Leadership and Employee Engagement

By: Peter Freska

I recently climbed Mount Everest! Well, in actuality it was a simulation put together in partnership with Harvard Business School Publishing that I completed with a team. As the outline reads:    

“You and four other team members will attempt to summit Mount Everest in this collaborative multi-player simulation. There are five camps or checkpoints along the route to the Summit (top) of Mt. Everest. At each camp, team members analyze information on weather, health conditions, supplies, goals, or hiking speed, and determine how much of that information to communicate to their teammates.”

Now, it is not likely that most of us will ever climb Mount Everest – but that is one of the compelling pieces to this simulation. How many of us will be put into a situation where the decisions of those around us could have life or death consequences? Or more importantly, how many of us might be put in a leadership position with life or death consequences. From squad leader to general, our military leaders understand this position and so does someone that has led a Mount Everest summit. But what about the rest of us? How do we learn to be great leaders? What are the qualities of a great leader?

There are so many questions and so many people with answers. Several years ago I attended a luncheon with keynote speaker, the late-great General Norman Schwarzkopf (Ret.). He explained that with all his military career achievements, he cannot pinpoint the one characteristic that makes a great leader. However, he did say that, “When in charge, take charge.”

In today’s work environment, we have unprecedented opportunity that comes with responsibility. We grew up with our parents and grandparents telling us that we need to carve out our piece of the world. What they didn’t tell us is that we need to know when to change course. Peter Drucker wrote in his article, Managing Oneself (Harvard Business Review, Best of HBR 1999), that, “Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves – their strengths, their values and how best they perform.” Drucker also outlined the following questions to be answered of oneself:

1. “What are my strengths?”
2. “How do I work?”
3. “What are my values?”
4. “Where do I belong?”
5. “What can I contribute?”

So, what does all of this have to do with employee benefits? PPACA, HIPAA, ERISA and a host of other acronyms flood the over stimulated world we live in. But what are the things that really matter? Credibility of a leader starts with being honest, forward-looking, inspiring, competent, and intelligent (Credibility, Kouzes and Posner, 2011). These are the things that matter. And unless these characteristics are established at the leadership level, employees will not be engaged. My partner, Holly Parsons, wrote in a previous blog that many employees do not feel connected and a recent study found that “only 29% of employees are fully engaged.” How does this affect productivity? To be direct, lack of engagement ruins productivity. This holds true with employee benefits. If they do not see the value, then there is no benefit. If the leadership team views benefits as a necessary evil, or as purely an expense – well, then I would refer them back to the five questions that Peter Drucker asked. I would also direct them to Kouzes and Posner’s book, Credibility. It starts at the top, and in today’s world it also starts with each of us – for leadership is a lifelong process.

As for my Mount Everest experience, it was great! We learned about ourselves, our communication styles and team dynamics. And yes, my Team was the only team that made it to the summit – all together as a “real team.”



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