Rules of engagement - recruiting, retaining and motivating talent

2 December 2015

Recruiting, retaining and motivating the right talent is the platform for success in any industry and the most renowned CEOs recognise the value of the people who work in their organisations − and are enthusiastic about boosting employees’ level of engagement. Chief Executive Officer speaks to Sherri Stumpf of Blackhawk Community Credit Union and Bill Greenhalgh of the Human Resources Research Institute about what CEOs can do to ensure employees feel valued.

The recruitment and retention of the right employees is key to the success in any industry, whether you are running a small business or a multinational corporation. Any business that recognises that its people are the main drivers of success will also understand that HR strategy is of critical importance. It is easy to pay lip service to the value of human capital, but implementing the right policies and incentives to attract, retain and motivate the right workforce can be a significant challenge.

A lot has been said and written about the 'war for talent' and the need to entice top employees with something other than a higher salary, and there is growing consensus that, for an organisation to become successful, it must look at its core values and its culture as much as compensation and benefits.

"It is hard to find the right talent now because the skills required are constantly changing and because colleges don't teach the kind of soft skills that they used to," says Sherri Stumpf, CEO of Blackhawk Community Credit Union in Wisconsin, US. "So, organisations have to train people in things that used to be commonplace. Many CEOs are now working with economic development groups to address that skills gap.

"In my business, which is IT, it is hard to draw really talented people, so we have to look further afield. That means looking beyond the organisation and considering what keeps people in this [location] to work here. Recruitment and retention is not just about the company, but also about the local community. What can people access outside work? Companies need to appeal not only to individuals, but also to their families," she adds.

The key theme that emerges from talking to HR professionals is that companies need to look at the relationship between employee and employer not only in terms of how certain skills fit with strategic goals and what the going rate of remuneration is, but also with consideration of how a person's job fits with the rest of their lives. Companies should look at employees as people rather than cogs in a machine. They should promote a sense of engagement with the organisation that is likely to improve productivity and loyalty, which can only be good for a company that wants to get the most out of its human capital.

"As a CEO, people are your number one asset, so you should spend time on policies that relate to human capital," says Stumpf, who is accredited by the HR Certification Institute as a Global Professional in Human Resources (GPHR). "It should be a top priority, but all too often it is pushed to the HR department. A business won't succeed without the right people."

"Everything comes down to people; human resources should be at the top of the agenda," agrees Human Resources Research Institute (HRRI) board director Bill Greenhalgh, who is also CEO at the Human Resources Professionals Association. "Without the right people nothing else works. It is more important than access to capital, for instance."

Building relationships

The key to getting the best out of a workforce is engagement, the sense that people have of being connected to the organisation for which they work and the understanding of how their job affects its overall performance. Judging by the data studied by Greenhalgh, it seems that many organisations are failing to instil this feeling in their employees.

"Getting engagement and retention right is like losing weight - everyone knows how to do it, but not everyone does it," he explains. "Worldwide surveys on engagement show that many organisations have a disengaged employee base, with only 20% of the workforce feeling highly engaged. This is not measuring job satisfaction, but it looks at parameters such as whether an employee would recommend their employer.

"The worldwide average is around 60% employee engagement and most companies are aiming to exceed 50%. The best companies achieve 70%. So, there is a need to improve on that and make people feel committed to their jobs to avoid corrosive disengagement and growing problems like presenteeism. Engagement in my organisation is consistently between 80% and 90% and it has a very low turnover of staff. That kind of level is not hard to achieve," he adds.

The first step, according to Greenhalgh, is to get the right people into the organisation. The second step is to look closely at what motivates people to perform well and to form personal connections with the company. The key pillars are recognition, reward and accomplishment.

"Most people need a combination of these things, though a stockbroker might be more motivated by reward and a volunteer might prioritise accomplishment," he remarks. "So, you need to look at what kind of people you need and what your organisation can offer in terms of motivation. Don't hire people who want accomplishment if what you offer is mainly reward.

"The trick is to keep people engaged in the long term. New joiners are more engaged and less cynical. More money may not motivate people, so in our organisation we set goals and have checkpoints throughout the year that not only measure performance and results, but also cultural attachment," he adds.

