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Inspire 925 Conference

Yesterday, September 21, 2013, I had the pleasure and good fortune to attend the Inspire 925 Conference at the HUB Zurich. Having previously reported on what Inspire 925 seeks to do (See article on Newly Swissed), I will briefly summarize here. Inspire 925 was founded by Sunnie Tölle with the expressed purpose of helping businesses increase their employee engagement so that workers are happier, more creative, and innovative with the bottom line being that these soft factors lead to higher profits in these firms. To prove this point and show just how this can be done Sunnie pulled together a group of inspirational speakers from industry and academia.

Johnson and Johnson — A family of companies spreading ideas

Without giving a full summary of the conference, I would like to provide a brief overview of what I learned and took away from the conference. First, the companies that are not only opening themselves up to employee engagement, by actually helping their employees to engage and inspire each other are seeing the benefits. Johnson and Johnson is an example of this. Thanks to Steve Garguilo’s interest in TED and the organization of internal TED talks has given Johnson and Johnson a breath of fresh air. Employees from different departments are interacting, and knowledge, skills, and ideas are coming out and finding the important collaborators to turn them into reality and therefore helping the company to develop new products. However, it is important to note here that the company leadership firmly believes in this. This was surely not an easy development, but seeing the positive effects the Johnson and Johnson’s leadership has allowed Steve to create a new position for himself to ensure that this continues. Steve also told us that thanks to this new engagement highly talented employees who were considering moving to other firms, have found a new love for their work and doing more. For them, what they think and do matters, which is exactly what Google wants of its employees.

Doing things that matter

From an HR perspective, Daniela Landherr, Program Manager EMEA, responsible for employee engagement at Google, gave insights into Google’s hiring requirements and the company’s belief in communal areas where ideas can be exchanged and where employees can inspire each other. From an engineer in Zurich having the idea of gmail, one of the world’s most popular e-mail services, and his colleague giving him the motivation to tackle the idea, to group sessions of ideas and critique and reworked plans, community and human interaction is important at Google for turning ideas into products and services. Working in open spaces also gives employees the ability to tap into knowledge bases and skills of other people to get more work done. Googlers, Google employees, understand the idea of collaborative work. Of course, like at Johnson and Johnson, this only exists because the company directors and leadership have entrusted their employees with the freedom to gestalt their own workday and move freely between spaces. From several speakers and commentators at the conference, I took away that trust is a key issue. It starts with the leaders giving that trust to employees and the employees respecting that trust and not taking advantage of it. The second Google motto (after “don’t be evil”) is of importance and that is “doing things that matter”. When employees feel like their work matters, they will be dedicated to it. Here is an interesting RSA talk on motivation, which backs this up.

We need to redefine work, and that takes time

Having personally visited Google Zurich on a few occasions, I also know that the theory doesn’t always work (at least yet…) – not everyone will take time away from their desk to exchange ideas or enjoy themselves. I personally believe that this has to do with our societal training, which dictates that work is work and fun is fun. One goes to work to earn money, and relaxation is done after the 8 hour workday in one’s private time. Like our education system, I believe that this model is old and is slowly dying. I know different models can work, because in my firm, we have meetings while running, and they are often very fruitful and allow for more ideas to come about. However this shift takes time, changing culture, as was made clear in Carsten Sudhoff’s workshop, takes time, and companies need to understand this. I believe Google does, which is why they have maintained their philosophy, and neither force their employees into a pattern of behaviour, but rather entrust them to make that call themselves.

Meanwhile in the so-called traditional firms

leader vs. managerAn interesting observation from people working at big banks and other large traditional firms, shows that there is a somewhat superficial understanding of employee engagement. While surveys and appraisals are seen as important, and there is a want for the metrics they provide, this is done half-heartedly by people in HR who truly believe in the importance of employee engagement. Engagement, like corporate-social responsibility can often be used for publicity and to look good, but can be meaningless. If employee engagement and satisfaction are just buzz words in your firm, the decision makers don’t get it and the efforts are futile. As an other person in the workshop said, “Pick any employee on their first day of work, and I guarantee that they will have a 100% engagement. The secret is keeping that.” I believe engagement is kept through trust, purpose, vision and a share in the results. There’s a meaningful meme out there of leaders and managers. If employees believe that their manager is working with them, and not that they are working for him/her they will work better. There is a reason why Alexander the Great conquered the known world. He was the first into battle and the last out and fought shoulder to shoulder with his troops. He had their respect, because he was putting in what he was asking them to — that’s what leaders do. Businesses with high engagement have great leadership. Leaders who work with their employees, fight for them, help them develop and who show their their gratitude.

Great leaders facilitate engagement

Einstein FishLeadership is the other idea I took away from the Inspire 925 conference. Great leaders practice a few things themselves — there are plenty of online lists of the habits of successful leaders and gratitude is one of them. Leaders realize that they lead people, but the success they experience is the result of the collaborative work of the people they are leading. Leading also means finding strengths. The idea of strengths is Dr. Willibald Ruch from the University of Zurich discussed. A proponent of positive psychology and the teachings of Dr. Martin Seligman (I recommend Seligman’s book Flourish), Dr. Ruch spoke about finding our personal strengths and honing them. Again there is the famous meme based on the Einstein quote about a fish climbing a tree. Great leaders, help their team members build their strengths and then coordinate strengths (people) to achieve the optimal results.

Empowerment = power

To end this post, I would like to end with this thought: companies face two ways to improve their bottom line. They can make cuts: cut employee programs and the number of employees, which shows that its leaders do not have much hope for the future of the firm or its employees. Or companies can invest in their employees, invest trust, provide great leadership, connect strengths and believe that there is more potential in their company than meets the eye. The resulting creativity, innovation and collaboration, when this is done, is what will give the most successful companies with the happiest employees the chance to catapult themselves forward in an ever competitive business environment. A business is like sports team: If you train and praise your players correctly, they’ll bring you the wins you’re looking for. And lastly there is the old maxim that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That holding true, a company is only as innovative as its least engaged employees. Maximize their engagement and you’ll maximize your innovation and get ready to be surprised.

Companies wishing to learn more about how this can be done, would benefit from contacting Inspire 925.

I highly recommend this post from Fast Company as well.

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