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The number one way to engage employees

Can you succeed in "the great recession" without engaged employees? Maybe, but only if your competitors' employees aren't engaged either.

Engaged employees' willingness to give their all is what unlocks the greatest potential for competitive advantage. It's their attitudes and actions that make the critical difference, especially to your customers. The small percentage of companies that consistently delivers an exceptional customer experience will create a wide gap with competitors-those whose disengaged employees just as consistently deliver an I-don't-really-care-about-you customer experience.

You may be surprised to hear that employee engagement is mostly about you. The number one thing that engages employees is senior management's interest in their well-being.

This one factor is even more important to your employees than their career advancement, their relationship with their direct supervisor and their pay. (Check the study results of tens of thousands of employees in Closing the Engagement Gap by Towers Perrin's Julie Gebauer and Don Lowman, December 2008.)

Are they engaged or not - and how do you tell?

"Engaged employees are not just committed. They are not just passionate or proud. They have a line-of-sight on their own future and on the organization's mission and goals," says global research and consulting firm BlessingWhite.

Engagement is often measured by an employee's willingness to put in extra time or effort to benefit the business; to say positive things about the business to others; and to show loyalty.

It's also measured, and maybe more accurately, by the customer experience your people provide. A 2008 Bain Consulting study showed that 81 percent of senior leaders thought they delivered superior customer service; yet only 8 percent of their customers agreed! What would your customers say?

Have you surveyed your employees and your customers during the recession to understand what they are experiencing? Does your culture support what employees want most -- things like opportunities to use their talents; career development and training; and recognition for their contributions?

And do your employees have that line-of-sight that gives them deep understanding of the business? Do they know what your customers need? Do they understand how their work contributes to the overall success or failure of your business?

If you can answer "yes" to all of these questions your employees are probably both engaged and empowered-and your customers highly satisfied. If even one "no," you have work to do.

Inspiring increased engagement

What your employees need most is effective management. They need you to clearly articulate your vision so they can understand it. They need your support in working to the best of their abilities. They want you to lead a management team that works together toward a shared strategy for the company. They want you to manage with consistently applied values. And they don't want you to be afraid to hear about things that go wrong.

"Only about 50 percent of employees trust their senior leaders," says Sherry Law of Evergreen Communication. "Every CEO needs to develop a communication strategy that builds on employees' hopes, addresses their concerns, and speaks to them in terms they understand. Communication is more than the annual meeting and saying "hello" when you pass employees in the hall."

To engage employees, you don't need manufactured morale boosters or massive spending, especially during a recession. Rewards and appreciation don't have to cost anything at all.

You are the key to causing a chain reaction that ends in your sustainable business success. Create a culture that supports the well being of your employees -they'll provide raving fan customer experiences - and your place in the market is secured.

More than 50 percent of American workers are likely to jump ship once the economy turns around, according to a September 2009 report by Staffing Industry Review. This could be disastrous to bottom lines everywhere.

But not yours.

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Kathleen Quinn Votaw

Kathleen Quinn Votaw serves on the Board of Directors for both the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) Denver and Colorado Companies to Watch. She is also founder and CEO of TalenTrust, a Denver-based professional services firm that helps high growth companies solve the people puzzle.TalenTrust offers strategies to attract, retain and engage talented people. Reach Kathleen at kvotaw@talentrust.com or 303-838-3334.

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