Corporate culture, senior leadership biggest engagement differentiators

HOOPP used work-life balance, meaningful work to nearly double engagement score
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/24/2011

The enigma of employee engagement: It seems the more we know, the worse the engagement score becomes. To get to the bottom of this conundrum, the Strategic Capability Network hosted a panel discussion on employee engagement in September, with speakers from Aon Hewitt, WestJet, Lowe’s and HOOPP.

Corporate culture, senior leadership biggest engagement differentiators

Different strokes for different folks (Strategic capability)

Engagement all about leadership, culture and fit (Organizational effectiveness)

Leaders have power to drive, or kill, employee engagement (Leadership in action)

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Corporate culture, senior leadership biggest engagement differentiators

By Amanda Silliker

In 2006, the employee engagement score at Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP) was only 52 per cent. By 2011, that figure jumped to 91 per cent.

When Victoria Hubbell, HOOPP’s senior vice-president of strategy and stakeholder relations, saw the results of the employee engagement survey, she was in disbelief. She called the survey vendor and asked it to re-run the statistics, she asked a statistician to take a closer look and she even took the raw data to another firm.

“I thought, ‘There’s something going on here,’ so then I checked with our IT people to see if there was anything wrong with the system we were using and, of course, it came back again and again, ‘Yeah, it’s quite amazing but the scores are real,’” she said.

To turn the engagement score around, HOOPP had focused on four key factors: culture, work-life balance, interesting work and resilience training to help employees during times of change, said Hubbell who spoke at a recent Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in September in Toronto.

Creating a culture of respect and collaboration is very important in keeping high engagement levels, she said. Employees at HOOPP in Toronto wanted to be more involved so they are now included in strategy development, business planning, decision-making and other initiatives that shape the direction of the organization.

“We really live the values and people come to work each day looking forward to coming to work,” said Hubbell, whose organization has 400 employees. “Many employees describe it as their second family.”

Culture is one of the main differences between companies that score high in employee engagement and those that score low, said Neil Crawford, a principal at Aon Hewitt and innovation leader for its talent, rewards and communication practice in Toronto, who also spoke at the event.

“(In engaged organizations) the people and HR practices — so the broader practices, programs and culture — create a positive environment,” he said. “It may be made up of some very holistic things — it’s some food for thought.”

Work-life balance is another cornerstone to creating a highly engaged workforce at HOOPP, said Hubbell. There is no formal program in place, just an overall mindset of doing what’s right for one another and understanding the importance of personal and family commitments, she said.

“We understand the challenge of commuters, day care, health issues, elder care... We don’t take an unhealthy view of our work that creates a toxic, frenzied environment,” said Hubbell. “It’s not politically incorrect or career-limiting to require flex hours due to personal demands.”

While work-life balance may be helping HOOPP, it is not one of the factors strongly correlated to engagement, along with retirement benefits and pay, said Crawford.

“Those factors are part of the mix, they’re part of the practices, but what becomes much more important is their relationship (to other factors). For example, the relationship between pay and performance — have you got that right?” he said.

Another major difference between companies with high and low engagement is senior leadership.

At high-scoring organizations, executives treat employees as their most valued assets, provide clear direction for the future and are involved with the people side of the business, said Crawford.

“(At low-engagement firms) senior leaders as a group are not aligned around people issues and there’s a disconnect with what’s going on in the shop floor or contact centre or wherever it may be with what’s happening out there around the people issues,” he said.

Managers also play a big role in employee engagement. They should be providing employees with the support they need to succeed, setting clear expectations, offering regular feedback and working with employees to find ways they can grow and develop, said Crawford.

These qualities are especially important as managing performance, career opportunities and recognition have the most influence on improving engagement.

“These are the perennials and they are rooted in an engaged and effective manager who is supported by the leadership and executive team that truly believes in people,” he said.

At HOOPP, employees who go above and beyond are recognized in a personal way, such as a handwritten card from the CEO, said Hubbell.

