What Makes Someone an Engaging Leader

“How can we have the highest profitability in five years and still have gaps in employee engagement?” asks an executive at a large industrial products company. The reality is that the two don’t necessarily go together. This management team, like many others, has fought to increase profitability through business transformation, restructuring, and cost-cutting, without devoting much thought to keeping employees engaged and connected. As a result, the company may find it hard to sustain the gains, much less drive future growth. Organizational agility, innovation, and growth are really difficult without engaged employees.

The research team at AON Hewitt has made it a priority to understand what is going on in enterprises where both financial performance and employee engagement levels are soaring. Our ongoing study of the companies we’ve labeled Aon Hewitt Best Employers – firms that achieve both top quartile engagement levels and better business results than their peers – finds that they do have something in common. It’s the prevalence of a certain kind of leader, not just at the top, but throughout the ranks of the organization. These individuals – we call them engaging leaders – are distinguished by a certain set of characteristics.

What do these leaders of highly engaged teams have in common? Through extensive interviews we learned that they tend to have had early stretch experiences that shaped them; tend to share a set of beliefs about leading; and tend to exhibit certain behaviors that help to engage those around them.

Formative early experiences. Engaging leaders don’t just start out this way. “I started in the call center,” a CEO from a financial services business unit told us. “I know what it’s like and I still like to go sit with agents and listen.” We often heard in our interviews, as Warren Bennis and Bob Thomas did in their crucibles of leadership research, about early experiences that leaders felt had shaped them. They were not always of the unpleasant, mettle-testing sort; sometimes the person had a caring, attentive mentor; a stretch assignment that “chose the leader” instead of the leader’s choosing it; an assignment that required them to win over people who used to be their peers. The common thread is the reflection on the early experience that allows a leader to learn something, and gain self-confidence, humility, and empathy.

Guiding beliefs. Underneath an engaging leader’s behaviors are a powerful set of beliefs. They feel it is their responsibility to serve their followers, especially in times of crisis and change.  Many expressed core beliefs about the importance of personal connection. For example, a CEO of a beverage company, asked to name the most important responsibility of a leader, said it was “to create the emotional bond between our people and the organization.” Another CEO declared that “Leadership is a contact sport.” When we talked to a leader in an engineering department about why he thought he was regarded as an engaging leader, his thoughtfulness about human relationships came through. “People won’t remember what I did,” he said, “but they will remember how I made them feel.”

Engaging behaviors. We also noted a set of common behaviors, no doubt driven by the beliefs we’ve just been discussing, and clustering around five themes.  Engaging leaders step up, opting to proactively own solutions where others cannot or do not. They energize others, keeping people focused on purpose and vision with contagious positivity. They connect and stabilize groups by listening, staying calm, and unifying people. They serve and grow, by empowering, enabling, and developing others. And they stay grounded, remaining humble, open, candid, and authentic in their communication and behavior. These behaviors are continually validated in our leadership workshops, where we see people in action and hear about recent challenges they have worked to overcome.

These are the hallmarks, then, of engaging leaders – and almost every company has at least some of them. Few workforces, however, enjoy the general condition of having engaging leadership. That’s a systemic belief in the power of engagement that transcends the personal strengths and discretionary actions of individual managers. The organizations trying to make engaging leadership part of their culture are figuring out how to do four things on an ongoing basis:

  • Measure engagement levels. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. The CEO needs to own the engagement survey and follow-through. Enough said.
  • Develop engaging leaders. Workshops and coaching are required to help leaders reflect on their early experiences, find their own beliefs and purpose, and make engaging behaviors more habitual. When the number of engaging leaders amounts to a critical mass, their energy and mutual support can change the engagement culture of the organization.
  • Assess and select engaging leaders. Filling a lot of high-impact roles with engaging leaders should be the objective. Now that we have a good understanding of the experiences, beliefs, and behaviors that typify engaging leaders, it should be possible to use personality instruments, structured interviews, and 360 instruments to predict whether someone is likely to be engaging or not in a leadership role.
  • Measure and reward engagement achieved. Tying incentives to engagement survey scores is tricky and can lead to unintended consequences. However, we are seeing more organizations get serious about recognizing leaders who are engaging and holding those who are not accountable.

