I love this question and it’s the focus of new research into the alignment of strategy, culture and the personality of the CEO by Charles O’Reilly, Xubo Cao, and Donald Sull.
The authors “used a natural language algorithm on earnings call data to assess the personalities of 460 CEOs at more than 300 companies.” [Interesting…]
They then “analysed Glassdoor reviews to calculate the firms’ organizational cultures, including factors such as collaboration, execution, and performance.” [There’s more and more work being done like this.]
They found that:
=> “Extraverted or sociable CEOs were associated with agility, collaboration, and execution”
=> “Agreeable or trusting CEOs were associated with flexibility and internal focus”
=> “Highly conscientious or detail-oriented CEOs typically led companies whose cultures placed less value on agility, innovation, and — interestingly — execution and results.”
It’s important to think about what’s reflecting what in all of this. And culture formation is complicated. The authors are most interested in alignment I think. As they say, “There’s no ideal personality type for executives — but businesses need the right one for success… The ideal personality of a CEO will largely depend on their company.”
You can find the research paper here: O’Reilly, C., Cao, X., & Sull, D. (2023). CEO Personality: The Cornerstone of Organizational Culture? Group & Organization Management, 0(0). https://buff.ly/3QS2bXG
If you’re like me, you probably get invited to follow a lot of newsletters. It can be a bit overwhelming. So I thought I’d share a list of those that I (very happily) follow:
– If you’re interested in psychological safety, then Tom Geraghty’s newsletter has the mission of “making the world of work a better, safer, more inclusive and equitable place.” https://psychsafety.co.uk/newsletter/
– Anyone following my posts will know that trust is a central theme. Hence, I find “Rethink” with Rachel Botsman a great read. The weekly newsletter is free and the aim is to share “an idea that will make you think differently”. https://rachelbotsman.substack.com/about
– Abhishek Mittal has a great newsletter called “HRHeadStart”. He says it’s aimed at “young HR professionals and students” but I learn an awful lot from it too. https://www.hrheadstart.xyz/
– Rita McGrath, author and professor at Columbia Business School, uses her “Thought Sparks” newsletter on Substack to share her ideas on strategy, innovation, and growth. https://thoughtsparks.substack.com/
** Of course, I also have my own newsletter!! (“EX Leadership”). It’s quarterly and I share the very best 3-4 EX articles I’ve come across in the last few months. You can sign up here: https://nicklynnphd.substack.com/
I hope you enjoy some / all of these. Which others would be on your list? I’d love to know what I’m missing out on!
My colleague Abhishek Mittal (now at Google) has a great newsletter called “HRHeadStart”. He says it’s aimed at “young HR professionals and students” but I learn an awful lot from it on topics like skills, talent, and analytics. It’s here: https://www.hrheadstart.xyz/
Rita McGrath, author and professor at Columbia Business School, uses her “Thought Sparks” newsletter on substack to share her ideas on strategy, innovation, and growth. Highly recommended: https://thoughtsparks.substack.com/
Colin Newlyn provides a unique perspective on the world of work through his “The Decrapify Work Not-Newsletter”. Highly recommended for challenging your thinking; it’s here: https://decrapifywork.substack.com/
If you’re interested in psychological safety, then Tom Geraghty’s newsletter has the mission of “making the world of work a better, safer, more inclusive and equitable place.” It’s always interesting and includes a weekly poem. You can sign up here: https://www.psychsafety.co.uk/psychological-safety-newsletter/
Of course, the main purpose of this post is to plug my own newsletter. I post it here and send it out by email, but I’ve now put it on substack too. It’s quarterly and I share the very best 3-4 EX articles I’ve come across in the last few months. The idea is to save you time scrolling through LI and twitter. It’s here: https://nicklynnphd.substack.com/
Here’s the latest version of my informal newsletter, containing a short selection of the very best EX articles I’ve come across over the last few months (so you don’t have to slog through LI or Twitter).
First up is a terrific HBR article by Diane Gherson and Lynda Gratton on how overwhelmed many managers are and what to do about it. In our data we’re seeing more and more evidence of manager burnout. It’s often a systemic problem that’s fixed by rethinking the role of people leader. There is some great advice in this piece: building people leadership skills, simplifying work, and job redesign. Related to this, I am working on a number of “Manager 180s” for clients at the moment that provide tailored developmental feedback to people leaders at all levels. It’s a great use of our listening platform (and often not part of a traditional “listening strategy”).
