Engage your employees to the fullest with these seven tips

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Ask any number of business leaders if his or her employees are satisfied with their jobs and the word “engagement” will probably be in the answer. It’s not just a coincidence; it’s an accepted fact that employees, who by freedom of choice have a desire to work in the best interests of the organization, will drive positive outcomes for the company.

While employee engagement is not a new concept, it has received considerable attention in the last 20 years as one of the top management techniques that can have a significant impact on a business.

Here are seven tips from Houston business leaders on the importance of employee engagement — and how it works for them so it can work for you.

1. Strip off the badges

Steve Stagner, president and CEO, Mattress Firm

When Steve Stagner and his company Mattress Firm took over the 180-store Mattress Giant, he made the first day of the merged operation a memorable one.

He closed all the stores — temporarily — to host a team-building exercise at seven locations across the country.

“We had about 400 of their sales associates show up along with a couple hundred of our people,” he says. “They spent the first four hours in shorts and T-shirts, running around the community finding things together, creating videos on their phones and trying to help accomplish tasks.”

The modified scavenger hunt was actually a way to develop camaraderie, teamwork and a foundation for a common culture between employees who once viewed each other as competition.

“The idea was that I wanted to take our culture and their culture, strip our titles and our badges, badges meaning what company you work for — Mattress Firm and Mattress Giant — and get people to work together, play together, laugh together and solve problems together for a few hours,” Stagner says.

“We had been fierce competitors for 25 years and by noon, we were all sharing ideas. To me, that is the foundation of how a culture is built. It is built on trust and on a relationship.”

2. Communicate casually

Drew Alexander, president and CEO, Weingarten Realty Investors

Meeting with your direct reports and having them cascade information down to other levels is a common method to communicate, but it shouldn’t be the only one.

“It is important to spend some casual time with employees, to go to lunch with them, to have a cup of coffee with folks and to meet with them in their offices, maybe have a drink after work occasionally and hear what’s going on with them,” says Drew Alexander of Weingarten Realty Investors.

The talk may even include some disagreements about operations. While they are unavoidable — you can’t expect agreement all of the time — you can learn to exercise control in how you respond to avoid making matters worse.

“Always try to walk the talk,” Alexander says. “When somebody disagrees with you and says you’re wrong, or when somebody gives you some difficult feedback or says that something isn’t working, always try not to retaliate in any way, shape or form.

 “Don’t get into an argument. Maybe ask a little bit more about why they think that to really solicit other feedback. I may not always agree with it but I learned a long time ago if you want honest feedback then you have to accept it graciously.”

3. Look at it FAIR-ly

Jim O’Neil, CEO, Quanta Services Inc.

Jim O’Neil of Quanta Services found that simple is best, and he made it easy to commit employee engagement steps to memory by using an acronym.

“I call it the FAIR model; F stands for Focusing everyone in the organization on the overall vision and strategy of the company,” O’Neil says.

This takes into account that you have company vision and mission statements already in place. If you don’t have them, it’s time to write them.

“No matter what job position you are in with an organization, you work as hard as you can to make a difference,” he says. “You listen and you learn from those around you.”

A stands for holding employees Accountable for their performance.

“You have to hold people answerable and watch for complacency,” O’Neil says. “How do you know whether people are complacent or not? One of the main ways is to set financial targets. Also set employee development targets for them to develop talent within their organization.”

I is for Involving every employee in the mission of the company.

“A CEO must always remember that employees are his internal customers,” he says.

“You have to be a good listener. More than 95 percent of all problems brought to my attention deal with the need for better communication. People often require a sounding board to talk it out. Some problems are complex and require a collective approach to a solution.”

R stands for Recognizing people for their results.

“It means understanding what each person brings to the table in the way of value, knowing that you may have people at the table who are new, and they are there just to learn,” O’Neil says. “But just the experience of sitting through that type of exercise is invaluable to anyone. I learn every day. It’s a continual process.”

Employees who are involved are more likely to generate ideas in the suggestion box.

“They’ll pretty much tell you if you empower them that, ‘Look, I know I’m responsible for A, if you let me go pursue B, I think I could improve value to both our organization and the customer,’” O’Neil says.

4. Consider salary bands on merit

Jason Bernal, president, YES Preparatory Schools

When it comes to the subject of wages and salaries, it’s one topic no company or organization can afford to ignore. Some companies put a salary cap on positions, limiting advancement, but often denoting a dead-end job.

YES Prep realized that there are some people who just want to teach and be great teachers, so a pathway called Teacher Continuum was created, a system on how teachers are paid based on performance and not tenure.

