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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Agricultural technology commercialisation: stakeholders, business models, and abiotic stressors – part 2

Agricultural technology commercialisation: stakeholders, business models, and abiotic stressors – part 2
Stephen Suffian; Arianna De Reus; Curtis Eckard; Amy Copley; Khanjan Mehta
International Journal of Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Vol. 2, No. 6 (2013) pp. 561 – 577
Innovative agricultural technologies that bolster food value chains (FVCs) in developing countries can improve the livelihoods of millions of people while furthering food security. The first part of this article described a typology of business models that entrepreneurs can employ to integrate their technologies into FVCs. This part completes the typology by describing business models that leverage partnerships with entities like financing agencies, educational institutions, and localised manufacturing facilities to enhance access to the technology product. The impacts of abiotic stressors like access to capital, supply chain resiliency, and ownership dynamics are discussed with the objective of helping entrepreneurs make informed business strategy decisions. The article culminates with a discussion on how various models in the typology can be integrated to yield hybrid approaches that overcome diverse stressors while maximising the venture’s potential for long-term sustainability and large-scale impact.

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What’s Holding Women Back in Science and Technology Industries

Virginia Rometty at IBM. Marillyn Hewson at Lockheed Martin. Meg Whitman at HP. Ellen Kullman at DuPont. Marissa Mayer at Yahoo. Phebe Novakovic at General Dynamics. The presence of these women would imply that science, engineering, and technology (SET) industries welcome women.

The fact is, senior female leaders in SET industries are still too few and far between. Even as these women blast open doors and blaze trails, new research (PDF) from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that U.S. women working in SET fields are 45% more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within the year.

Women in SET in the U.S., Brazil, China, and India are committed to their work and their careers. Over 80% of U.S. women love what they do; in Brazil, China, and India, the numbers are close to 90%. Over three-quarters (76%) of U.S. women consider themselves “very ambitious,” as do 92% of Chinese and 89% of Indian SET women. At the same time, a sizable percentage of SET women feel stalled, with young women feeling particularly frustrated.

SET Women Are Driven, But Often Feel Stalled Chart

Why are women turning off and tuning out? The study finds that powerful “antigens” (PDF) in SET corporate environments block them from contributing their full potential at work. Gender bias is the common denominator, manifesting in cultures hostile to women: the “lab-coat culture” in science that glorifies extreme hours spent toiling over experiments and penalizes people who need the flexibility to, say, pick up their kids from day care; engineering’s “hard-hat culture” whose pervasive maleness makes women do a “whistle-check” on their work clothes to avoid a barrage of catcalls; and tech’s “geek workplace culture” that women in our study often compared to a super-competitive fraternity of arrogant nerds. These cultures marginalize women, making them feel isolated: 21% of U.S. women in science say they experience “lab-coat cultures”; 25% in engineering face “hard-hat cultures”; and 31% in tech face “geek workplace cultures.”

SET Women Have Experienced Chart

Meanwhile, SET women perceive a double standard in how they are perceived by colleagues and managers. Bias in performance evaluation is systemic: 72% of women in the U.S. and 78% in Brazil perceive bias in their performance evaluations. More than half of U.S. women and more in emerging markets work alongside colleagues who believe men have a genetic advantage in SET fields.

SET Women Perceive Bias Chart

All of these elements sap ambition. Furthermore, a dearth of female role models and effective sponsors leaves many SET women unsure of what it takes to be a leader: 44% of U.S. women and 57% of Chinese women feel that in order to progress they have to behave like a man. “What does it take to be considered leadership material?” asks a former project manager at Microsoft. She glumly concludes, “I think you have to be a man.”

Behaving Like a Man Chart

In fact, 46% of U.S. SET women believe senior management more readily sees men as “leadership material.” Stunningly, a sizable percentage of senior leaders agree, with nearly one-third of senior leaders in the U.S. and more than half in China and India believing that a woman would never achieve a top position at their company, no matter how able or high-performing.

