We talk to the legendary employee engagement expert, and author of Employee Engagement 2.0, Kevin Kruse, about what it really takes to motivate employees.
Jacob: Hello, everyone. I’m Jacob Shriar, Growth Manager of Officevibe, and today I’m honored to have my guest with me, Kevin Kruse, who is a best-selling author, regular contributor to Forbes, entrepreneur, CEO, really just a legend in the employee engagement world, in my opinion.
Honestly, so excited to have a chat with you, Kevin, thanks so much for being here with me.
Kevin: Jacob, thanks for having me, and thanks for beating the employee engagement drum, which is so important to me.
Jacob: Yeah, for sure. Important to me, too, but, of course, you’ve been working at this longer than I have, so I guess it’s even more important to you.
I have a ton of questions to ask you. Honestly, I mean, some of these probably will be some difficult questions. I’ve asked these to some people before, but I want to get your opinion on them because I know you’re. . . I don’t know if this is a good term, but you are considered a thought leader in this space in all honesty, at least I consider you a thought leader, if that counts for anything.
Maybe, just before I start throwing questions your way, maybe just for a bit of context, instead of me gloating and telling everyone how cool of a person you are, give us a bit of background on who you are, how you got into this industry, any background, I think, would be great.
Kevin: Yeah. Thanks, Jacob. It’s funny, because when people that I get geeked out about employee engagement, they usually think that I’m an HR professional or I’m a professor of organizational development, or something like that. I’m neither of those things, not that I have anything against them.
I became just passionate about engagement as I was starting, growing and then selling different technology companies. So I just came at it, and still come at it today, as a practitioner. You know, a little bit longer version of that story is when I graduated from college, a couple of decades or so ago, I thought I had everything figured out, started my first business. Literally the day after I graduated from college, I started my first business. Didn’t have any money, got a one room office, couldn’t afford an apartment also, so I slept under my desk. Would get up early every day, go shower at the YMCA gym, and then show back up as if I was arriving for work, even though I was living there.
I thought it was going to be easy. I thought I just knew all the answers. It was the tech boom, it’s been the tech boom ever since then. I lasted a year, and I mean, I went deeply into debt, shut down, and just didn’t know what went wrong. But I didn’t quit, and a couple years later I started a second business, and I had a partner, and it did a little better. But, we had some disagreements on strategy and what we wanted, so we agreed to shut that down.
The third business is where I figured it out, that success, I mean, 90% of it is about other people. It’s about talent. That business did okay. I sold it for a couple million dollars after five years, and then I started another one, and then that one grew even bigger than the first one. The same thing happened with [inaudible 00:03:17, I even put more of my time and energy into the people stuff, and less into the execution part.
The last business I said, “Listen. The more I spend time on leadership and engaging talent, hiring great talent and engaging them to let them do what they do best, the better this business is going to do. So I’m not going to worry about marketing, I’m going to worry about leading a great marketer. I’m not going to worry about selling and going out on sales calls, I’m going to worry about hiring great sales talent and engaging them to be their very best.” It’s sort of this funny thing. The less I worked in the business, the better the business did because I was working on the people part.
I sold that last company about four years ago and finally decided, “Okay. Let me partner up with an old business partner, and let’s write a book about this thing called employee engagement, but let’s not take it from an academic standpoint. Let’s not do it from an HR standpoint.” There’s lots of great, very deep books and papers out there. I’m a simple guy. I’m a business guy. I’m a frontline manager, I’m an entrepreneur. So how can I boil it down and make this accessible so that other people can experience the same results I have?
For the last four or five years I planned on. . . I was only going to write one book. It’s turned into three books. I’ve traveled around the world in person and doing remote things like this, just spreading the gospel of engagement, and trying to simplify it for managers and business professionals everywhere.
Jacob: What an incredible story. I love how you started from the bottom, and then you’ve made it. My first question for you, right off the bat, let’s get right into it, because honestly, I have some pretty intense questions for you.
Let’s say you’re in a corporate environment. Call it, let’s say, 5000 employees, different levels of management, mid managers, higher level managers, etcetera. Let’s say the mid managers and all of the employees, they love this, they understand it. They’re dying to get some engagement initiatives going. They really believe in this employee engagement thing, but the senior management’s not onboard. Are they screwed? What are your thoughts?
