Over the past two decades, while leading or overseeing dozens of businesses across three continents, I’ve grappled with the question of what it takes to drive engagement. I’ve watched and learned from other leaders — some in my organization, some outside of it — and looked for lessons that I could apply in my own role.
As part of my quest I’ve read many leadership books and met with multiple ‘experts’ in the field. And while many provided useful insights and academic theories, none of them gave me a practical framework that I could easily remember and apply in my daily life as a leader.
Over time I gathered the insights together in a simple, five-point framework – the Leadership Star – that I began sharing with leaders in the businesses I was running. A number of leaders who applied this framework saw tremendous improvements in engagement, resulting in higher profitability, productivity, and customer satisfaction as well as lower staff turnover and absenteeism.
At its most basic the Leadership Star framework is simple. To build and sustain high engagement, a leader needs to do five things:
- Provide Context
- Give Clarity
- Clear the way
Genuine Care is the foundation of high engagement. Highly engaging leaders manifest that Care in several ways. They show they Care for the individual as a human being: rather than treating people as collective ‘human resources’, great leaders strive to treat each person in their organization as a valued individual. They recognize that Care is an action word, by:
- taking an interest in their employees as people and showing that they value each person for who they are, not just for what they do or their position in the hierarchy
- demonstrating empathy and compassion, offering emotional support during both work and personal challenges
- helping meet employees’ individual needs or constraints, adjusting expectations when possible
Highly engaging leaders show that they Care about their people’s development and growth, understanding that people want to feel that they are being challenged, that they are growing in skills and experience and that they have a bright future. These leaders create a culture of development by:
- understanding people’s abilities and aspirations
- giving honest feedback and advice
- investing in their growth
- investing in training and development resources
- taking risks on people
Highly engaging leaders also Care about results. They recognize that people want to know that their leaders are committed to excellence and delivering results. Leaders need to set high standards, offering encouragement where possible, and delivering tough love where necessary. This is because success breeds success: a team that consistently achieves stretching goals is more likely to feel proud and confident in its capabilities, and as a consequence to become highly engaged.
Highly engaging leaders help people find meaning in what they do, by explaining the higher purpose of the organization and helping people connect that purpose to their own values and daily work. To do this, engaging leaders:
- define and explain the organization’s purpose (in other words, the ‘why’ of the organization): what outcomes does the organization seek to deliver, and for whom?
- define and explain the organization’s priorities as it seeks to deliver on its purpose
- demonstrate their own personal commitment to that purpose and the organization’s priorities
- help people see how their individual roles link to and support the purpose and priorities, and ideally how their work aligns with their own personal values
- constantly communicate and reinforce the purpose and priorities, especially when making key decisions.
To build and sustain engagement, leaders need to ensure people know what’s expected of them, in several respects:
- Role Clarity: people need to understand the purpose of their individual role and how they are expected to contribute as a member of the team. Good leaders make a point of clarifying their expectations for each role in detail, so that people are more likely to spend their time on the right things and to work effectively with their colleagues to deliver high-quality results.
- Goal Clarity: for each performance period, individuals need to know what outcomes are expected — what ‘good’ looks like, and what ‘great’ looks like. Effective goal setting means choosing a small but impactful set of stretch objectives, clarifying the difference between lead and lag indicators, and encouraging people to adopt a ‘growth mindset’ in their approach to meeting their objectives.
- Behavioral Clarity: in a highly engaged culture, everyone is clear on the organization’s values and understands how those values translate into what behavior is expected, and what behavior isn’t acceptable.
- Regular feedback: great leaders ensure that people get regular formal and informal feedback on both their performance and their behavior, reinforcing good results and allowing people to course-correct where they’re off track. Ideally that feedback allows people to understand both absolute performance — how they have performed against their goals — and relative performance — how their outcomes stack up in the broader organization.
- Consequences: highly engaged organizations make sure that individuals are both recognized and held to account for their performance, whether in terms of goal delivery or behavior. Where consequences relate to breaches of behavioral standards, it’s important that these steps are sufficiently public that the organization recognizes the leader’s commitment to their avowed standards.
Clear the way
Once people are clear on what’s expected of them, leaders need to be proactive in helping knock down the barriers that hold people back. This means:
- asking what’s getting in the way — physical constraints, financial or resource limitations, lack of knowledge, emotional or cultural barriers or political issues
- personally looking for barriers that employees may not see or recognise by talking to customers, suppliers and employees, and by digging into the details of processes
- taking action to remove those barriers, whether through direct decisions and resource allocation or by using other techniques to quickly surface and resolve barriers to success.
The final step in sustaining engagement is to recognize individual contributions and success, creating a powerful feedback loop for performance and engagement. In highly engaged organizations, recognition is embedded as fundamental aspect of the culture, and operates at a number of levels:
- Frequent and periodic: leaders make a point of frequently recognizing the value of day-to-day efforts, while also stepping back from time to time to celebrate major milestones such as the achievement of quarterly or annual results.
- Top down and bottom up: rather than using a purely senior leader–driven effort, highly engaged organizations use both peer and team-leader recognition programs to reinforce gratitude and pride among employees at all levels and strengthen the emotional bonds within and among teams.
- Informal and formal: while formal financial (e.g. performance pay) and nonfinancial (e.g. awards nights) recognition programs play an important part in recognition, the best leaders use a wide variety of informal approaches to create recognition that has emotional impact. From ‘thank you’ notes to gifts to new development opportunities, the range of approaches is limited only by the leader’s creativity — so long as the recognition is delivered in a manner that is authentic, relevant and personalized to the individual in question.
- Individual and team: to maximize engagement, recognition programs need to celebrate team performance as well as individual achievement. In most organizations, there are many ‘unsung heroes’ whose roles may not allow them to stand out as individual achievers, but whose experience and efforts are nevertheless critical to the organization’s success.
- Focused and fair: who gets recognized — and for what — sends important messages to the organization about what really matters to the leaders. Likewise, employees look closely at the signals embedded in recognition programs: the relative value provided for performance versus behavior, and the actions that are taken (or not taken) on people who fall short.
I’ve seen these principles these principles work in both my business and not-for-profit activities. And based on the feedback I’ve received from leaders across business, academia, and government and the not-for-profit sector, I believe this framework can help any leader who is committed to building and sustaining a highly engaged workforce.
About the Author
Brian Hartzer is the author of THE LEADERSHIP STAR: A Practical Guide To Building Engagement. He is an experienced executive and leadership mentor who served as CEO of the Westpac Banking Group from 2015 to 2019. Earlier, he spent 15 years in senior executive roles at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group and ANZ Banking Group. Hartzer has also worked as a financial services strategy consultant at First Manhattan Consulting Group in New York, San Francisco, and Melbourne. He is currently an advisor and investor to several Sydney-based startups, including Quantium, a data-science company. Hartzer, who graduated from Princeton University and is a Chartered Financial Analyst, holds dual U.S. and Australian citizenship. He resides in Sydney, Australia.