Tom O'Neil uses employee engagement at Ernst & Young Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

Tom O’Neil equates e-mail

communication to a candy bar: It’s quickly consumed, easily digested and leaves a temporary feeling of fullness and satisfaction.

But once you come down off

the sugar buzz of instant gratification, you don’t feel nearly as


O’Neil, managing partner of

Ernst & Young’s 230-employee

Cincinnati office, says e-mail

does serve the purpose of disseminating information quickly,

but as quickly as you can hit your delete button, the message

is lost. Just as you can’t subsist

solely on sugary treats, your

company would not be healthy

if you tried to rely solely on

electronic communication to

relay messages and keep

employees in the loop.

O’Neil says you need to find a

balance, and if you have to err,

err on the side of too much face

time. Employees want to give

you feedback and want to know

that their ideas and opinions are

helping to shape the future of

your company.

Smart Business spoke with

O’Neil about employee engagement and why the best way to a

healthy company is to engage

people face to face.

Don’t use e-mail as a communication crutch. E-mail and voice

mail are effective forms of

communication, but it can’t be

the only form. When you do

that, you’re just generally

sending out information. It

doesn’t really give you an

opportunity to get reaction

and feedback.

There is a lot of need for

face-to-face communication

because it gives you that

opportunity to get people’s

reactions. You get different

ideas from people, you get live

feedback from people because

they have that ability to interact and ask questions.

I think, at the end of the day,

you end up with a better

process, and people feel more

engaged and empowered

when you communicate with

them that way. They feel like

they contributed to an idea or

project and that their voice

matters, as opposed to just

being directed by an e-mail.

Bring people together. We use a

town-hall environment quite a

bit. We’ll bring large groups

together from a communications standpoint.

One of the key things is to

do as much face-to-face communication as you can. It

enables you to be very clear

and consistent. Everybody

hears the same message at

the same time. It gives everyone the opportunity to ask

questions and have interaction if you can do that. The

biggest challenge is always

to try to personalize what

we’re trying to get accomplished. It’s one thing to get

up and talk about a vision or

a strategy, but you have to be

able to personalize it with

everybody in the room. You

have to show how they’re going to fit in, show them

how they’re going to be part

of the initiative or strategy or

whatever we’re trying to get


So you really have to personalize it on all levels and make

sure everyone feels that

they’re empowered and a contributor to the process.

You personalize communication by giving examples.

Some of it may be talking

about best practices, where

we’ve seen success with this

strategy — give some examples that people can relate to.

Then you have to talk specifically about what they’re going

to be able to do, and get very

specific on that.

That’s the best way to make

sure they understand that

they’re a part of the process.

Keep communication consistent. To be an effective communicator, one thing you need to

have is consistency. When

you communicate, you have

to be consistent with all the

groups you talk to — make

sure your message is consistent. The communication

needs to be looking toward

the vision and strategy and

not get too caught up in the

details. You really hope that

your people and your teams

can take that vision and

adapt it their own way. I try

not to be too directive in


When we’re taking on an initiative or talking about a strategy, I try not to give them a

complete cookbook of all the details and action steps. You

have to give them good boundaries and the same general

guidelines so they all understand the vision, but they need

to have the flexibility to implement and be able to adapt as

they work through a project or


The other thing is to be open

to feedback. In business today,

and particularly with all the

young people in our firm, they

like to feel like they’re part of

the process. They want to give

feedback, so you have to be

very open to feedback. It’s

important for a leader in

today’s business environment

to have that capability.

Recognize your employees’ brain-power. Your people are your

assets. They’ve got a lot of great ideas, and there is

always a lot of good diversity

of thought, and it’s important

to draw upon that.

When you get this input from

groups, you end up with a better solution in the end than

just one or two people who

are trying to come up with a

solution to something. We do

everything with teams. We

serve clients with a team of

people, so we all kind of brainstorm together and come out

with better answers.

When you do that, you tend

to think of all the different

options and pitfalls that may

arise in a solution if you

have different people

involved who have different


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