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The 'ivory tower' leader: How can HR help them engage?

Bettina Pickering and Janet Windeatt
PA Consulting Group
HR Zone
29 July 2008

When it comes to successful leadership and engaging employees, it is important to get the basics right first, say Bettina Pickering and Janet Windeatt.

Senior leaders are good at what they do - that's how they got to where they are today. Over the years, they have honed their particular leadership style and have become comfortable communicating to and 'engaging' employees in a certain way.

In numerous cases, however, that preferred engagement style is more of an institutional one; without directly engaging the wider employee base, they rely heavily on one-way communication using PowerPoint, email or a small group of direct reports.

Employees nowadays respond far better to, and indeed expect, interactive engagement. Staff respect leaders who engage directly with them instead of hiding behind line or other managers, communicating from a perceived ‘ivory tower’. Most ivory tower leaders tend to only deal with relatively small groups of people on a regular basis – their peers, their immediate direct reports and potentially customers/suppliers.

The ivory tower leader often leaves the wider staff engagement to their direct reports, HR or communications function. This leads to employees not fully bought into desired business or behavioural change; resulting in time delays, lower quality of work and additional investment in further stakeholder management and engagement activities.

An overhaul of how leaders engage with employees can reap dividends. In an employee-driven market, where talent is at a premium, the emotional link to the senior management team becomes increasingly important.

There has been significant and robust research that highlights the crucial link between employee engagement and business success. Managers who ignore this, who continue to deploy old styles, will find their organisation’s talent will be voting with their feet as they move to employers with a modernised approach to involving and engaging their people.

Leaders must therefore be able to flex their employee engagement style and become comfortable engaging with staff on a more personal and emotional level. Yet, as we all know, changing our style sounds easier said than done; often leaders who are used to applying one communication style may not readily see the need to change to another.

How can HR help their senior management teams to improve their employee engagement style?

Improving senior leader engagement skills

1. Build the case for change
2. Help the leader recognise where they are
3. Work with them to create a roadmap for change
4. Provide ongoing support and encouragement
5. Recognise success and behaviours

Prove your business case

Firstly, to get the leader in question to listen, HR needs to build the case for change by proving the link between successful employee engagement and the bottom line. Numerous studies can provide supporting evidence, for example from CIPD and Gallup.

Raise self-awareness

Not all leaders have adequate self-awareness when it comes to the effectiveness of their traditional engagement style. Plus, they do not always receive honest and direct feedback on how they could improve their style. HR can add enormous value in helping leaders recognise where they are, based on evidence from employee surveys, 360s and other tools that shed light on engagement styles.

Moving from ivory tower to interaction

Moving to an interactive, personal and multidirectional engagement style can feel daunting and uncomfortable. It is easy to say: "Go and engage with your employees" but for those not used to it, this instruction will not mean much. HR can therefore help the individual to understand and identify what engagement can mean for them in practice. For example, while not everyone is suited to hold interactive conferences Tony Robbins’ style, team meetings or smaller workshops may help ease the transition.

A step-by-step development roadmap that includes practical examples, tailored development and coaching as well as practice sessions and development reviews is crucial.

Less PowerPoint, more ‘unpacking’

Ongoing support and encouragement are especially important where senior people find it challenging to include emotions and a more personal touch into their everyday employee engagement activities. For example, they will need help in giving up the traditional 'tell' resentations to move to a more interactive style where the communicator 'unpacks' business language and invites employees to participate in a dialogue about the business challenges and possible solutions.

Catch people doing it right

Senior people often lack positive feedback. Few people comment positively when a leader has done something well, for fear that they may be seen as being sycophantic. Think back, when did you last tell your CEO that they delivered a good piece of employee engagement? Without regular feedback, it is very hard for someone to successfully change their style and keep at it. In our experience, senior leaders warmly welcome honest and insightful feedback. So be courageous – tell your senior leaders when they are doing it well.

Don’t forget to measure the results

As with any development programme, setting a baseline and measuring the results are just good practice. Make sure your employee survey includes questions that can help track improvements. This will help to get other leaders on board and ensure that HR is able to offer this type of support to up-and-coming leaders. If successful, the day of the 'ivory tower' leader will soon be history.

Bettina Pickering is a Managing Consultant for PA Consulting Group. Since joining PA in 1997, Bettina has worked across a variety of private sector industries (various manufacturing, chemicals, postal, telecommunications, legal, banking and insurance) and public sector clients (Health and Work & Pensions). Her focus is on managing and delivering Business Transformation projects (in particular HR and Finance Transformation), Employer Branding and Engagement initiatives and Business and IT-enabled Change programmes.

Janet Windeatt has significant experience working with senior executives on the development and implementation of robust people strategies designed to deliver corporate business plan objectives. Janet has a breadth of international experience, having worked in the US and the UK, delivering HR and IT initiatives that focus on developing a high performing workforce. 

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