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Perspectives of an Early Engagement Leader

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While we at the EEA take great pride in having identified the emergence of engagement long before most, we didn’t invent the field. What is so exciting about this journey is the people we meet along the way who have reached very much the same conclusions through their own experience without knowing about the others who shared their passion.

Now that engagement is becoming a reality as a business strategy, and with the help of our organization and many others, these folks will find one another and share the same excitement we do about the potential to make money making businesses more profitable while making people happier.

At the Forefront

No one can deny that Bob Kelleher is one of the early pioneers: he bought the employeeengagement.com domain in 2003. He created what we would call one of the first engagement practices in 2009 – just shortly after the EEA was formally created – after a long career at ENSR, a global professional services firm, ultimately acquired by Aecom (a leading engineering firm among Fortune’s Most Admired Companies). During his career at ENSR, (over many years) he identified engagement as a critical issue and helped them create and implement a strategy since, of course, there was no formal business process upon which to base the plan.

He attributes a lot of his success at ENSR to “spending every waking hour on engagement. How do you properly recruit, build communications and translate engagement into performance?” He rose through the HR ranks to Chief Operating Officer, and along the way did a lot of public speaking, only increasing his passion for the subject. (note – HR executives do not frequently end up as Chief Operating Officers at large companies, validating that his principles drive business results.) Kelleher believes his experience has proven that, from a corporate standpoint, “engagement is a business necessity.” He said he has become a passionate believer that “an organization can really improve its performance through a strategic focus on engagement.”

Kelleher ultimately became Chief Human Officer for all of AECOM global businesses (today, 100,000 employees), but decided to leave the corporate world in 2009 to make a business of engagement. He used the same blueprint he had developed at ENSR and AECOM to offer clients ‘call to action’ keynote speeches, consulting, training, engagement surveys, and related services, and wrote five books on engagement, including the best seller Louder Than Words – 10 Practical Employee Engagement Steps that Drive Results, and Employee Engagement for Dummies.

“I didn’t have a business plan for my new company, but I knew I could help companies leverage human capital in ways that change business results. My biggest strength is that I come at it from the corporate practitioner side.” From that perspective, he had to address the issue of return-on-investment from the outset. “Engagement is not a thing; it’s an outcome. It’s not something you just do; it’s an ongoing process and commitment to not only engage people but achieve business results.”

As an early pioneer, Kelleher believes the concept of engagement has come a long way. “It was a completely virgin topic 11 years ago,” he says. “It frustrates me that people still confuse employee satisfaction with engagement, but I think we’re almost beyond that and that the importance of engagement has begun to take root.”

The Test of Time

“To me, the concept will stand the test of time,” Kelleher says. “People have talked about leadership for decades; the topic hasn’t gone away. Those who know about engagement get it, and there’s an entire boutique industry out there doing research to validate what I’m talking about…the researchers are compiling a lot of information. Companies with highly engaged employees outperform their competitors. It’s nonsense to think this is just a fad.”

Kelleher’s company has a complete library of books and the world’s first ‘On Demand’ Engagement library – an inventory of hundreds of resources that clients get to ‘own’   and offers various types of training programs based on his decades of experience in the corporate world, and with hundreds of current clients. His overall approach echoes that of many other people going down the same path. He said it boils down to “Hiring the right diverse group of people who understand the value proposition of your organization. It’s about developing empathetic managers; building a culture of accountability; transparency and consistency in communication; implementing the right rewards; establishing the right performance measures; and more.”

Traditional tactical approaches to engagement, such as recognition, he says, “are just a subset of what you need to have in place so that the outcome is an engaged workforce contributing to performance.” During the recession, says Kelleher, “things like engagement and investing in people fell into the ‘when-we-get-to-it’ category.” Now, he believes, companies will have to address the dismally low levels of engagement in the U.S.

As for the emerging engagement business, Kelleher notes: “Just about everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. The more the merrier. I hope everyone is talking about it. I welcome the noise.”

We also asked for Kelleher’s views on the debate over where engagement begins: the customer or the employee. As covered in previous blogs, there are those who argue that it begins with employees, and others, like those of us at the EEA, who argue that it’s an enterprise-wide strategy that, if it begins anywhere, it’s with the ultimate creator of wealth for all: the customer.

Read the full version of Kelleher’s view on the subject in Engagement Strategies media, coming soon.

 


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