Aon Hewitt: Characteristics of an engaging leader

27 November 2014 Consultancy.uk

“How can we have the highest profitability in five years and still have gaps in employee engagement?” asks an executive at a large industrial products company. The reality is that the two don’t necessarily go together. This management team, like many others, has fought to increase its profitability through business transformation, restructuring, and cost-cutting, without devoting much thought to keeping its employees engaged and connected. As a result, the company may find it hard to sustain the gains, much less drive future growth. Organizational agility, innovation, and growth are really difficult without engaged employees.

The research team at Aon Hewitt has made it a priority to understand what is going on in enterprises where both financial performance and employee engagement levels are soaring. Our ongoing study of the companies we’ve labeled Aon Hewitt Best Employers – firms that achieve both top quartile engagement levels and better business results than their peers – finds that they do have something in common. It’s the prevalence of a certain kind of leader, not just at the top, but throughout the ranks of the organization. These individuals – we call them engaging leaders – are distinguished by a certain set of characteristics.

Compared to average organisations

What do these leaders of highly engaged teams have in common? Through extensive interviews we learned that they tend to have had early stretch experiences that shaped them; tend to share a set of beliefs about leading; and tend to exhibit certain behaviors that help to engage those around them.

Formative early experiences. Engaging leaders don’t just start out this way. “I started in the call center,” a CEO from a financial services business unit told us. “I know what it’s like and I still like to go sit with agents and listen.” We often heard in our interviews, as Warren Bennis and Bob Thomas did in their crucibles of leadership research, about early experiences that leaders felt had shaped them. They were not always of the unpleasant, mettle-testing sort; sometimes the person had a caring, attentive mentor; a stretch assignment that “chose the leader” instead of the leader’s choosing it; an assignment that required them to win over people who used to be their peers. The common thread is the reflection on the early experience that allows a leader to learn something, and gain self-confidence, humility, and empathy.

Guiding beliefs. Underneath an engaging leader’s behaviors are a powerful set of beliefs. They feel it is their responsibility to serve their followers, especially in times of crisis and change.  Many expressed core beliefs about the importance of personal connection. For example, a CEO of a beverage company, asked to name the most important responsibility of a leader, said it was “to create the emotional bond between our people and the organization.” Another CEO declared that “Leadership is a contact sport.” When we talked to a leader in an engineering department about why he thought he was regarded as an engaging leader, his thoughtfulness about human relationships came through. “People won’t remember what I did,” he said, “but they will remember how I made them feel.”

Leader Aon Hewitt

Engaging behaviors. We also noted a set of common behaviors, no doubt driven by the beliefs we’ve just been discussing, and clustering around five themes.  Engaging leaders step up, opting to proactively own solutions where others cannot or do not. They energize others, keeping people focused on purpose and vision with contagious positivity. They connect and stabilize groups by listening, staying calm, and unifying people. They serve and grow, by empowering, enabling, and developing others. And they stay grounded, remaining humble, open, candid, and authentic in their communication and behavior. These behaviors are continually validated in our leadership workshops, where we see people in action and hear about recent challenges they have worked to overcome.

These are the hallmarks, then, of engaging leaders – and almost every company has at least some of them. Few workforces, however, enjoy the general condition of having engaging leadership. That’s a systemic belief in the power of engagement that transcends the personal strengths and discretionary actions of individual managers. The organizations trying to make engaging leadership part of their culture are figuring out how to do four things on an ongoing basis:

  • Measure engagement levels. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. The CEO needs to own the engagement survey and follow-through. Enough said.
  • Develop engaging leaders. Workshops and coaching are required to help leaders reflect on their early experiences, find their own beliefs and purpose, and make engaging behaviors more habitual. When the number of engaging leaders amounts to a critical mass, their energy and mutual support can change the engagement culture of the organization.
  • Assess and select engaging leaders. Filling a lot of high-impact roles with engaging leaders should be the objective. Now that we have a good understanding of the experiences, beliefs, and behaviors that typify engaging leaders, it should be possible to use personality instruments, structured interviews, and 360 instruments to predict whether someone is likely to be engaging or not in a leadership role.
  • Measure and reward engagement achieved. Tying incentives to engagement survey scores is tricky and can lead to unintended consequences. However, we are seeing more organizations get serious about recognizing leaders who are engaging and holding those who are not accountable.

Ken Oehler - Lorraine Stomski - Magdalena Kustra Olszewska

Engagement is a leadership responsibility – but by and large, leaders are failing in this regard. Our research suggests that, for most companies, the turnaround won’t happen quickly. The fact that the most engaging leaders are the products of early experiences and deeply held beliefs means that new ones can’t be minted overnight. It will never be a matter of running through some behavioral checklist. But there are steps that employers can take to give more teams the benefit of engaging leadership – and, over time, to reach the levels of innovation, quality, and productivity that can only come from highly engaged people.