Senior Leaders See Bias Chart

The result: Because women don’t look, sound, or act like the alpha male, or because they lack senior-level support, women’s ideas and innovations hit a choke point. SET men are 27% more likely to see their innovative idea make it to market than women (PDF). Unable to contribute their full innovative potential, it’s not surprising that so many SET women have one foot out the door.

There are, however, promising levers for change. The most obvious solution: sponsorship. Sponsors help their protégés crack the unwritten code of executive presence, improving their chances of being perceived as leadership material. Most important to the companies employing them, sponsors help women get their ideas heard — one of the best ways to engender respect and open opportunities to promotion.

We’ve discussed the power of sponsorship in previous posts. It’s especially necessary in SET, where the misogynistic antigens are even more deeply rooted and concentrated than in other fields, making it difficult for some leaders to imagine women holding positions that for decades were dominated by white men. “A sponsor can break down the unspoken biases by advocating for someone in a nontraditional role or offering a different perspective,” explains Christopher Corsico, Boehringer Ingelheim’s global head of Medicine and QRPE.

However, the difficulties women encounter in finding a sponsor in other fields are magnified in SET. Sponsors tend to help people who remind them of themselves. However, senior SET leaders are overwhelmingly white males, making it that much harder for female scientists, engineers, and technologists to trigger that instinctive outreach. The SET fields are also made up of extraordinarily tight-knit networks — of graduates from a particular academic institution, of veterans of a famous project, or of colleagues from a specific lab. Not belonging to the right network makes it much harder to benefit from the close connections that spawn sponsorship. Furthermore, SET women overwhelmingly confuse supporters — mentors and role models — with sponsors. Consequently, they target the wrong people: people they like, rather than leaders with the power to get them where they want to go.

The demand for SET talent is intensifying: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that SET jobs will increase by 17% between 2008 and 2018, a growth rate nearly twice that of non-SET employment. Meanwhile, demand far outstrips supply: Tech leaders like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple will need to fill more than 650,000 new jobs (PDF) by 2018 to meet their growth projections, and two-thirds of those new hires will be for SET roles. Other SET fields are also massively undersupplied: There were six health care openings for every qualified graduate and four for every engineering degree. And this is just in the United States. The situation is multiplied in Brazil, China, and India, where SET industries are the dynamos propelling these economies.

Given the global scramble for SET talent, companies simply cannot afford a drain, much less a hemorrhage, of capable women.

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The Four Keys to Being a Trusted Leader

Self-aggrandizement and even plain old greed has become standard fare in the executive cafeteria. And yet CEOs wonder why their employees and the public exhibit such a high degree of mistrust toward business and business leaders. The truth lies in the way many CEOs talk and behave. 

Real leadership – the kind that inspires people to pull together and collectively achieve something great – can only be exercised when an executive is trusted. And trust arises when someone is seen acting selflessly. This may not sound like news – indeed the centuries-old concept of servant leadership is based on it. But if it also sounds vague and hard to apply to your own leadership setting, let’s break it down further. People in an organization perceive selflessness when a leader concerns him or herself with their safety; performs valuable service for them; and makes personal sacrifice for their benefit.

I still have the watch my grandfather received when he retired after 50+ years working for a trucking company as a staff accountant in western Pennsylvania. I wear it regularly. Today, of course, very few people make it to a ten or even five-year anniversary with a company – why did my grandfather stay 50?  He appreciated the safety of that workplace – and despite what you might want to believe, safety is up to leaders to provide or deny. Safe is not cutting people as soon as there is a dip in the economy.  Safe is not giving raises to a few executives while colleagues languish with small or non-existent increases.  Safe is not producing extraordinary profits while failing to develop a clear career path and development plan for every employee.  What safe is, is a place where people come to work not worried about whether they will have a job tomorrow, where compensation is fair, where employees feel that they have gotten a little bit better at their job every day, where they feel there is opportunity to advance and learn, and where their bosses treat them like they are important contributors to the betterment of the organization.  Safe makes a great company.