Kevin: Well, they are until senior management gets a clue. You know, there’s two ways to approach it, and I get this kind of question a lot. Sort of like, “Hey, I believe in this but my boss doesn’t,” or, “I’m the head of HR and I believe in this, but I can’t get the CEO to cough up money to even do a survey, let alone anything else.” That can be a tough situation.
My answer to that, it’s twofold. On one level, everybody is a leader. We know that emotions are contagious, just like sneezing and giving you a cold. If I am engaged, I am upbeat, I am happy, those emotions spread and cross over to those around us. If we’re depressed, if we’re angry, if we’re mad, those emotions will spread to those around us, whether we’re at work, whether we’re at home, or whether we’re at the corner bar. Emotions are contagious. So we are all leaders whether we want to be or not.
A lot of people, it’s fashionable to say, “Oh, leadership is not about command and control or title, leadership is a choice.” I say, “Uh-uh. Leadership is not a choice.” You are a leader whether you want to be or not, because leadership is about influence. It’s just are you a great leader, or are you a bad leader? Are you influencing people for the better? Are you influencing people towards a path of negativity?
Step one, even if upper management is clueless and they don’t believe in this, we all have our own part to do to lead ourselves, to lead our teams, and to engage as much as we can the people around us. It works peer to peer as well.
The bigger question is how do we influence our boss? How do we influence the CEO? It can be tough, but practically speaking, what I would suggest is this. All people, I believe, they make decisions, or they “buy” based on emotional reasons, even though they will then justify it with logic.
There is a mountain of research. I maintain a webpage that I think now has 32, 33 studies that show the direct correlation between employee engagement and increases in sales, increases in service, increases in profit. It shows that, this is a Kenexa Research Institute study, engaged companies in the top quartile, they get five times better shareholder return, better returns for their shareholders than companies with disengaged workforce. That’s what CEOs really care about, if they’re a quarterly company, what’s my quarterly earnings? What’s the share price? They’ll say all this other stuff. That’s what they care about.
Engagement leads to that stuff, so you need to pile on the hard data. This soft stuff called engagement leads to hard results. But, the way you really influence them is with stories, or case studies. Again, you can collect those from a lot of different sources. I like to use a lot of stories and case studies.
My favorite is Doug Conant and how he turned around Campbell Soup over a 10 year time period. He came in and was told Campbell Soup’s going to go out of business. This iconic brand and 100-year-old company, everyone wanted to know what his turnaround plan was going to be. Was he going to sell off a division or acquire a competitor? He said, “No, no, no. If you want to win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace. I’m passionate about employee engagement.” Everyone thought he was crazy. “What? Your big turnaround plan is employee engagement?”
Year by year, they chipped away at it, and he went from Campbell Soup. . . He was told that he had the worst scores in the entire Fortune 500, and nine years later, he had the best scores in the Fortune 500. More importantly, their stock price, he reversed the fortunes of the company, and they outperformed their peer category by a factor of five.
If you’re trying to influence your boss, you’re trying to influence the VP of HR, or you are the VP of HR, you’re trying to influence the CEO, “Hey, cough up some money so we can do a survey. Let’s do an analysis,” give them the data, but move them emotionally with the case studies so they hear about other CEOs that have used engagement to their advantage.
The last tip I’ll give, Jacob, is don’t try to sell whatever the project is as the whole enchilada. Just say you want to do a pilot project. Pilot projects are safe by their definition, they might work, they might not work. They’re small, they’re not going to be too expensive. “Hey, Ms. CEO, we don’t want to get all crazy with this engagement stuff, but maybe we’ll do a pilot project. Let’s try a survey in one division, or one department, or one location. Let’s see what the results come back. Let’s bring someone in to teach the frontline managers about some behaviors that might drive engagement. Let’s just see what happens. Let’s see if service improves, if sales improve. Hey, it’s just a pilot study.” Then, of course, you use the results of the pilot study to expand it.
That would be the long answer to that question.
Jacob: Yeah. Honestly, that was such a great answer. The only thing that I didn’t love about the answer was the piece of advice of launching surveys. I think you could be right, depending on how you do it. I was actually just having a chat about this with someone, maybe about an hour ago.
