Few would deny that the delivery of a successful business strategy is dependent on people and that those people can make or break an organisation’s competitive advantage. In fact, in a survey from employee engagement experts, Purple Cubed, 100% of business leaders stated that having a clear people strategy which engages, enables and empowers their employees is critical for the success of their organisation.

And of course, who doesn’t want their organisation to be as successful and durable as possible?

Yet the report also found that:

  • 86% of C-Suite members do not believe their business has a robust people strategy in place despite seven in 10 believing engagement is the key to productivity
  • Just under 3/4 of businesses fail to empower their people to do their job to a high standard
  • One in 10 CEOs would panic if their engagement scores dropped
So what is the reason for this disconnect between understanding and action? In my opinion it’s two very clear reasons. First, there is a real ambiguity around the definition of employee engagement in a business. Second there is a lack of understanding around who’s responsibility it is to deliver.

Not just an HR ‘initiative’

While HR has typically been the champion of people and employee engagement, and rightly so because they have a pivotal role to play; our modern way of working calls for a collective understanding of employee engagement and demands shared responsibility for delivering across all departments. Today’s people director needs to be fundamentally different; conducting the orchestra instead of playing in it.

With this too must come a change in the board’s attitude towards people strategy.

So many ‘initiatives’ fail (according to leading experts such as the Harvard Business Review and Forbes, as many as 70%) because colleagues are not prepared to embrace and help drive them. All business people need to understand that engaging your workforce is not about isolated initiatives, having a nice office or some cool benefits. It’s about an all-encompassing way of life. It’s about your culture, consistency and delivery. It’s about the right people, doing the right things, exceeding expectations, enthusiastically.

Therefore, the board must prioritise the people agenda in the boardroom. Those at the top (and this includes investors, NEDs and owners) must understand the importance of getting this right and get on board with the benefits of investing in this vital business area.

To help achieve this, HR professionals need to be in the business, understand the business and talk business. They need to be strategists, marketers, big-picture thinkers and tactical planners, equipped with the information and know-how to argue compellingly for the resources to deliver what’s needed. And they need to deliver clear results so as to be able to keep things evolving as business demands. I believe that today’s HR person has the potential to become the most influential person in the business.

Only then can they enlist support from the highest level. And critically, be able to closely align with the CEO and CFO, who themselves must champion people and engagement across the organisation. If this doesn’t come from the top it’s likelihood of failure will increase.

Of course if you don’t have an HR department then it’s up to business owners and leaders to drive engagement – before it’s too late. I’ve seen very successful SMEs that employ no internal HR resource at all, turning over tens of millions of pounds and winning prestigious people awards along the way. This is only achievable because the founders have set a clear direction and tone for the people stuff and they – and their employees - all know their part to play. What a great model for getting this stuff right.

But why?

And of course by pushing the people agenda and delivering on a sensible plan, you will inevitably become a ‘great place to work’, your company will:

  • Attract and retain great talent
  • Improve engagement which will in turn boost productivity, innovation and profits
  • Save on attrition costs
  • Win some awards thus improving your profile with clients and employees
  • Increase brand value and image
So, in summary, the solution is threefold:
  • All business leaders need to understand and accept accountability for employee engagement, enablement and empowerment – these items can no longer be an ‘HR’ issue. People strategy needs to be owned, led and delivered by the entire organisation.
  • HR professionals must ‘conduct the orchestra rather than play in it’ – that means being influential, strategic, commercial.
  • Simplify the people stuff – develop a blueprint for ‘how we do HR around here’ – remember it’s a marathon not a sprint.

By Jane Sunley, founder and chairman of Purple Cubed and author of The People Formula: 12 Steps to Productive, Profitable, Performing Business