Communication is the key to creating engagement. Greenhalgh cites the example of a group taking a tour around Kennedy Space Center in Florida, US. They spot a man in a white coat with a broom who is busy sweeping the floor. One of the members of the group asks the man what his job is, to which the cleaner replies: "I help put men on the moon."

"People need to feel that they are important, but in many organisations there are people who feel they don't matter," says Stumpf. "Companies need to show employees the outcomes of their efforts and take time to explain how they contribute. That is how to make them feel that they are really part of the organisation."

Pillars of success

The HR team cannot act in isolation and expect to take full responsibility for building engagement. HR needs to understand the rest of the business in order to source people with the right skills and aptitudes to fulfil their roles.

"Here, my senior leadership team defines human capital as a key priority for strategic planning," explains Stumpf. "The board of directors and the HR director are all present in the strategic planning sessions. Together, they define our goals and how to achieve them, each discipline using its own skills to make it happen.

"Culture is important and this starts at the very top of the organisation. It comes from the desk of the CEO, who must be committed to valuing employees and customers."

"Now, for instance, when we look for people at different levels we know that IT expertise is part of every role in the organisation, so we look for people with aptitude for using big data to drive the business. Then we look at training, which is not only important to develop the skills within the business, but also for retaining the best people. We need to develop people as employees and as individuals. Maybe that means exposing them to classes that they would not experience in their daily job. We can't let people fall into a rut. We need to help them find areas in which they are gifted," she adds.

A commitment to training not only helps people acquire the right skills as they move along their career path, but also allows employees to transition to new roles and to develop as individuals.

"Training is critical because jobs are changing all the time," says Greenhalgh. "People need to change and grow as their jobs change. We used to employ people to do clerical work registering new members, but when we put in a new IT system to do that work we trained those people to go out and sell memberships. They had the knowledge so we put it to use in a different way."

Employers should support efforts at self-development and, further recognising that employees are people rather than components in a machine, should understand the importance of the work-life balance. This often means giving employees a degree of autonomy over how they complete the task and trusting them to know how to work.

"Flexibility is very important," says Stumpf. "There are often many ways to get your job done. It may be possible to work from home, or work remotely or at the weekend. Probably the biggest change I've made since I came here four years ago is to get employees to understand that the company does not own them from 8am to 5pm every day. The focus must be on outcomes and expectations. I trust employees to understand what is expected of them and to decide how to get that done. Flexibility helps to get the best out of people."

"Employers should not only give people goals, but also the authority and freedom to achieve those goals," stresses Greenhalgh. "There are many different ways to reach a destination so people should have some freedom to choose, as long as they get to the right place on time. Autonomy is very important."

Matching expectation

Organisations are often very good at communicating what they expect from employees, but HR experts stress that employers must match this with a commitment to their core values. Being an honest and trustworthy employer helps create an organisation that employees would recommend to others.

"Brand values are critical in attracting top talent," says Stumpf. "These days, they are screening you as much as you are screening them. Culture is important and this starts at the very top of the organisation. It comes from the desk of the CEO, who must be committed to valuing both employees and customers. Be sincere about it rather than just focusing on trying to boost sales."

For Greenhalgh, winning the war for talent means not only living up to brand values, but also being flexible enough to adapt a company to best utilise the skills it already has, as well as ensuring HR is involved in strategic discussions.

"When you hear about the macro numbers for the economy you hear that 35 million people in Europe are unemployed and that there are eight million unfilled positions," he says. "But if you talk to companies they seem to be okay. None ever say that they fail because they are missing a particular individual with a certain set of skills.

"A successful organisation will build on the people it has. Businesses develop their strategy and then 95% of their effort goes into executing it, which depends on having the right people and the right system for motivation and compensation. The organisations that do best are those that have a well-developed HR function reporting at the most senior level," he adds.

In Stumpf's experience, honesty and transparency from the employer engenders the engagement and commitment that successful organisations crave.

"At the start, I talked to my employees about my philosophy and I was completely transparent," she says. "I told people in the organisation what they could expect from me. Then I showed how we could move forward as a group. The key is to be sincere. Believe what you are saying and never be inconsistent.

"To improve engagement you have to tell an emotionally connected story - you have to go beyond the numbers and say specifically what people did and what came as a result of those actions. Be specific and be personal."