Engagement is a leadership responsibility – but by and large, with only , leaders are failing in this regard. Our research suggests that, for most companies, the turnaround won’t happen quickly. The fact that the most engaging leaders are the products of early experiences and deeply held beliefs means that new ones can’t be minted overnight. It will never be a matter of running through some behavioral checklist. But there are steps that employers can take to give more teams the benefit of engaging leadership – and, over time, to reach the levels of innovation, quality, and productivity that can only come from highly engaged people.

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Artificial intelligence: summoning the demon


A few days ago, Elon Musk likened artificial intelligence (AI) to “summoning the demon.” As I’m sure you know, there are many stories in which someone summons a demon. As Musk said, they rarely turn out well.

There’s no question that Musk is an astute student of technology. But his reaction is misplaced. There are certainly reasons for concern, but they’re not Musk’s. Read more

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Knowledge Integration in Distributed Product Development

Research has indicated that small and medium sized firms (SMEs) play an important role in the growth of the economy. However, in order to be able to compete at an international level, most SMEs are bound to work in alliances in order to gather enough knowledge and resources for product and technology development or to be able to penetrate a larger market. Alliances can be formed with different types of actors (i.e., suppliers, customers, agents, universities, consultancies); in the alliance, information and knowledge are gathered and created. Information is defined as “knowledge that can be transmitted without loss of integrity,” which includes facts, axiomatic propositions, and symbols. This knowledge can be categorized as domain-specific, procedural, or general. In the present study, a case approach is used to investigate how different types of information and knowledge generated through distributed product development are integrated into the firm, what methods are used, and some conclusions on what methods are more successful for each type of information or knowledge. Results indicate a very high representation of formal information sharing (document exchange) even if there is a high degree of agreement among the respondents that personal meetings and continuous information sharing would be better if they had a system for this. Therefore, the conclusions should lead to systems that address the above problems.

  • Content Type Journal Article
  • Category Research Article
  • Pages 19-28
  • DOI 10.1260/1757-2223.6.1.19
  • Authors
    • Jonas Rundquist, School of Business and Engineering, Halmstad University, Halmstad, Sweden

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Is High Impact Digital Learning Possible in Schools without Electricity?

Elementary school students use the adapted interactive whiteboard to bring new light to learning.Elementary school students use the adapted interactive whiteboard to bring new light to learning.

CyberSmart Africa’s vision is to provide an effective and highly scalable solution for digital learning in sub-Saharan Africa – including schools without electricity. Admittedly, this is a big vision. How is it possible?

I’m Jim Teicher, founder and director of CyberSmart Africa, a digital learning enterprise that has been working in Senegal since 2007. What started as my individual undertaking to provide school improvement at the grassroots level has blossomed into partnerships, including The Senegalese Ministry of Education and USAID. Working with these partners, and others, CyberSmart Africa implemented a learning solution that includes the world’s first portable, solar-powered interactive whiteboard, curriculum-aligned learning content, and ongoing teacher training.

CyberSmart’s innovative use of technology, training, and content enables us to reach more schools – especially those with poor infrastructure – than has been possible with the use of school computer rooms and laptop programs.

Watch the CyberSmart Africa 2014 overview video here.

Our Solution: Whole-Class Learning

Our approach is for the classroom teacher to facilitate technology-integrated lessons that extend what is already taking place in the classroom – and to use appropriately localized digital content as a catalyst to actively engage students in meaningful learning.

We observed that while school computer rooms often sit idle, the interactive whiteboard moves between classrooms, impacting hundreds of students in a single class-day. Our work is based on a “bottom-up” approach where teachers adapt and often improve the solutions we have put into place. For example, teachers have empowered students to take charge of moving the interactive whiteboard between rooms, as well as shutting it down and setting it up.

Equipment – Keep It Simple

Our approach to school technology integration disrupts the traditional model that utilizes computer rooms and laptops—a model that typically requires a dedicated classroom with desks and chairs. In contrast, we have chosen an approach that simplifies both the equipment and logistics necessary to deliver 21st century learning. We also enable off-grid operation through the use of low power/solar-powered equipment. This allows us to reach more schools – especially those with poor infrastructure – than has not been possible with most other ICT approaches.