If safety doesn’t fit well into our current performance-based business culture, then the notion of leader service fits even less.  The executive mindset is to “win/perform.”  Most executives that I work with love their company and want it to succeed, but very few of them think of themselves as being “in service” to those whose work must make that happen.

The service mindset is uniquely different from the performance mindset.   It isn’t built by an external set of rules or process, but grows from a set of deep-rooted values that are lived minute-by-minute by leaders.  One of the CEOs I work with used a visual device to signal the values he wanted to pervade the senior ranks.  He inverted his Organization Chart, so that the larger group of names –  the people directly serving customers – were displayed at the top of the chart.  The Executive team including the CEO were shown below, signifying that their whole purpose in the organization was to support and serve that crucial, client-serving level.  Not only did this help with executives’ priority-setting, it was motivating to everyone. People do better work for a CEO who they feel is working for them, too.

The idea of personal sacrifice in today’s business environment usually translates to giving up “work/life balance” by travelling a lot and working late – and certainly no one in the ranks who is doing that likes to see the boss putting in fewer hours. (Whether you believe it or not, people know when you aren’t “all in.”) But the sacrifices that matter most are the ones that involve sticking one’s neck out for a colleague or taking a stand that puts one’s political capital at risk. One CEO that I coach used to work for a mid-sized company that had been sold three times in less than two years.  When the third purchaser began the integration process, the new owners wanted him to cut headcount by targeting the staff level making an average $45K/year. But the CEO suggested that the better path to profitability was to trim the executive team, and keep those lower-paid workers in place.  The new owners saw the logic but took it in an unexpected direction by unceremoniously dismissing our hero. Not the best result, but he’ll be okay in the longer term.  In fact, he’ll do better than ever. His sacrifice to keep others working earned him a waiting list of talent eager to work with him in his next organization.

Selflessness, Safety, Service, and Sacrifice.  If finding great people to work with you is key (which it probably is) and you can’t do it all by yourself (which you can’t), then keep these concepts in the forefront of your mind. They will help you build an extraordinary team and produce winning results for your business – and when the time comes for you to retire (with a gold watch or not), you’ll be proud of how you led.

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Transformational leadership: a quasi-experimental study


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to report a field-based quasi-experimental study designed to examine the effectiveness of a transformational leadership intervention in remediating poor performance. The intervention was conducted on elements of the organization that senior management perceived as being low performing. Design/methodology/approach – A quasi-experimental pre-test post-design was employed to evaluate the effectiveness of the transformational leadership intervention. Pre-test data were collected four months prior to the intervention starting and the post-test data were collected eight months after the intervention had started. Follower perceptions of their leader’s behavior and group cohesion, together with training outcome data were used to evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention. Findings – Results revealed that from pre-test to post-test changes in perceptions of leadership, group cohesion, and training outcome indicated that the intervention had beneficial effects. These beneficial effects were evidenced in one of two ways: desirable behaviors increased in the experimental group from pre-test to post-test while they remained the same or were decreased in the control group; or desirable behaviors remained the same in the experimental group while they decreased in the control group. Originality/value – The current study is the first to utilize a quasi-experimental organization wide design to examine the efficacy of a transformational leadership intervention. Furthermore, the current study provides evidence that transformational leadership can buffer negative environmental effects.
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Leaders Who Can’t Forgive

I had a CEO in one of my leadership coaching seminars recently who seemed to be quite bitter about life. Whatever suggestion I would make, he would put a negative spin on it. Curious about his remarkable negativity, I asked him to tell more about himself. After a little bit of prompting, he was ready to talk about his life, a narrative that wasn’t very pleasant to listen to.

Clearly, I was dealing with a person who carried grudges, hanging on to grievances that should have been forgiven long ago. Whatever negative experiences he had, he would blame others for his unhappiness. He was not prepared to look at himself, and to take personal responsibility for his part in whatever conflicts, or events he was complaining about.