“Or we find something that is really important to the employee, whether it’s a restaurant they love, a Starbucks gift card, movies, whatever it is, but we really take the time to say, ‘Thank you’ and we make sure it’s very personal and meaningful to them,” she said.

Making employees feel they are valued for what they do is the first overarching characteristic of employee engagement every organization should keep top-of-mind, said Crawford.

“They want to truly feel appreciated so that goes to being recognized beyond pay and benefits, it goes to having that conversation about their future, it goes to feeling like they’re being heard and listened to and action is being taken,” he said.

The second characteristic is offering employees meaningful work.

Meaningful work is different for everyone — someone in manufacturing may find a lot of meaning in doing the same activities every day while others may not — but it is rooted in work that connects to the success of the organization, fosters a sense of pride in the employee and aligns with her skills and abilities, said Crawford.

“We create opportunities for interesting work, although some people may say, ‘How interesting can a pension fund be?’ but we do find creative, innovative ways, whether it’s a state-of-the-art investment strategy, marketing programs or communications to members,” said Hubbell.

“It’s important to come to work and have work you feel is tapping into your intellect and creativity and you are valued for that.”

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Different strokes for different folks (Strategic capability)

By Karen Gorsline

The trouble with employee engagement is it means different things to different people and organizations. For the most part, engagement is affiliated with corporate culture.

There are fun, cool and wacky cultures that appeal to employees looking for a degree of freedom, social interaction and a sense of belonging. There are cultures that rely on their affiliation with a segment of society so employees feel a sense of pride in being able to make a difference and contribute to the greater good. And there are cultures that are about providing financial and job security, and opportunities for career growth.

Organizations are often tempted to mimic one of these types of environments based on their type of business. A tech or marketing firm might try to emulate cool or fun environments while a hospital or hotel might try a more restrained approach. It would seem easy for businesses to categorize the type of environment desired and copy the programs and approaches of similar organizations, yet this presents two risks.

For one, don’t confuse satisfaction with engagement. Employees may be satisfied, and an organization may be satisfied it has taken the right actions, but the success of the business may not actually be supported.

Secondly, using a cut-and-paste approach neglects a key feature of organizations that are both fiscally successful and have high employee engagement — they blend different elements to create a complex, robust culture that addresses specific business requirements.

One of the most interesting examples of this is WestJet. While it may appear to be all fun and games at WestJet — clearly a key element of its culture — it is deadly serious when it comes to implementing key success factors. Its lightness masks an understanding of the underlying business requirement to provide a cost-effective, safe operation balanced with superior customer service. WestJet employees are owners who care about the customer and the expenses, efficiency and profits. WestJet has created its own signature culture that aligns with how it wishes to compete and, by doing so, has survived in a market filled with now defunct airlines.

Employers must be specific about what employee skills and behaviours support business drivers and develop and nurture a culture that attracts and retains workers who exhibit the required skills and behaviours.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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Engagement all about leadership, culture and fit (Organizational effectiveness)

By Barbara Kofman

Despite the plethora of speakers who gave us their take on employee engagement, there was remarkable consistency when it came to how to address this ever-present problem.

To reap the rewards, three key elements must be effectively integrated — leadership, culture and fit.

Leadership: Engagement levels directly tie to leadership and, in turn, culture and fit both emanate from the C-suite. But, often, there is limited understanding here as to how employee engagement affects the bottom line. The difference committed leadership makes was best illustrated by the WestJet story, whose founders purposefully and successfully set out to steward culture in the direction they wanted.

For leaders who doubt the value of employee engagement, the business case is compelling. According to Dwight Lacey, 25 per cent of productivity capacity is wasted due to failure to address engagement issues. In highlighting some of the findings from Aon Hewitt’s survey, Neil Crawford revealed low-engagement employers have twice as much absenteeism as high-engagement employers that also benefit from, among other things, less turnover and higher revenues.

Culture: Creating an engagement strategy that works for an organization does not mean copying what organizations with high engagement scores do to build and sustain their cultures. Instead, start by figuring out what is important and unique about your organization — your compelling employee brand. Then develop engagement strategies to energize the employee population and facilitate any needed culture shift.

