Last year I got a review copy of The CEO - Chief Engagement Officer: Turning Hierarchy Upside Down to Drive Performance. I had heard an interview with author John Smythe on FIR and I was excited about the book. Smythe came across as a passionate and eloquent advocate for a modern, more inclusive style of leadership that recognizes employees' need to be more involved in decisionmaking.
I'm of two minds on the book, which has received high praise. On the one hand, although it's only 212 pages, it's an incredibly tough slog and took me about six months to get through on my bus commute. I'm sure Mr. Smythe is a great consultant, but a great writer he ain't. Here's a particularly troublesom example:
"Selling to the many what has been decided by the few may be a rational choice in conditions similar to those where a tell mode is suitable but where the employee group is likely to be resistant to instruction and needs persuading to motivate and engergize them."
Whaaa? There are far too many passages like that. I often found myself shutting the book and taking out my iPod.
And it's less of a business book than an expansion of every powerpoint presentation the author has ever made. Lots of figures with little arrows pointing everywhere and boxes with words in them like "cultural drivers," "workplace drivers" and "instrumental drivers." A very, very corporate feel. Yuck.
But get past the corporatespeak (most of which could have been fixed by a good editor) and this book is a real treasure, with some great insights on employee engagement and organizational communication.
I honestly think it should be in every employee communicator's library, and I encourage you to order a copy. In the meantime, here are some of the key points:
- For Smythe (and his former colleagues at McKinsey) engagement is “a process by which people become personally implicated in the success of a strategy, change, transformation or everyday operational decision,” and “communication is essential to set the context for engagement and provide people with a sense of journey.”
- Engagement needs to be considered as part of an organization’s decision-making process – not something that takes place after the fact: “No operational decisions or grand plan can be said to be complete until the decision makers or sponsors have thought through how to engage those who are implicated in the decision/change.” Amen.
- Here’s an interesting observation: “Turbulence wakes people and allows them to see the repetitive patterns which they are either voluntarily or involuntarily ensnared by. It provides them with a moment of clarity in which they can make personal choices about breaking the pattern or going with the flow…”
- And here’s another: “Too often …the novelty of the original thinking is undermined by the way those are directing the change or decision engage those who are key to the execution. The danger is that the engagement and communication processes appear to be repetitions of past practices which dilute the novelty and freshness of the underlying strategy, change or decision.” In other words, avoid the SSDD (same shit, different day) syndrome.
- The move from a hierarchical, management-by-decree approach to one that is more inclusive and engaging doesn’t happen overnight: “…you cannot suddenly go from an autocratic top-down model to one in which you expect people to respond to a more inclusive approach. There will be distrust and a lack of collective skills. It will take experimentation.”
- Smythe is a strong proponent of what he calls “engagement interventions” – experiences in which participants are invited to contribute ideas, solve problems, or seize opportunities that “would normally be tackled by the higher levels of the hierarchy.” At the same time, though, he warns against imposed, programmatic change programs because they can alienate people and “often become unstuck during implementation.” How many times have you seen that in the corporate world?
- For Smythe, communication is an important component of engagement that needs to start early in the process. “The sad truth is that most leadership teams do not keep people in the dark deliberately. Some do not see the need for it, but most want to wait until things are looking better and they feel more confident. But the later they leave it, the harder they have to work to instill confidence in their people; an invisible plan inspires no one.” That's a great passage that helps redeem Smythe's writing. And, for communicators, it's our inconvenient truth.
- Of course, it’s not all about communication, but rather it should entail “Action not words: whilst creating a shared story with a higher purpose is critical, if it stops there as a marketing or communication process it will have been a waste of time and the sponsor will lose credibility. The prime outcome is action which will deliver the stated aims of the vision, and that action must be driven at all levels.” Amen, brother.
Despite the difficult read, I found the book to have lots of inspiring stuff and I hope some day to have a drink with Mr. Smythe. If you're as deep into the employee engagement business as he is, he must have lots of hair-raising stories to tell.
A side benefit: if you're ever in need of fodder for a powerpoint presentation about communicating change, there's lots of good material to draw on.
Finally, there's an unexpected treat that's worth the price of the book. The last chapter, by consultant, author and academic Johanna Fawkes, is a thorough overview of recent research on employee engagement, documenting the various different definitions, approaches, measurement techniques and lots more. For all the engagement fatigue that's out there, it's clear from the research that this is a field that's in its early days, with lots of fine-tuning to come.