What Matters Most in Employee Engagement
Tips for prioritizing the needs of your company’s top talent
by Amy Cash

Simply put, an employee’s direct manager or supervisor has the greatest impact on an individual’s engagement in the workplace. While organizational culture, competitive pay practices, inspiring mission statements and top leadership all have an influence, it is the daily interaction and the relationship with his/her manager or supervisor that drives employee engagement.

Solid statistical analyses support this fact across all types of industries and organizations. So, how can leaders and owners of construction firms most readily impact the performance, retention and satisfaction of their valuable employees?

The Best Players are Not Always the Best Coaches

Coaching, managing or supervising typically draws on a much different skillset 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 cred” to teach and train others. They typically worked hard to achieve their success, and should be able to inspire others to do the same.

Great players may or may not be great coaches. Many are horrendous at inspiring others. Effectively managing, coaching and leading requires strong interpersonal skills, a selfless desire to help others achieve and an ability to pull people together toward a common goal. These are not the same talents that create great players. In a construction setting, the hardest working drywall tradesman may be admired because of his/her diligence and technical skill, but he/she may or may not have the talent to supervise people.

Compounding the problem, many high-performing individual contributors express a desire to manage because their egos or yearning for higher pay drives them. Some may feel entitled to a supervisory position because of their longevity and strong skillset. Be careful, though.

Such people will find success in engaging others only if they also have strong desire to see others succeed. Great managers focus on people. Their success is about their team members’ success. In the end, engagement, with all its benefits in performance, retention and satisfaction comes from great coaches, not great players.

Identify Potential Managers & Supervisors

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 essential. The following are key lessons learned from a 20-year deep dive into how extraordinary organizations find those with supervisory or management talent:

  • Look for people who seek to discover what each person does best and endeavor to define and delineate roles around each person’s strengths.
  • Look for people who are trusted by others in the workplace.
  • Look for people who connect with others and genuinely care about the people on their team.
  • Look for those who are sought out by others when bad things happen in their lives or in their work.
  • Look for people who are stable and consistent.
  • Look for people who 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.

Focus on Your Most Talented People

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 him/her 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 employees.

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

The same equation holds true for a senior leader’s personal time allocation. The best leaders spend their 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 this is an extreme example, there was wisdom in Jobs’s approach, as it helped him create the world’s most valuable company.

A Primer on Employee Engagement

In construction management, as well as in other industries and services throughout the world, owners and senior managers are increasingly realizing the incredibly high correlation between employee engagement and critical outcomes: customer satisfaction, customer retention, employee retention, business unit profitability and job satisfaction. 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 or 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.