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The secret to outstanding employee engagement

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Gary Morton, author of Commanding Excellence
Gary Morton, author of Commanding Excellence

There is a great deal of information available regarding the importance of employee engagement. A senior living community filled with highly engaged staff will habitually outperform an unengaged or actively disengaged staff in just about every metric. 

The big question is how to create a highly engaged staff? Fortunately, there are powerful and instructive examples from exceptional organizations. In studying these high performers, it is clear that the most crucial influence is each employee's direct manager or supervisor. While organizational culture, competitive pay practices, inspiring mission statements, and exceptional top leadership have an effect, they pale in comparison to the daily interaction and relationship with managers and/or supervisors. Knowing this, how can leaders and owners of senior living communities identify, train, and promote managers and supervisors that will drive engagement? Here are three key lessons:

Great players may or may not be great coaches

Coaching (i.e. managing/supervising) typically draws on a much different skill set than playing the game. Tendencies in sports teams are to elevate the top players. When they retire from actual play, it seems logical that they would make great coaches. After all, they mastered the game and have the “street credibility” to teach and train others. They typically worked hard to achieve their success and should be able to inspire others to do the same. Do not make this common error.

Great players may or may not be great coaches. Many are horrendous at inspiring others. Effectively managing, coaching, and leading requires a selfless desire to help others achieve, an ability to pull people together toward common goals, and an aptitude to foster interdependent working relationships. These are not the same talents that create great players. 

In a long-term care setting, the best and hardest working resident assistant or housekeeper may be admired because of their work ethic and ability to get along with the residents, but they may or may not have the talents to supervise people.

Continuously look for management talent

Understanding the concepts above is step one. Identifying those with the genuine potential for supervisory or management responsibilities is step two. If you want highly engaged employees, selecting and promoting great supervisors is absolutely essential. Here are some lessons learned from a 20-plus year deep dive into how extraordinary organizations find those with supervisory or management talent:

  • Look for people that seek to discover what each person does best and endeavor to define and delineate roles around each person's strengths. Look for people that others feel they can trust and that others feel will “have their back.” Look for people who can connect with others and genuinely care about the people on their team. Look for those that take charge during a crisis. Look for people that are stable and consistent. Great managers are not like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates—where you never quite know what you are going to get. Look for people that consistently recognize the contributions of others and acknowledge the accomplishments of different people in different ways.
  • Exceptional organizations endeavor to institutionalize this identification processes — they match those with managerial talents into managerial positions. They also are not afraid to move ineffective managers or supervisors back to individual contributor roles, or, if necessary, out of the organization. When the organization develops a consciousness for recognizing managerial talent, those crucial decisions to put the right person into the right role become almost second nature.

Maximize your returns

Once you have identified those with the essential ingredients for management and supervision, training and coaching can help maximize their effectiveness. However, companies often miss the mark with their outside training dollars. It is typical to send struggling managers to management training courses. Many leaders also spend inordinate amounts of their personal time with a struggling manager in attempt to bring them up to par. While noble, such efforts are not usually the best use of the leader's time or the firm's resources. The returns are much greater if you put your time and effort into your most talented.

The situation is analogous to the selection of people for a speed reading course. Many think that someone who reads only 200 words a minute would greatly benefit from such training. Indeed, 200 words per minute people often increase their speed to as much as 600 words following the training, a 3X increase. However, the 1000 word per minute person who is naturally a fast reader often reaches 10,000-20,000 words per minute as a result of the training, a 10X-20X improvement. The cost for the training is the same, but look how further the talented reader advanced. If you want a high performance and high engagement organization send your most talented to high impact training.  

The same equation holds true for a senior leader's personal time allocation. The best leaders spend the time with their best people, because the payback is so much greater. Apple CEO Steve Jobs was one of the most extreme examples of this attribute. He was often criticized for his brashness and impatience with average people. For Jobs, it was all about “A” players. He had no patience for working with anyone but the best. While extreme, there was wisdom in Steve's approach as it helped him create the world's most valuable company.

Just a start

In the challenging environment of senior living facilities, owners and executive managers are increasingly realizing the incredibly high correlation between employee engagement and critical outcomes: Attracting and retaining great people, resident satisfaction, overall facility occupancy, and profitability. 

The experience of extraordinary organizations clearly points to an employee's first line supervisor as the person that most impacts engagement. Knowing this, avoid the trap of assuming that your best performer at a job should be in charge of people doing the same task. Develop a methodology to identify those with genuine supervisory/managerial talent and follow it. Finally, spend your time and resources on your most talented people. The returns in doing so will be much greater than trying to change a tiger's stripes.

West Point distinguished graduate and Stryker EMS co-founder Gary Morton is the author of Commanding Excellence: Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity through Leadership That Matters. Visit iGarymorton.com Follow him at @garymorton6.

Guest Columns

Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.

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