An article from Ken Oehler, Lorraine Stomski and Magdalena Kustra-Olszewska. Ken Oehler is global practice leader of Engagement at Aon Hewitt. Lorraine Stomski is a partner with Aon Hewitt, and the practice leader for Aon Hewitt’s Leadership Consulting business. Magdalena Kustra-Olszewska is a consultant at Aon Hewitt specializing in leadership skills and development. This article was previously posted in Harvard Business Review.

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Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

17 April 2019 Consultancy.uk

Soft skills matter in the workplace just as much as technical expertise, writes Samantha Caine, Managing Director of Business Linked Teams.

For too long technical expertise has been seen as the marker of a strong candidate for development into a sales or leadership position. Sales and leadership candidates are tasked with demonstrating a diverse and wide-ranging set of technical skills, yet their aptitude in these technical skills or ‘hard skills’ cannot signify great leadership potential. This is why a healthy balance of soft skills and technical ability is required. 

So what exactly is the difference between technical skills and soft skills? In engineering, it’s crucial to demonstrate knowledge of physics as well as a strong grasp on mathematical equations. Yet, in any industry, it’s important for leaders to be able to interact with other people effectively with soft skills like communication, empathy and adaptability. 

Business Linked Team’s 2018 study into internal leadership development revealed that 69% of large organisations are prioritising the identification and development of future leaders from within the workforce. As more and more organisations begin to invest in sales or leadership development within their existing workforces, more focus needs to be placed on ensuring the right soft skills are in place. 

With those soft skills in place throughout the workforce, the business will benefit from a wider pool of potential leaders developing under their noses, and it should be the same where sales candidates are concerned. 

It’s not just about easier access to ideal candidates for these positions without the rigmarole of recruiting from outside of the organisation. The leadership development study also found that 89% of HR decision makers say succession planning has become a top priority. Those currently serving in leadership positions can’t lead forever and the same goes for those generating sales for the business.

Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

From people leaving for new opportunities or retirement, to people simply stepping aside to focus on other areas of the business, successful leaders and salespeople require experienced and capable successors that will be ready and able to confidently step into their shoes and pick up the mantle without the business experiencing any lapse in performance.

Soft skills make stronger candidates

When it comes to the soft skills required, a strong leader must be able to manage through clear communication and effective time management, coaching and goal setting. They must be able to demonstrate empathy and empower their teams to be successful, productive and fully engaged. And beyond simply giving direction, they must also be able to take direction from those above them and cascade the business strategy down through their teams. 

A strong sales candidate must possess the ability to communicate value to the customer, negotiate well and protect margin or the ability to increase the scope of a particular sales opportunity. 

With the relevant soft skills in place, the business will benefit from increased productivity, greater agility against changing market conditions and greater transparency. In turn, this will provide visibility on issues and inefficiencies while removing opportunity for miscommunication. All of this can transform the culture of a department, improving employee satisfaction and reducing staff turnover. 

Ultimately, developing leadership or sales candidates will require the business to strike the right balance between technical skills and soft skills, and this requires an effective and sustained learning journey.

A balanced learning journey

Facilitating and supporting the development of leadership and sales is best achieved by establishing training groups. By cultivating training groups, businesses are creating talent pools that will inspire and support each other on the learning journey. However, personal goals and learning objectives must be defined for each individual based on their own existing skillsets and the skills that each individual needs to develop. 

With the emergence of e-learning, businesses recognise the value of online-based learning activities, yet many make the mistake of opting for one-size-fits-all solutions which are solely focused on self-study. A development solution will only deliver true return on investment if it combines e-learning activities with group learning activities that provide opportunity for shared experiences and support.

A blended learning solution that combines self-study and face-to-face group learning activities will aid strong development of the talent pool through shared experiences. Through these shared experiences, those undergoing the training will organically develop a support network that supports the development of the group as much as it supports the development of each individual. 

The blended learning approach is supported by one of the seven principles of human learning that socially supported interactions aid the individual development of expertise, metacognitive skills, and formation of the learner’s sense of self. The strongest opportunities for development can be unlocked by blending workshops with online activities such as virtual sessions, peer coaching, self-study, online games and business simulations. But it’s crucial to provide a blend of one-to-one and group sessions too.

Beyond delivering a better learning outcome for the employee, the blended learning approach allows organisations to adapt their training quickly and easily to shifting business demands in an ever-changing landscape.