I’m a long-time fan of Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore, the authors of The Experience Economy, one of my favourite books. I really like their latest article on transforming jobs to create more compelling employee experiences. Too much of the discussion about the Future of Work focuses on automation, cost-saving, and efficiency (the transactional side of work). It’s good to be reminded of the opportunity to invest in people, engagement, and trust (by transforming jobs).
This is an interesting article by Ayelet Fishbach on how moderate emotional discomfort can be a signal that you’re developing as a person. It often happens before you can actually detect the benefits of self-growth. In other words, short-term discomfort can be a sign you’re making progress towards long-term gains. Ayelet is author of the book “Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation”.
The final pair of articles are both reflections on what has happened over the last 2-3 years:
Here, Eric McNulty focuses on leadership. He sets out a simple process of “sensing-responding-adapting” in order to be agile enough to respond to uncertainty and shocks. I think it’s a very powerful (and simple) framework:
Over the last few months, we have been doing a lot of work on the connection between culture and EX, and that’s reflected in the content below. Both topics are top of mind for many leaders I’m working with. I think this is because there are just so many things happening that are impacting trust at work – witness “The Great Resignation” – that it’s important to reflect on key principles about purpose and alignment.
I like this idea of “a people-centered operating system” from Vivek Sharma, with a focus on goal setting, learning, and culture. In this short article, he argues that the future of work is really about the future of talent, which is something I strongly agree with: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/376749
Here is the Summer edition of my EX newsletter; a selection of the key EX articles I’ve come across over the last few months.
Why Trust Is the Future of the Employee Experience
So much has been written about EX and making hybrid working work! But I really like this short and optimistic article by Gethin Nadin. “One of the biggest lessons businesses learned from the pandemic was that employees can be trusted. As we begin to recover and prepare for new ways of working, it’s critical for employers to sustain this trust and build an employee experience founded on autonomy and choice.”
Daniel Kahneman’s new book Noise (about the variability of human judgement) has been getting a lot of press. In this short LI piece, Anna Tavis asks “What does it mean for HR?” and concludes “We may consider adding the “noise audit” to our organizational tool kit and revisit our relationship with algorithms as partners on the people experience journey.”
The Pandemic Did Not Affect Mental Health the Way You Think
This was a really interesting article in The Atlantic. The pandemic has led to real struggles for many people and many companies (also see below), but at the same time there has been an astonishing degree of resilience, which in itself holds key lessons.
We have been busy with new WTW research. We have just published the results of a major external survey of employee experience. The pandemic has put many organisations under stress and we have looked at those companies that have been able to respond the best, because they have a transformative approach to EX. I have put some of our slides here if you’d like to see them (hot off the press!)
I have also written a couple of articles recently: The first is about how UK companies have responded to the FRC changes on board oversight of employee engagement. The second is on why co-creation and involvement are at the heart of EX activation.
How have companies responded to changes in the Corporate Governance Code and what does that tell us about the state of employee engagement?
Successive UK governments have made a priority of employee engagement. This has involved task forces and reports, and in 2018 it included revising the Corporate Governance Code of the Financial Reporting Council (FRC).
If you’re not familiar with it, the code is part of UK company law. First established in 1992, it sets out standards of good practice for listed companies who have to either “comply or explain”.
When the code was updated in 2018, it included for the first time a specific requirement for boards to ensure there is effective workforce engagement.
What does this mean? To quote from the guidance that accompanies the code: “Engagement through a range of formal and informal channels helps the workforce to share ideas and concerns with senior management and the board. It provides useful feedback about business practices from those delivering them, and can help empower colleagues.”
This may sound bland, but it’s indicative of an important shift whereby boards are more on the hook for culture, engagement, and people issues in general. This rightly reflects a sharper focus on human capital and the contribution of intangibles to business success.
It’s worth noting that the FRC will soon become the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority (ARGA) — with the aim of being a stronger regulator. It’s likely that workforce and stakeholder engagement, along with environmental and social responsibility, will continue to grow in importance.
In practical terms, the updated code stated that companies should use one or more of the following methods:
A Non-Executive Director (NED) who is on point for engagement issues
A workforce panel to provide advice to board members
An employee director who is appointed from the workforce.
There was a loophole. Companies can opt for “alternative arrangements” as long as they can show they’re effective.
The revised code came into operation in January 2019. Our research at that time indicated that companies were not in a rush to do anything major. The most likely option was the first one — not surprisingly, the easiest.
Companies have now had a period of time to respond and a very useful report has come out that provides a clear picture of what’s been done.
