With all the important discussions centered on engagement, there are few discussions on incorporating and building engagement within startup firms – and it’s essential that we, as business owners and entrepreneurs, have this discussion.
The reason this is important is because we are approximately 20 years into serious debates on engagement and what engagement entails. It took nearly 10 of these 20 years, from most objective accounts, to create awareness of engagement, bringing it from the halls of academic corridors to a shared-center of organizational design strategy pursued by executives and managers. Its taken about the same amount of time for us to develop consistent findings that can be generalized across organizations.
And though not perfect in definition nor consistent in its pursuit, we have accumulated enough evidence to recognize the business value of engagement – thank goodness for James Heskett and his colleagues’ early work on the service- profit chain, drawing attention to the early work of William Kahn.
Thus the questions at this point are just why is this important to the startup and how does the entrepreneur start working to implement engagement into the fabric of her organization? Both of these questions are addressed.
To start and to keep our approach “clean,” an agreed upon notion of engagement sets the foundation: Engagement is essentially having the heads, hearts, and hands of our employees, a shortcut phrase attributed, in most respects, to Kahn. Yet, there is confusion related to the underlying efforts needed to achieve those aims. Suffice to say that engagement is not everything we, as business owners and entrepreneurs (under the guise of management), do to motivate employees. Engagement is the design of the work to include variety of task, scope of task, and breadth of task inherent in the job itself. For purposes here, we are going to ignore the additional attitude add-ons, which are prevalent in the mainstream literature. Thus engagement is not being satisfied with the organization, for one can like his work and commit significant levels of rigor and be absorbed in the task yet not necessarily be “head over heels” about the company. Engagement is also not motivation (sorry if I hurt some feelings here), for one can be committed to the work yet if not satisfied with the work environment or supervision of the task, or even the mission and aims of the business, an extra unit of motivation may not be gained. So for our purposes: Engagement is the sustained rigor, dedication, and absorption of an employee in the performance of a job resulting from its design.
And this is important because with engagement, firms may receive closely related outcomes, depending on factors outside of engagement, and mentioned above, that create value. This value may result in important related employee attitudes that impact the motivation and morale of employees, and often help drive increased productivity, customer service satisfaction, and business earnings . . . and here is where I invite you to Heskett and his colleagues at some point (if you follow me on twitter @drgntIII, you may be able to see a re-tweet on January 8, 2018).
Implementing and Sustaining Engagement
So where do entrepreneurs start in implementing and sustaining engagement within our startup firms?! I am going to provide three specific tasks that serve as a key starting point. Simple in concept yet can be difficult in execution, so yes, a deliberate, progressive approach can prove valuable (and allow you to observe incremental gains):
- Conduct a Job Inventory: As entrepreneurs, we are naturally driven by ideas, incremental wins, and market response to our products and services. Maintaining an acute awareness of how the work we and our employees get done is important. Often, over time, we ignore how job tasks are performed, and not uncommon, having no valid description of jobs. This may create job spillover and result in unrelated, ad-hoc work. Thus, it is important to maintain an awareness of the actual jobs that exist in our firms. Indeed it is extremely important during the startup phase because it’s during this phase when we can least afford to lose employees, especially good employees that may feel that they are critical to the success of our firm’s early success. Conducting a job inventory facilitates our understanding of what tasks are being performed, how the tasks are related to concrete positions, and how the positions align to the goals and aims of our businesses.
- Gain a consensus of Work Design and Performance: The entrepreneur is often guilty of having a belief of it’s my company and I know best how the job should be designed and executed. Well, that may get the shingle out; yet, it’s not going to keep the shingle hanging. Our employees need to have a voice in how the job is designed and performed. Just what tasks are critical to the job and just how the job should be performed? These are questions for employees to address and help us scale our firms over time.
- Developing Job Descriptions: Ahhh, yes, job descriptions, the often forgotten art of capturing the set of skills, knowledge, abilities, and competencies needed to successfully perform a task until we look up and find that 2 – 3 job incumbents down the road, that no one can agree upon just what the job entails, or we are challenged by an employee, or worse, his or her attorney. The best place to start is . . . in the early stages of your startup. You do not have to start this from scratch. There are references and sources available. The best free source to begin is O*Net (https://www.onetonline.org/).
Rather performed as discrete events or pursued as a prescriptive end-to-end approach, conducting a job inventory, gaining a consensus of how jobs are designed and performed, and developing concrete job descriptions can serve as a means to effectively engage employees, setting the foundation of closely related employee attitudes that impact the short and long-term success of our newly minted startups.
Dr. George Taylor, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Founder: EntOrgCorp, LLC/Serent Properties, LLC
@drgntiii – Twitter – Dr. George Taylor III
@entorgcorp – Twitter – EntOrgCorp
Copyright 2018: EntOrgCorp LLC/Dr. George Taylor III