We enabled touch-screen interactivity through the use of Smoothboard software coupled with an infrared camera (the Ninteodo Wii remote). The user simply clicks on the projected display with an infrared light pen, and the Smoothboard software allows the teachers and students to manipulate the computer desktop using the infrared pen just like a mouse. Our technology integration has evolved over time; but the concept is the same. We minimize the equipment components necessary to impact the largest number of students.

Since the vast majority of schools in sub-Saharan Africa lack electricity, we pay close attention to power consumption. We have recently been working with a low-power interactive LED projector paired up with a small lithium polymer solar-charged battery – both sourced from a partner in China. As of 2014, we will also be using Android tablets with integrated mobile broadband in order to more efficiently deliver online teacher training as we scale.

Plug-and-Play Learning Content

When used effectively, the interactive projected display becomes a window to the world of information and can now conduct virtual science experiments, watch videos of volcanoes exploding, and access maps of the world.

What happens when the teachers are either too busy or lack skills in digital literacy? School administrators can use software that have pre-made lessons, some of which are online. Our partner Editions Nathan—a supplier of textbooks to Senegal for many decades—now enables teachers to access professionally developed lessons that are completely integrated with textbook content.

Teacher Training – The Most Important Thing We Do

Teacher training is a critical factor impacting student achievement, according to many sources such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UNESCO, and The World Bank.

Our focus has been to provide ongoing professional development to support teachers. Instead of lecturing to students, teachers are encouraged to facilitate classroom discussion – integrating digital resources to enrich the conversation.

CyberSmart Africa’s teacher training starts off with traditional face-to-face seminars. We also plan to implement collaborative online learning that will enable our ability to scale to meet the demand for ongoing teacher training through the use of Android tablets with integrated mobile broadband. We are also evaluating new browsing technologies and other tools that will both conserve bandwidth and lower data costs.

Achieving Scale and Effectiveness – “Tech-lite and Training-heavy”

For 2014, our “tech-lite, training-heavy” strategy will propel us to achieve scale and effectiveness. We will achieve scale by lowering both the equipment and logistics-related costs traditionally associated with the replication of school ICT programs and by embracing broadband connectivity. This will enable us to provide the CyberSmart Learning Solution at a reasonable annual cost per school.

Our long-term goal is that an emphasis on teacher training will result in more engaged students who are better prepared for work and life in a globalized world. We do not intend to measure effectiveness in terms of students’ ability to pass tests based on rote memorization. Instead, we aim to judge our success by how we impact students’ ability to think and solve the kinds of problems that will enable them succeed in life.

Written by Jim Teicher, Director of CyberSmart Africa

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Creativity and cheating: Mwahahaha…

FROM James Moriarty to Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the idea of the evil genius has been a staple of storytelling. But is it true? Or, to put the matter less starkly, is there a connection between creativity and dishonesty in real people who are not bent on world domination, as well as in fictional supervillains? Writing in Psychological Science, Francesca Gino of Harvard University and Scott Wiltermuth of the University of Southern California suggest that there is—and that cheating actually increases creativity.Dr Gino and Dr Wiltermuth tested the honesty of 153 volunteers with a task that involved adding up numbers for a cash reward, which was presented in a way that seemed to them to allow them to cheat undetected (though the researchers knew when they did). This was sandwiched between two tests for creativity, one of which was to work out how to fix a candle to a cardboard wall with a box of drawing pins*, and the other a word-association test. This combination showed not only that creative people cheat more, but also that cheating seems to encourage creativity—for those who cheated in the adding-up test were even better at word association than their candle-test results predicted.That result was confirmed by a second set of experiments, in which some people were given many opportunities to cheat and others few. The crucial predictor of creativity, the…

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Africa: World Social Science Report 2013 – Navigating Pathways in the Safe and Just Space for Humanity

[IDS]A framework for negotiating pathways to a safe and just sustainable future for people and planet is presented by Melissa Leach, IDS Professorial Fellow and STEPS Centre director, in a new paper for the World Social Science Report 2013, launched today.
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Wikipedia Zero may be the empirical answer to Africa’s Education woes

The fact that most tutors, teachers and lecturers are so cognizant of  the Wikipedia style guide in that, they find it extremely easy in netting students who copy paste  from  Wikipedia when they are instructed to research from detailed manuscripts instead. At face  value, it may seem archaic but  the goal is to push students to use libraries more often. However, the irony is that; teachers compile most their class notes from Wikipedia whilst discouraging their students from following suite.