The report is by Chris Rees and Patrick Briône who collected feedback from 280 of the companies in the FTSE 350.
The report shows that, as predicted, most companies have taken the easier option. In fact, most firms describe the changes they have made as an evolution of what they were already doing.
According to the study, 40% of companies have appointed a NED, 12% have established an advisory panel, and 16% have appointed a NED in combination with setting up an advisory panel. Only one company has installed a director appointed from the workforce (joining four firms that already had them).
Others have adopted alternative approaches instead. These have mostly been listening activities, such as focus groups, informal conversations with employees, and engagement surveys.
This confirms my experience, that the code has breathed new life into engagement surveys. Even though their demise has long been predicted, engagement surveys are actually having a bit of a renaissance.
Even when a NED has been appointed, engagement surveys feature prominently in their remit. According to the study, “Many firms report the role of the NED as being to ‘complement the engagement survey’, with the NED responsible for the provision of feedback to the board on the results.”
Other NED activities include:
Meeting with small groups of employees
Reviewing messages received through the whistle-blowing system
NEDs come from a range of backgrounds, but mostly general management. Around 1-in-5 have worked in HR previously. Half of NEDs had no specific experience of workforce engagement prior to their appointment. The report’s authors note that the process for appointing NEDs is very unclear.
When it comes to advisory panels, they meet at least twice a year. Someone from the board or from management (usually the HR director) attends and often chairs the meetings. They then give a formal report back to the board.
Panel discussions cover a wide range of topics, such as:
Mental health and well being
Workplace facilities and working environment
Strategy, purpose, culture and values
Diversity and inclusion
Pay and bonuses
Climate change and sustainability
Again, according to the study, engagement surveys feature prominently in panel discussions: “There is an emphasis on panels supporting engagement surveys, with firms referring to panels providing ‘valuable input into action plans’ following annual survey results.”
In terms of who is on these panels, the most common approach is management appointees from different functions and business units. They are often nominated by line managers; not chosen by employees.
The least popular option — by far — is employee directors. This is despite the fact that it was a much-trumpeted idea in the discussions that led up to the revised code’s launch.
One firm with employee directors is Capita. According to reports, nearly 400 colleagues applied to take on one of two director roles, which “pay £64,500 a year on top of their day job’s salary.” Two long-serving employees were appointed in 2019 and put through training on topics such as investor relations. According to the CEO, Jon Lewis, the employee directors provide an “unvarnished view of the operational and strategic challenges facing the company.” As one of the employee directors themselves put it: “I think we’ve raised things that would not otherwise have been discussed in a boardroom.”
Standing back from the specific arrangements, what’s also notable is how companies have gone about deciding on their approach to workforce engagement in the first place. As the report points out: “In the vast majority of cases, the workforce themselves were not involved in the decision regarding how the firm responded to the code. This is itself an indication of a lack of workforce voice in strategic discussions.”
So what does all this tell us about the state of employee engagement?
Of course, the last year has been far from normal. The pandemic has impacted all aspects of organisational life. Companies that were slow off the blocks have not been able to make up lost ground.
Keeping this in mind, here are three observations:
A significant rump of firms are doing close to the minimum. Effectively, they’re complying, so they don’t have to explain. The report is a reminder that there is still this low-maturity group of companies in the UK, doing as little as possible and only because they have to. The code is designed to drive improvement in this long-tail over time. That’s a good thing, as these organisations are under-prepared in terms of how they enable their talent, drive transformation, and remain competitive in the future.
Further along the maturity curve are companies that are trying new things. They are placing more emphasis on employee feedback and involving people in changes. This shift is key. A stronger focus on employee voice is positive, but it needs to be part of a more strategic approach to employee experience activation. I have written elsewhere about how co-creation and involvement are at the heart of how you go about building a high-performance EX. It’s positive that a good number of organisations are already taking steps in this direction.
Leading organisations are already far ahead of the pack. Moreover, the distance from the rump group to best-in-class firms is staggering. They are operating in different worlds. In mature, employee-intelligent organisations, feedback is translated from moment-in-time insights into a deep understanding of critical talent and the employee life cycle. HR takes a design-thinking approach to activating employee experience. This means maximising the value of key episodes and moments. They do this through prototyping and testing, from learning what’s working well and what’s not, and through rapid iteration. People managers understand their role in delivering experiences that build trust in the future.
So how will things develop from here?
The report suggests that the UK government will continue to champion employee engagement. It’s still a hot topic, as it connects many different areas that are seen as critical to the future of work.
