How Does a CEO Do Engagement?

Step one, stop talking about inclusion and engagement and start doing it. Step two, conduct “beach ball meetings”(instructions follow). Step three, look beyond hard-wired assumptions and, yes, listen.

March 29 2011 by Susan Scott


In early February, Engadget published an internal memo written by Nokia’s CEO, Stephen Elop, in which he likens the once-dominant Finnish phone manufacturer to the oil worker trapped by a fire in the dead of night on the burning platform of a rig in the North Sea. He had seconds to consider the 150 foot drop into the ocean, the knowledge that there was floating debris and burning oil on the surface of the water, and that if the fall didn’t kill him, he would die of exposure in 15 minutes. His only option for survival was to ignore what he had been told never to do and jump into the icy waters of the North Sea, a situation in which Nokia now finds itself after having made a series of poor decisions. Elop conveyed it this way:

  • “There is intense heat coming from our competitors, more rapidly than we ever expected.
  • The first iPhone shipped in 2007, and we still don’t have a product that is close to their experience. They changed the game, and today, Apple owns the high-end range.
  • Android came on the scene just over 2 years ago, and this week they took our leadership position in smartphone volumes. Unbelievable.
  • Our competitors aren’t taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem.

How did we get to this point? Why did we fall behind when the world around us evolved? This is what I have been trying to understand. I believe at least some of it has been due to our attitude inside Nokia. We poured gasoline on our own burning platform. I believe we have lacked accountability and leadership to align and direct the company through these disruptive times. We had a series of misses. We haven’t been delivering innovation fast enough. We’re not collaborating internally.

Nokia, our platform is burning.”

Pretty powerful. The candor with which Elop delivered his message is the reason his memo had Twitter, Facebook, and the blogging community abuzz, and his employees on the edge of their seats. But while the oil worker survived, Nokia may not be so fortunate. In what may prove to be a final strategic blunder, Elop, a former Microsoft executive, announced later that week that the key to Nokia’s viability and success is to use Windows Phone 7 for its smartphone. At their joint announcement, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, said, “I am excited about this partnership with Nokia. Ecosystems thrive when fueled by speed, innovation and scale.”

Tru dat. Unfortunately, with apologies to my friends in both companies, apart from Xbox Kinect, neither Microsoft nor Nokia has demonstrated speed, innovation and scale for at least a decade, so it’s no surprise that Nokia’s employees, customers, and shareholders expressed dismay at this decision; in fact, many employees took the next day off, as PTO, in protest.

With so many shocked employees, partners — think Intel — and shareholders, Nokia provides a current example of a company that has arrived, gradually, then suddenly, at the edge of disaster with a workforce of emphatically unengaged employees, one failed, one missing conversation at a time. It’s unlikely that things will go smoothly in the execution department.

Elop may be brilliant and his decision may be the right one. I sincerely hope it is. But if he fails to re-engage his unengaged workforce, he is in no danger of a smooth implementation because he cannot mandate accountability, innovation or collaboration. No one can. These are private, non-negotiable choices individuals make about how to live their lives, about how much of themselves to bring in the door each day.

We all know that if employees aren’t engaged, companies will suffer. Good people will quit, defect, disappear; or worse, they’ll show up every day — in body — but only bringing a tiny piece of themselves in spirit. They’ll become disgruntled, disenchanted, disillusioned, which profoundly affects the bottom line. Yet, despite all the hype about what companies are doing to promote employee inclusion and engagement (these go hand-in-hand), many still see this as a soft topic, nice to do, something that makes people feel good. Of course, employee inclusion and engagement makes people feel good. AND increases productivity and builds revenue.

I think of it this way: Inclusion + engagement = execution muscle…plus happy people, but as far as I’m concerned, without execution muscle, you might as well hang it up. Let’s define terms.

Employee inclusion suggests that people of every stripe — gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, aspiration, disability, position or title and whatever other differences are possible in the human population – feel that they have a place at the table, that they are seen, heard and valued and that, given stellar performance, they have an opportunity to advance. That they do not feel marginalized, “less than”, left out, over-looked, invisible, made wrong, taken advantage of, disrespected, ignored or mistreated. At its heart, inclusion is about membership, belonging to a community.

The overriding theme of employee engagement is a heightened emotional connection that an employee feels for his or her organization, that influences him or her to exert greater discretionary effort. And the direct relationship with one’s manager is the strongest driver of employee engagement.

Employee engagement and inclusion isn’t a cognitive issue. It’s an emotional issue. The problem isn’t out there. It’s in here. We want employees to be engaged and feel included, while we ourselves are detached, distracted, disengaged, focused on our To Do lists and the stock price. We want others to bring that elusive, coveted “discretionary effort” in the door with them every day but we don’t have time to engage in the kind of conversations that could enrich our relationships with them.

The fact is, not having those conversations will take longer and cost more in the long term. When you disengage from the world, the world disengages too, in equal measure. It’s a two-step, you and the world, you and your organization. Your employees lost interest in you because you lost interest in them. Calling them associates or partners is often window dressing. If you want high levels of employee engagement you must gain the capacity to connect with your employees – at a deep level – or lower your aim. And that connection occurs or fails to occur one conversation at a time. If you’re a fan of Angry Birds, the eagle is to Angry Birds what human connectivity is to the relationships central to your success. It gets the job done!

What gets talked about in your company, how it gets talked about and who is invited to the conversation determines what will happen. Or won’t happen. Your conversations must be fierce — conversations in which you and others come out from behind yourselves, into your conversations, and make them real. Once an organization crosses the line into “fierce” territory, very little else is required to create a culture of highly engaged, kick-ass employees. Without such conversations, your platform may be smoldering.