Mahatma Gandhi once wisely said: an-eye-for-an-eye only ends up making the whole world blind. How true his comment is. And it is especially relevant for people in leadership positions. Leaders have such an important effect on other people’s lives that their lack of forgiveness can create a climate where anger, bitterness and animosity prevent a team, an organization, a society, and even a nation from being the best they can be.

Of course, all relationships with others, whether friends, strangers, or family members, come with the risk of being hurt: your parents may have been tough on you, your teachers may have been unpleasant, colleagues at work may have sabotaged your projects, or your life partner may have been unfaithful. Anytime you let others come close you are vulnerable. And the most logical reaction to an insult or injury is to get even.

In a leadership position, the risks are magnified. Leading others means dealing with a maelstrom of relationships implying an enormous amount of emotional management. As a leader, you are operating in settings rife with strife, which if left unresolved, can become a festering drag on an organization’s effectiveness. People who cannot forgive get stuck into a downward spiral of negativity, taking everyone around them with them.

Good leaders, of course, are aware of how costly it is to hold on to grudges and how an unforgiving attitude keeps people from moving forward.  Unfortunately, for far too many people in leadership positions, revenge comes more naturally than forgiveness. We have an innate sense of justice: we want others to be punished for what they have done to us. A strong reaction to fairness or unfairness seems to be programmed into our brain, making us hard-wired to retaliate and seek justice when others hurt us.

From an evolutionary point of view, this behavior served a critical purpose. Tit for tat has is a way of protecting ourselves, with reciprocity and vengeance being a warning signal to the violator to not cross over that boundary again, or risk escalation and more negative consequences. But it can also open a Pandora’s box of counter-reactions: revenge begets more revenge, which can be costly to your mental and physical health.

When you cannot forgive the people who have hurt you, these feelings become a mental poison that destroys the system from within. As numerous studies have shown, hatred, spite, bitterness, and vindictiveness create a fertile ground for stress disorders, negatively affecting your immune system. And, to boot, an unforgiving attitude is positively correlated to depression, anxiety, hostility, and neuroticism, and associated with premature death.

But why are some of us more likely to forgive than others and what differentiates them from those who remain vindictive and bitter? Taking a psychodynamic-systemic orientation to the study of leaders, I have found three features associated with a resistance to forgiving:

  • Obsessional rumination: Unforgiving people spend their time obsessing about their pasts. Those subjected to rigid, autocratic parenting and to childhood abuse seem to be more likely to do this, contrary to those who were fortunate to grow up in a more benign and nurturing environment.
  • Lack of empathy: Empathy is the evolutionary mechanism that motivates altruistic and pro-social behavior. Imagining and feeling what another person experiences- putting yourself in the other person’s proverbial shoes – allows you to consider the motivations of the transgressor, giving you a route to forgiveness. It is a skill that you learn early on. Children brought up by largely absent or abusive parents generally can’t develop the ability. For these people, forgiveness becomes extremely difficult.
  • Sense of deprivation: Individuals who did not receive much attention and care as children often focus on what they do not have, and how they might get it. But when they get it, they continue to compare themselves to others, envying their success, reputation, possessions or qualities, often expressing this envy towards the achievements of others through emotional explosiveness and outbursts of rage.

I would not say that people who exhibit these behaviors—and are less likely to forgive—cannot be leaders. But they will not be the kinds of leaders that get the best out of their followers. The ability to forgive is an essential capability for any leader wishing to make a difference.

Of course, forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing unacceptable behavior; it is about healing the memory of the harm, not erasing it. When you forgive, you don’t change the past, but you can change the future by taking control of your destructive feelings instead of letting them control you, and creating a new way of remembering. Transformational leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi have figured this out, refusing to replay past hurts and choosing serenity and happiness over righteous anger.

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Will Your Bad Boss Make You a Bad Boss, Too?