“With the Teacher Continuum program, we have teachers who start out in a certain band; if you are a first-year teacher, you start off at the novice level,” says Jason Bernal of YES Preparatory Schools. “Then you can move throughout the bands to mastery teacher. So based on how your performance is throughout the year, you can move into a higher position.

 “A big part of this is that we don’t want to lose great teachers and people who don’t necessarily want to go on to be administrators,” he says. “They just love teaching. We want to keep those teachers. It gives teachers the incentives just to continue doing really, really well in the classroom.”

5. Get inside their head

Taseer Badar, president, CEO and co-founder

It’s been said many times: Managing employees takes a good bit of psychology to be successful — and to grow your business. The first step is to consider the way the employee looks at the job.

“It’s important to understand that when you are dealing with people’s psyche, dealing with human emotions when you are a leader of a company, you’re dealing with their families, you’re dealing with what is going on in their home life,” says Taseer Badar of ZT Wealth Inc./Altus Healthcare Management Service.

He uses the analogy of an airplane to describe how to manage a company and its growth.

“Make sure you don’t fly too high,” he says. “You take off in an airplane, and there is nothing underneath you. If it crashes, you can’t save the plane. When you grow too fast and you don’t have a foundation underneath you, it’s the same thing.”

The foundation is not only some statements describing the company core values or its mission, but a real knowledge and awareness of what’s going on with employees.

6. Engaging in a virtual world

Dana Sellers, CEO, Encore Health Resources

When Dana Sellers realized there needed to be a process to keep Encore Health Resources’ employees up-to-date on new tools and methods, she instituted monthly “lunch and learns” at the virtual company. These videoconferences cover educational topics and are recorded so they could be accessed on Encore’s Web portal. This way, a consultant on the road can stay up-to-date with training topics while relaxing in his or her hotel room.

In addition, about every 18 months, Sellers, holds a retreat that includes team-building and training exercises.

“That retreat is really important in a virtual world because it is where you do come together and actually get to spend time with people,” she says.

The personal connection is also important to retain when there are grievances or problems. Sellers devised a virtual “open door” policy that may rival those of her non-virtual peers.

“We are very, very conscious that we are virtual so we make sure we do a lot of things to keep people engaged,” she says.

“The policy is this: We will make certain that you are face-to-face, personally, with that person, whoever you reach out to, within two business days somewhere in the United States. We don’t guarantee where. You may have to fly to them, or maybe they will fly to you. We will figure it out. There won’t be any retribution; we don’t guarantee you’ll get the answer you want, but we will take your issue seriously and we will look into it, and we will follow up.

“We will hear your issue. And there never, ever will be any retaliation. That’s how you do it.”

7. Seek and enhance relationships

Ric Campo, chairman and CEO, Camden Property Trust

While many businesses feel their most important relationship is between the company and its customers, equally important are employee/employee relationships. You have to have the second one before you can even think about developing the company/customer relationship.

Camaraderie is your lifeblood and without it, work and even life in general may be rather dull.

“One of your core values should be to have fun,” Ric Campo says. “If you can’t have fun with the people you work with, why bother? We try to make it feel like employees want to get up in the morning and come to work for Camden. And they want to have fun doing it.”

Creating a culture of fun starts with researching and borrowing ideas from fellow companies’ successful efforts. Once you have some plans in mind, roll out an initial one — a good time is during the first part of the year.

“One of our big ones is at the beginning of the year. Starting in February and running throughout March, we have what are called ACE awards, which is Achieving Camden Excellence. It’s basically an employee recognition event,” Campo says.

Employees vote for other employees on how they emulated Camden’s values in the last year, and winners get prizes.

“It’s a really big deal,” he says. “Some people get up and cry when they win. They also get money, like $2,500, a trophy and a watch.”

You can try different formats and vary the locations. Campo finds an all-day employee event effective for rehashing how everyone did last year and what is going to go on in the new year.

“But if you think about what you have — a lot of people, maintenance people and service people and so on — don’t communicate in corporate speak,” he says. “Communicate in normal language. For example, when we talk about how we did over the last year, we don’t talk about balance sheets, income statements, earnings per share or multiples on stock.”

Talk about normal things that people understand. Incorporate some well-produced videos and other types of presentations if you can.

“We use a lot of fun stuff, so that creates a camaraderie with the employees; it gives them a sense of pride where they work,” Campo says. “Spend a fair amount of time talking about what you do.”

As the discussions are carried on, it’s important to follow through when suggestions or requests are made. Those can be turned over to a committee structure which you would have in place by that time.