From the government’s perspective, workforce engagement also provides a comfortable compromise, since it encourages stakeholder involvement without supporting direct worker representation.
The report’s authors themselves highlight the power of providing feedback directly to board members, so they can, in turn, make company management more accountable.
As a result, they predict the regulator will get more teeth: “As the FRC transitions to becoming a new regulator — the Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority — it may receive further powers. Demands are likely to grow for companies to give greater priority to long-term sustainable business models which incorporate employee interests.”
If you want any advice on employee engagement strategies and how to create a world class approach to employee experience, please get in touch.
Employee Experience (EX) leadership requires a shift in perspective. In essence, it means moving from a top-down view of managing human resources to a focus on enabling people to excel in their jobs and to thrive at work.
This is one reason why EX marks a break from the previous employee engagement era. Employee engagement fits neatly into hierarchical people management. EX, by contrast, is messy, personal, and conversational.
An employee engagement strategy might look like a project plan. It would identify changes at different organisational levels in order to improve the way tools, information, and resources are deployed.
An EX strategy is a different animal. The focus is on understanding how you can simplify the way people work and remove obstacles. The point is to enable and empower individuals and teams so they can do their best work.
One of my clients describes their EX strategy as “Making it easier for employees to do meaningful work and be customer focused. We’re always looking for ways to help people remove barriers and fix problems so we can achieve these goals.”
Another client talks about “Creating a workplace where people love to collaborate and where innovation flourishes. We look at what we can get out of people’s way. We do all that we can to help simplify things.”
Making organisations more people-centred in this way is critical, because it’s human capabilities (service, creativity, collaboration, etc.) that provide a competitive advantage in an experience economy.
The best way to think about strategy in the EX context is to follow Henry Mintzberg’s description of it as “a pattern in a stream of decisions”. As choices are made, to what extent is the experience of your people at the heart of your thinking? How are you ensuring consistency of purpose across all the key decisions you’re taking?
“To what extent is the experience of your people at the heart of your thinking? How are you ensuring consistency of purpose across all the key decisions you’re taking?”
Your business strategy, your values and your employee value proposition should provide three anchor points for this process of decision-making. They can help to ensure consistency and cohesion. They provide a framework for prioritising options and making choices.
An additional and necessary step is a commitment to involving people and to co-creating solutions. It may be stating the obvious, but EX activation requires direct engagement with the front-line. It’s not a desk-based topic.
Very briefly, here are some things to keep in mind:
Make sure EX is owned by the business rather than HR. We spend a lot of time helping our clients run workshops with business leaders at all levels, effectively taking EX outside of the HR function, where it can sometimes sit by default.
Focus on the customer interface. Prioritise the areas where EX impacts CX directly. Think about your contact centre and your field force, for example. This might not be where you get the biggest return on your investment in EX in the end, but it is somewhere you can make gains quickly.
Listen and engage creatively. Listening to employees is at the heart of EX leadership. Agile surveys, open feedback and text analysis provide rich insights. We also use approaches like virtual focus groups (with large numbers or people) and interactive whiteboards (with small groups).
Personalise involvement. We have an innovative tool for involving employees directly in shaping their experience at work, which we call Real-Time Advice. In those key moments that matter when we ask for feedback, we provide nudges and tips for individual employees that are based on their input, so they can get directly involved.
Design-thinking is a useful framework for EX activation, in terms of generating ideas and quickly prototyping and testing solutions. We often embed design thinking into our EX projects. EX is about understanding the employee’s perspective and design thinking begins with empathising. In addition, an apparently small idea can snowball over time into a much bigger positive change.
Empower existing communities. EX is not a stand-alone topic; it should integrate with your other priorities, such as diversity and inclusion, sustainability, and well-being. EX activation means engaging with communities (champion networks, employee groups) that probably already exist within your organisation and empowering them to deliver.
I have written about EX leadership in more detail elsewhere, but one thing I emphasise is the importance of learning by involving. Employee experience is personal and conversational and in order to activate EX — to simplify the way people work and free them up to do their best — you need to listen and learn directly.
In this context, I really like the phrase used recently by Rebecca Zucker and Darin Rowell, which seems to sum things up nicely: “Leaders must shift from a “know it all” to a “learn it all” mindset.”
For some organisations and for some leaders this is more than a shift, it’s a step change, but it is key for moving on from employee engagement towards employee experience leadership.
Please contact me if you find this useful or if you would like to learn more about our work.