One of the best predictors of whether a person will become an abusive parent is if he or she was abused as a child. On the face of it, this is puzzling. Certainly, as children, these people did not say to themselves, “This is how I want to treat my kids.” To the contrary, our guess is that they said to themselves, “I am definitely not going to treat my children the way I have been treated.”   And yet they did; they did not escape the influence of that terrible role model.

This got us to wondering whether there might be a leadership analogy to this sad phenomenon. That is, we wondered, “Do people who work for terrible leaders turn out to be terrible leaders themselves?”

In our research we’ve demonstrated that a great leader can have powerfully positive effects on an organization: decreasing turnover of team members and greatly increasing customer satisfaction, profitability, employee engagement, sales revenue, and even workplace safety—virtually every business outcome that’s measureable.  In those studies, we’ve looked primarily at the relationship between individual leaders and their groups of direct reports. Recently, we’ve become fascinated by the question, “How much impact does a great or poor leader have at the next level down—on those who work for those direct reports?”

When we ask individuals about how their bosses influence their own leadership styles, they often respond that they are their own persons. Whether working for a great boss or a nightmare one, they feel that they are in control of themselves and the situation. If there’s a bad boss above, they serve as a buffer.

When we look at three levels of our 360 evaluations of the leadership effectiveness, correlating the scores of executives and their direct reports with those of the teams of those direct reports, we find some truth in this: we do see some leaders performing substantially better than their bosses. But we also see influences, good and bad, cascading down the line.

For this study we matched up data from 6,094 leaders (whom we will arbitrarily label “alpha leaders”) with their direct reports who were also leaders (whom we’ll call “beta leaders”) and the beta leaders’ direct reports. We assessed the overall effectiveness of each leader and the engagement level of that person’s direct reports.

First off, examining the best (top 10%) and worst (bottom 10%) of the alpha leaders (as assessed by the beta leaders who work for them), we were able see a substantial difference in the engagement levels of the beta leaders (as assessed by their direct reports)Not surprisingly, beta leaders who worked for the worst alpha leaders suffered; their engagement was abysmal, averaging in the 24th percentile.  Meanwhile, the average engagement level of the betas who worked for the best alphas was at the robust 82nd percentile. This mirrors our global study of these same variables with over 30,000 leaders.

One level down, the effect is similar, but not as strong in either direction: Engagement levels of teams headed by beta bosses laboring under horrible alphas average in the 39th percentile while those of teams headed by betas working for the best alphas are only at 61th percentile, considerably lower than their bosses.

If alpha leaders had no effect on beta leaders, we’d have expected the average beta leader engagement scores to be at the 50th percentile, since with this large a sample, the good and bad leaders would balance each other out. So clearly, it’s not easy to be a buffer: a bad boss is a drag on a leader’s effectiveness. In fact, teams rated the leadership effectiveness of the beta leaders who worked for the worst alphas 11 percentile points below average, while teams rated the betas working for the best alphas 11 percentile points above average.  The symmetry here is striking.

Still, our data show that it is possible to work for one of the worst leaders and yet be rated as one of the best yourself. While 14% of beta leaders working for the worst alphas fell themselves in the bottom 10% in leadership effectiveness, 7% of those harried betas were rated by their direct reports as among the top 10% of leaders. At the same time, fully 24% of beta leaders working for the best alphas were themselves also in that top group, while only 7% of them fell in the bottom 10%.

Is Your Boss Protecting You From His Boss? Chart

What are we to make of this?  First, we’d argue that our data show, happily, that great leaders do more good than poor leaders do harm. And to those who say their destiny is in their own hands, we’d say they could be right — the cycle of poor leadership can be broken.

On the other hand, we’d argue that good leaders are expending a lot of energy they could be using more productively when they have to manage and buffer a bad boss. This should be blindingly obvious. And yet, so often in our practice senior leaders ask us to “fix” the leaders below them. The reality is our job would be much easier if the leaders at the top were as highly committed to fixing themselves first.

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