Fit: Identify the key components of employee fit through all stages of the employment cycle. This advice brings to mind the old management adage “hire for fit and train for skill.” This helps explain why hiring “stars” away from competitors is not always successful. It’s crucial to take the time needed to hire properly and not be swayed by pressure to get a body in a seat — and then to continue to support employees throughout their careers.

To inculcate culture and the ensuant fit:

• identify selection criteria firmly rooted in organizational culture

• incorporate peer recruiting into the hiring process, as at WestJet where pilots help to hire pilots

• take as long as necessary to recruit the right fit (HOOPP has taken 18 to 24 months to fill openings)

• design a comprehensive onboarding program for new hires that strategically initiates them into the organization’s business and culture

• manage performance effectively and institute proper rewards and recognition

• institute career management in alignment with bona fide career opportunities

• reintroduce development programs for all leaders.

Building a culture of engagement requires sponsorship at the top, a clear vision and strategy, ongoing communication, involvement at all levels and the patience, tenacity and “stick-to-it-ness” to see it through.

Barbara Kofman is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and founding principal of CareerTrails, a strategic coaching and HR Solutions organization focused on enabling individuals and organizations to resolve their career-related challenges. She has held senior roles in resourcing, strategy and outplacement, and taught at the university and college level. Barbara can be reached at

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Leaders have power to drive, or kill, employee engagement (Leadership in action)

By Trish Maguire

As a leader, how important is financial performance, growth and customer engagement to your organization? If you said “critical” or “essential,” how much are you losing on all three fronts because employee engagement is moderate to low?

Employee engagement does not merely correlate with bottom-line results — it drivesresults. So you have to wonder why so many leaders remain reluctant to actively identify the level of engagement at their organizations, find the reasons behind the lack of full engagement, work at eliminating those reasons and implement behavioural strategies that will facilitate full engagement. Fundamentally, engaged employees are more productive than disengaged employees.

The research data and case studies from WestJet, Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP) and Lowe’s presented at the recent Strategic Capability Network breakfast made a compelling case as to why leaders need to make employee engagement one of their priorities. Engaged employees work with passion and feel a profound connection to their organization.

People who are actively engaged help move the organization forward. They believe they can make a difference at their organizations. An engaged workforce can create competitive advantage.

WestJet is among the most admired organizations in Canada. Why do you think more than 85 per cent of WestJet employees own shares in the company? Because they believe so strongly in what WestJet is trying to do and are so excited about its strong performance record.

With these examples, the most skeptical leaders should be left with no doubt as to the fundamental financial benefits to be gained by creating workplaces where employees believe in the organization’s products and services, go the extra mile, understand the bigger picture, respect and collaborate with their colleagues, advance their skills, knowledge, attributes and interests and take pride in a sense of belonging.

The challenge is leadership. Leaders need to ask themselves: “To what degree do I believe in and want to capture the hearts, heads and hands of employees?” and “How much time, effort, commitment and investment am I prepared to give?”

Employee engagement is hard to achieve and if not sustained by leaders who are prepared to take the lead and work at developing and nurturing employee engagement, it can fade with relative ease.

There are several things exceptional leaders can initiate:

• Show they value employees.

• Provide challenging and meaningful work with opportunities for personal growth.

• Communicate a clear vision, mission and values.

• Clarify expectations and provide meaningful feedback on execution of objectives.

• Relentlessly coach and congratulate strong performance.

• Let people know how their contributions help sustain the organization’s success — people want to be proud of their jobs, their performance and their organization.

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions, focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and organizational development in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial organizations and can be reached

Upcoming Events

Want to attend one of the upcoming Strategic Capability Network events?
Visit for more information.

October: A panel of three CEOs — Glenn Laverty (Ricoh Canada), Anne Martin (United Van Lines Canada) and Jamie Moody (Tree of Life Canada) — share their observations about the nature of the CEO’s partnership with HR, including when it works, why it works and where it needs to go next. (Oct. 27, Toronto.)

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