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Leader Engagement

Global Leadership Forecast 2018

No Engaged Workforce Without Engaged Leaders:

To Raise Leader Engagement, We Need to Raise Up Leaders

Rebecca L. Ray

The direct link between engagement and bottom-line results is clear to the leaders we surveyed. When asked how they will drive better business performance, respondents said they would focus on enhancing organizational talent (72 percent), building a high-performance culture (72 percent), and engaging employees (69 percent). In aggregate, the 25,000-plus leaders who responded told us they are engaged and want to stay on with their organization to make an impact. These findings are encouraging, as leaders continue to wield the greatest single impact on workplace engagement. But the findings, summarized in the chart below, also reveal important areas where they need support—particularly in career development, a key driver of employee engagement. The fact that 36 percent of leaders believe they will need to move on to advance their career is a wake-up call.

No Engaged Workforce Without Engaged Leaders

HR professionals indicated that only half of the leadership development programs they supervised were connected to business priorities. Only 35 percent of HR leaders report that their leaders have high-quality, effective development plans, and less than half of them report that their leaders have regular reviews of that plan with their manager, or a sequenced leadership development program (versus independent events). No wonder many are unclear about their leadership path and feel they must leave the organization if they are to advance! Globally, intent to leave has increased for 16 percent of respondents, but decreased for 36 percent, with 48 percent unchanged. Millennial leaders are slightly more inclined to leave than leaders in other generations. HR responses revealed that attrition for high potentials was lower (11 percent) than that for all leaders (13 percent).

To Raise Employee Engagement Levels, HR Needs to Step Up

HR needs to do a better job of supporting these leaders because disengagement is infectious. And a toxic culture can take years to rebuild. Engagement—and in turn, retention—doesn’t happen by accident. It takes concerted organizational effort, a motivated leader, and employees who take responsibility for their own engagement. We also found a link between collaborative cultures and higher retention.

Leaders at all levels need support. Fifty-eight percent have never had a mentor (though 53 percent mentor others) and, perhaps more disturbing in a global work world, 72 percent have never had an international assignment.

Here’s good news: When rating their effectiveness in using inspiration (motivating increased employee energy and effort) and empathy (deepening relationships with others by perceiving and acting on their emotions), 94 percent of leaders said they were at least moderately effective in using both skills, which are hallmarks of an engaging leader. Critically, they want to lead—71 percent see it as a leader’s role as custodian of the organization’s purpose to a great or very great extent. Almost three-quarters of these leaders support critical activities aligned with purpose. Over half of the companies represented have articulated vision, mission, and purpose statements; conversely, only 38 percent have an employee value proposition. Here, leaders can play a crucial role in making the connection between the job an employee does and the organization’s vision, mission, and purpose—a significant engagement driver.

The findings in this study corroborate engagement-related research at The Conference Board*. The 12 behaviors mastered by highly engaging leaders include:

Provides a strong sense of meaning and direction by:

1. Developing a compelling vision of what people can accomplish.

2. Communicating in a way that brings people along.

3. Setting a clear strategic direction for direct reports.

Brings out collective brilliance by:

4. Building trust and acting with integrity.

5. Challenging the status quo and inspiring creativity.

6. Fostering a culture of collaboration.

Builds a high-performance environment by:

7. Setting high standards.

8. Creating a sense of urgency.

9. Empowering employees.

Unlocks employees’ full potential by:

10. Building relationships one person at a time.

11. Providing clear and consistent rewards/recognition.

12. Driving development and growth.

* Ray, R.L., Hyland, P., Pressman, A., Dye, D.A., & Kaplan, J. (2016, February), DNA of Engagement: How Organizations Build and Sustain Highly Engaging Leaders, New York, The Conference Board,

Where to Start
  • Build engaging leaders. Forge a robust leadership development program that will develop, retain, and empower leaders at all levels.
  • Ensure that the basics are in place: job descriptions, behavioral anchors, custom development plans, on-demand and formal training programs, experiential learning opportunities, and continuous feedback.
  • Align strategic projects with leadership development efforts to ensure that leaders are exposed early on to real-world challenges.
  • Communicate the path for leaders as well as the skills to master along the way. Set up a mentoring program and teach managers how to coach so that their now-enhanced engagement is contagious.
How to Excel + Differentiate
  • Build an engaging culture. Start with the senior-most executive leaders becoming champions for change. Like everything else, the tone starts at the top.
  • Embed messages about the business case for engagement into all communications. Monitor progress and celebrate successful milestones.
  • Leverage your engaged leaders by asking them to mentor other leaders, participate in development initiatives, and coach their peers.
  • Reward and celebrate your highly engaging leaders; they are the factory for your leadership cadre.
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