But there is a reason(s) why Wikipedia is so irresistable; it has established itself as a vantage  point for academic research online, supporting many languages and above all content is absolutely succinct and free.

Edtech (Educational technology) has been identified as the key determinant for education to thrive in Africa. Fortunately it rhymes with a plethora of variables dictating the pace  of technology  in Africa; the fast rising and widespread adoption of the mobile telephony as a major pillar for this drive.

Now, Wikipedia Zero –an SMS-based platform that allows basic phones users to browse millions of Wikipedia’s content at no cost– just launched in Kenya and as a matter of fact may be the best solution in edtech amongst many, of many.

One may wonder where most of the innovative ICT4E products are placed on the performance ladder, but the truth  is most of us have been scammed. There are many promising and potentially cost effective solutions directed towards ameliorating Africa’s education problems albeit most of them never leaving prototype stage. A barrage of media reports are especially responsible for the sugar-coated stories that  blind the public for example a recent scandal that involved a South African headquartered Ad agency, Metropolitan Republic, which duped a one awards organisation –Loeries– with an entry which was a scam. It claimed that its client, MTN, had implemented a cellphone-based learning programme  dubbed “Project Uganda” which eliminated the need to build and maintain expensive libraries, an incredibly bold claim in any country. It turned out the programme itself is only in concept stage and it was compelled to withdraw the awards that it had won.

Imagine, if “Project  Uganda” was indeed implemented, there could have been such a disruption in the way kids learn and study. Again, imagine of a better “Project Uganda!” A repository of over 24 million articles, most being  academic, available on the most accessible platform (mobile) and crafted with the future in mind. Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me state my stance on why Wikipedia may be the biggest form of edtech in Africa today:

Firstly, teachers have been let down in the edtech movement especially by the mobile telephony. There hasn’t been a clear road map to synchronize teachers with the most recent trends in the mobile scope. The product developers and policy makers responsible forget that teachers are adept to learning, unlearning and relearning once again. That is why they need to be included in the plans to create and deploy solutions to problems affecting academia because they’re better placed in steering direction(s) to follow.

I conquer with most of Clay Shirky’s sentiments in his book Here Comes Everybody; a renown teacher of behaviourial and social effects of new media and technologies. He states that the promise of what the user will get out of participating in a project leads to a person’s desire to get involved. Collaborators will then choose the best social networking tool to do the job. One that “must be designed to fit the job being done, and it must help people do something they actually want to do.” In hindsight, teachers are vital to this cause.

Lets not kid ourselves, the centrality of omission of teachers from the leading role in edtech has led to failures of potential-filled initiatives such as the One laptop Per Child (OLPC). The benefits accrued  must  not only be weighed against the society’s cultural norms and values but also against the capacity of the people responsible for implementing it. I previously articulated why Africa needed projects such as wide spread adoption of Raspberry Pi as a tool of study over the politically favoured OLPC.

Also, the onus isn’t only unto the teachers but  also the students. This collaborative effort between  teachers  and students would surely pay off in the long run. Contrary  to popular belief amongst academicians, India’s celebrated cognitive scientist and educationist –Sugata Mitra– took quite a different direction to emphasize the essence of peer-to-peer and self-teaching based mechanisms of learning given adequate resources. In an experiment conducted first in 1999, a computer was placed in a kiosk  and children were allowed to use it freely.  The experiment aimed at proving that children could be taught by computers very easily without any formal training or  even being instructed. This turned out successful and has since been implemented in various countries.

Africa has faced major setbacks in the realization of her  goals. Problems in regard  to  infrastructure and proper management  are  some of the commonest  ones. The Shirky principle says:

Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution

The  appeal to use cost effective methods in educating people continue to iterate in desirable directions and will certainly break the traditional barriers set whatsoever.

Who else is optimistic?

Image via Wikipedia

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