group have the interest, capabilities, and talent to do?
  • Does this mission create opportunities for the group and the organization as a whole?
  • Is this mission unique, or does it describe some unique value?
  • Is it clear what is inside the scope of this mission, and what is outside the scope?


Does the mission drive action?

Make sure your mission has an action verb. Make sure it draws boundaries around the work so you can see what work you should be doing and see the work you should not be doing.


If you’ve worked on the mission alone, make sure you check with the team to test it. You can’t know whether you have it all right until you test the mission. Review your mission for traps, and eliminate them.


Make the Mission Real for Everyone

Middle managers define a more tactical mission based on the organization’s mission, especially if your senior management has not defined an actionable mission. You’ll need to define a mission with tactical parts. That way, the first-level managers can use your mission to refine theirs.


Inspiring and Tactical Missions Are Tough to Write

I was trying to run two independent groups. To the SQA group that was a test group, I provided all the process work. In addition, I was managing a second-line support group, which took the problems the regular support group couldn’t handle.


I had two independent groups, not one team. I managed those groups not because it made sense to put them together but because they weren’t development. I wanted to describe these two groups in some way that made sense to everyone in the groups as well as the rest of the organization.


I started with each separate team and worked with them to define their missions. The test group used “Assess the state of the product at any time and report on that state.” The second-line support group developed this mission: “Become the go-to experts in several areas of the system and respond to problems within four working days.”


On the face of it, there’s no commonality between the two groups. But both groups provided valuable in-depth expertise for much of the system. In four half-hour chunks over four weeks, we developed a mission for my group as a whole: “Provide system-level expertise to the development groups.”


It was worth taking the time. Our mission was inspiring enough for my two teams and helped explain a little about what we did. It was tactical enough and helped us determine when work was outside of our scope.


If you’re in middle management, resist the temptation to use jargon or buzzwords. Take the time to write a real mission for your group, whether they are a variety of teams as mine were or whether they have more commonality.


Now Try This

Look at your mission now, whether you are a technical lead, a manager, a middle manager, or a senior manager. Is it actionable? Does it say what’s in your purview and what’s not?

If you have a mission at your level, make a date with your peers and develop your joint mission so you know how to work across a department or a whole organization. Test your mission to make sure you haven’t fallen into any traps.


Start Somewhere…But Start

You’ve seen how to collaborate across the organization and manage the project portfolio. In my work, I’ve seen managers with more challenges: how to manage the project portfolio when you’re the only one, and how to start.


You’re the Only One Managing the Project Portfolio

You’ve looked all these possibilities for visualizing and managing your project portfolio. You still have a ton of in-progress work. You have features for new projects, emergencies for older projects, maintenance for prior releases, and who knows what else.


Maybe you have so much fire-fighting from not managing the project portfolio it will take you a while to work yourself out of the hole you’re in. Maybe you have many projects in the maintenance phase of the product lifecycle. The team has to create features and fix defects and otherwise support the previous and current products. Whatever the reason, you have many projects in progress.


Here are my recommendations:

1. Start with the low-level view of the project portfolio so you can see all the work. Create a kanban of all your project states.

2. Add WIP limits for each column.


3. Consider using agile approaches for your work. I recommend you make the features small—as in no longer than one day in duration. Keeping features small will help the people doing the work accomplish the work faster because they are less likely to be stuck in any one state.


4. Ask the team to pair or swarm on the work. When people collaborate to fix one problem or accomplish work, they are more likely to collaborate on future work.


5. Ask the product owner to develop a product roadmap for each project your team works on. Make sure the roadmap has deliverables, and a demonstrable interim product at least once every month, if not more often.


6. Make sure the team finishes work to “done” so no one has the multitasking later for fixes.

Working like this establishes a flow of deliverables. That should help you manage your project portfolio. It might help product owners decide what they really need to see as deliverables.


What if I Have Many Product Owners Asking My Team for Work?

Some people co-opt the agile terms without understanding their meaning. A product can have a product manager, and if it’s a large program, it might have several product owners. However, a team can have one and only one product owner to direct the flow of work through the team.


If your team has more than one product owner, you need to remove that impediment. I don’t care what your title is. You might be a manager, a Scrum Master, a project manager, even a group manager. If you are a leader helping a team finish its work, address the impediment of multiple product owners.


You will never eliminate the multitasking unless you fix the issue of multiple product owners.


The Case of the Interfering Customer

I had this problem of multiple product owners back when I was a program manager. We had a product manager who created the roadmap. We had product owners who updated the roadmap and reviewed our progress. We also had a customer who had the phone numbers for some of the developers.


The customer felt it was his job to call developers and ask them for feature estimates. He also asked people to “do this feature instead of that one.” The customer thought he was “helping.” Instead, he was slowing our development. I could not depend on people to finish what they thought they could. The customer interrupted them.


When I realized what was happening, I did these things:

1. I explained to the developers that they could not say yes to anything the customer requested. The only discussion they could have was about the weather, and when the customer wanted to talk to me.

2. I explained to the product manager that he had to talk to the customer much more often.


3. I called the customer and explained the developers would no longer talk with him. If he wanted features in a different order, he could call the product manager. If the product manager was not sufficiently responsive, the customer could call me.


4. I created a board that showed the problem of many requests to all of my contacts.

Both the product manager and customer were angry with me. The product manager wanted more flexibility in his phone calls. The customer wanted more flexibility in when he received which features.


I explained to the product manager that this customer was the prime customer for this product. We couldn’t do a general release until the customer was happy. Why did he want to take any other calls?


We needed to satisfy this customer. I explained to the customer that we would have monthly demonstrations so he could see our progress. He had never seen working product demonstrated from any of his vendors before.


We demonstrated the first set of features a month after we all agreed to this new approach. We finished more features than the product manager had planned. The customer was thrilled with our progress. He had comments on some of our features, and that was fine.


If you have trouble managing the work that flows into your team, check to see where the work is coming from. Do you have the problem of too many product owners?


 You might have to facilitate a product owner meeting/project portfolio management meeting for your team. Make sure you create a board that shows other people your problem.


Can I Really Do This?

As I was writing this blog, one of my reviewers asked, “Can people really do this? What if their senior management has no clue? What if their middle management has no clue?”


Yes. You can do this. You can do this if your senior management has no strategic plan and doesn’t know about project portfolio management. You can do this even if your middle management has no clue.


Look at what you are able to manage, and use the portfolio to provide direction to your team, finish projects, increase your capacity, and provide better answers to your managers.


You can manage the project portfolio at your level of influence. You can work in timeboxes, finishing features, completing chunks of work. Or you can limit the work in progress so you can complete chunks of work.


You can decide what to do now, what to do later, and what to put off so you effectively never do it. You can work with your peers and make these decisions so that you as a team can complete projects and release them.


Managing the entire project portfolio is easy when senior management has a strategic plan and manages to that plan. It’s not too difficult if the middle managers understand how to think strategically and tactically even if your senior management isn’t so good at strategic planning.


Managing the project portfolio is difficult if you’re the only one doing it, no matter what level you are. If you’re a first-line manager or a technical lead, you may feel as if you’re pushing a boulder uphill. 


Remember, you can change yourself. You can change your reactions to the work around you. You can offer an alternative to your colleagues and managers. You can’t change anyone else.


As long as you finish work in chunks so other people can see it and use it, you will be successful.

Start with your work, and then work with others. This requires courage, but if you’ve made it this far, you have plenty.


 Remember what I said about the secret of project portfolio management back in the Preface: you can do it all. Just not all at the same time. It doesn’t matter how many projects you start. It matters how many projects you finish.