This is where it gets personal. In a very real sense, the progress of your organization depends on your progress as an individual now. Want high levels of engagement, cooperation and collaboration throughout your organization? Innovation? Agility? Execution muscle? Look to the conversations you are having. Are they confined to the C Suite? What is your level of candor and that of your direct reports? Are you seeking agreement or do you want the truth? Are you different when your conversations are over?

And what if your company is doing fine? I recently gave a keynote to a company poised to distribute millions in profit sharing, a cause for celebration. Meanwhile, one of the divisions is troubled, unhappy. How much of the CEO’s attention does this require, given that his board just gave him an A on his report card?

Let’s revisit the oil rig, Piper Alpha.

Investigators traced the cause to a missing component on a condensate pump. The pressure safety valve on pump A was removed for maintenance. Paperwork prohibiting the pump from being used was lost or misplaced. When pump B broke down, pump A was switched on. Gas began to leak, alarms were triggered, and the platform was rocked by a huge explosion.At this stage there were probably only a few casualties, but things were about to get much worse. Despite a mayday call from Piper Alpha, two neighboring rigs did not shut down their operations. Oil continued to be pumped into a communal pipe and towards the stricken rig. You see where this is going. Another enormous explosion rocked Piper Alpha and the rig fell into the sea.

It is likely that the magnitude of the disaster would have been much less had the neighboring rigs shut down immediately. But with the huge losses incurred by shutting down production on an oil rig, it was a case of profit before safety, profit before lives.

What’s to be learned? When Madeleine Albright was asked what advice she would give to world leaders. She said, “I would tell them that what matters anywhere, matters everywhere.” Better men and women than I have written about the galactic implications. But let’s point the telescope at your company. What matters anywhere in your organization, matters everywhere in your organization. Organizations are webs of relationships. Each conversation, each meeting creates a chain reaction, like a Rube Goldberg contraption.

You, all by your lonesome, are having an impressive impact on your world. Your conversations with your assistant affect his self esteem and his impression of what matters to you, which he conveys in every conversation he has with all of the people in your world. Your conversations with peers affect their willingness to collaborate and cooperate with you when they could fake it if they wanted to. They pass on their opinions and experience of you to others in the company. Your conversations with customers, partners, and vendors ultimately win or lose the day.

What to do? Stop talking about inclusion and engagement and start including and engaging! It may help to picture your organization as a huge beach ball.

Each person in your company operates from a different stripe and experiences reality from that perspective. People in marketing, human resources, manufacturing, accounting, out on the loading dock – and let’s not forget your customers – have different, perhaps competing perspectives. Blue, red, green, gold. What matters is not whose perspective is correct, but that everyone puts their brain on the table for all to see (assuming that they brought their brains with them).

Instructions for holding beach ball meetings are covered in detail in Fierce Conversations and Fierce Leadership. Here are the steps:

Think of a significant or recurring problem you wish to resolve.
Write down the names of the people whose perspective will be important to understand in order to make the best possible decision.
Prior to the meeting, send out any material invitees will need to review.

Hold the meeting. Thank everyone for coming and ask them to turn off high tech distractions likely to ring, hum or vibrate, including laptops. Tell them that you want eye contact, deep listening. Talk them through the issue quickly to focus attention on the topic. Answer clarifying questions. Then say something like:

“I have defined the issue as I see it, what is at stake for us to lose or gain, as well as what I think needs to happen and why. Now I ask that you push back on anything I’ve said that doesn’t match your view of reality. Tell me what I’m missing. Point out any fires that may be smoldering in our attic. That’s how you’ll add value to this meeting. My hope is to be influenced by you. I genuinely hope to be different when this meeting is over.” And mean it!

Make sure that you hear each team member’s thoughts, concerns, ideas. Your goal is not to persuade them to your way of thinking, but to understand theirs. If you disagree with a comment or don’t understand, don’t say, “Yes, but…” Ask them to say more and listen. If someone says, “I don’t know,” ask, “What would it be if you did know?” If someone says, “I have nothing to add,” ask, “What would you add if you did have something to add?” Don’t let anyone off the hook. Ensure that everyone speaks.

When you have heard from everyone, ask each team member to write down a concise answer to this question: “Having heard from everyone here, what is your strongest recommendation?” or “What would you do if you were in my shoes?” Have each person read his/her advice. Don’t respond, except to say, “Thank you.” After everyone has read their advice, ask them to sign their recommendations and give them to you so that you can follow up if you’d like more information.

Thank everyone for their contributions and tell them you will let them know your decision. And do so.

Because beach ball meetings are far more engaging and productive than the meetings most of us are used to, the idea tends to catch on. Ultimately, inclusion and engagement becomes a way of life, what everyone does, threaded through every activity, every conversation, every meeting. Not top down or bottom up, but side by side. Listening to each other. Your organization cannot move toward success unless you act in unison to further what wants and needs to happen. Our power as individuals is multiplied when we gather together with common goals. It will be your collective intelligence and strength that makes positive change possible within your organization.

It isn’t easy — this looking beyond hard-wired assumptions and beliefs, welcoming competing perspectives. Some people aren’t interested in listening to those who disagree with them, who are not from their world. But they will never grow because they just meet themselves over and over, entranced with their own form, their own face and ideology.

Employee engagement. A worthy goal that will remain just that — a goal — unless and until here and now, we create deep connection in this moment, with this person who is holding forth or sitting quietly, the one with whom we disagree, the one we haven’t valued, haven’t really seen. Until now.

Susan Scott founded Seattle-based Fierce, www.fierceinc.com, a leadership development and training company that focuses on developing conversation as a skill. For 13 years, she ran think tanks for CEOs and designed and delivered training to peers working with CEOs in 18 countries. Scott is the author of two books, “Fierce Conversations — Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time, published in 2002,” and “Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today, published in 2009.”