An interesting statistic, I think it was an Aon study that came out, and it said 52% of managers looked at survey results but didn’t actually do anything with them. Twenty seven percent didn’t even bother looking at the results.
So not only are they not being used, they’re a waste of time, but the way that they are done is very flawed in my opinion. Sometimes it’s once a year. Generally, maybe, right around a certain period of time to coincide with your earnings statements, or who knows what, exactly. Sometimes even once every two years, I’ve heard in certain situations. That’s way too long for surveys and things like that.
I think you could be right. You need to be very smart about how you go about it, right? Does that make sense?
Kevin: Absolutely. I mean, a survey is, in my opinion, the first step, and it’s just one of the tools. I mean, it’s like a hammer. You can use a hammer to pound nails into a board and build a house. You can use a hammer to beat someone up over the head. So it’s just a tool.
I agree with you, and I would even go further, that if you execute on a survey, and there is no follow up with the people who took the survey, you’ve just damaged the culture. “I’ve just spent all this time and gave you my opinions, and then I never heard another word? Well, fuck you, I’m out of here.”
So surveys, when used improperly, like a hammer being used improperly, they’ll do damage. I’m in agreement with you. The key, if I had to really boil it down, I’d say, “Look. If you want something to improve, measure it.” It’s hard to improve sales if you’re not measuring how much revenue you’re bringing every month. It’s hard to improve customer service if you’re not doing a customer satisfaction survey. If you want to improve employee engagement, you should measure it. You should survey it.
I agree with you that, oh, I hear all the time, we do it every other year, that’s horrible. Once a year, eh. I used to do it every six months, even in my small business. It’s basically, the faster your company is moving, the faster it’s growing, the more often you should being doing the survey.
Personally, what I believe in today, but this is like bleeding edge stuff, is you should be doing a real-time survey. The CEO should have her finger on the pulse of engagement that’s real-time, meaning weekly. Weekly, send out a pulse survey to a randomly selected, but statistically significant sample of your population. Keep the survey short, these 60 question, 80 question, that’s ridiculous. A subset of your population hits it every week, so you just have a rolling.
Will there be some seasonality? Will there be some dips when you’ve had to do lifts? Well, sure, but so what? You see the chart plotted over time. Oh, there was a war in the Middle East, stock market took a dip that day. You want that data, you want to know that story.
But back to your point, Jacob, you’re right. You do the survey. You make sure that you’re surveying the teams tagged to each front level manager. Let’s say I’ve got 10 people. Kevin Kruse gets Kevin’s results back and says, okay. Here’s your overall score. Here’s your score on what we’ve identified as the major drivers. Now, Kevin, you’re going to go and sit down and share this out with all your team members and say, “Okay, guys. It looks like you gave me a 4.5 out of 5 on communication. That’s great, but I’m more interested in this 3.3 out of 5 on growth.”
These questions were, I feel like I have opportunities to advance. My manager, Kevin, cares about my future. What could I be doing better to get these scores higher? Give me some feedback. What could I be doing better? What’s an action plan we can execute on the team? We’re not waiting for Mr. or Ms. CEO to launch some initiative. What can we do at the grassroots level?
Guys like Doug Conant and others who have really turned around their organization, frontline managers are being held accountable. Here’s your performance review. Here’s your engagement score. Your people took a survey and said you didn’t do an action plan meeting. We’re going to fire you. Doug fired 300 out of 350 of his managers. Most people don’t know that. There is a tough side of engagement. If you do it right, you’re saying you’re being held accountable for our process and the results, and if you aren’t going to do it, just like you’re not going to make cold calls as a sales person, you’re not going to answer your phone as a service person, well then fine. You’re not going to coach for engagement, you’re not going to lead for engagement, go do something else, but that’s what we do in this organization.
So survey, itself, can hurt, if not done right. If part of that entire system is just the tool to get you that real-time, or every six month metric, I think it’s an important part.
Jacob: Yeah, I agree. Thanks for expanding on that, for sure. Let me ask you this next question. Obviously, you know the Gallup numbers, engagement numbers. You know a very small percentage of people that are actually actively engaged, and a giant percentage of numbers are not really that engaged. I have a bunch of questions around this topic for you, but let me just start right there. Why do you think the numbers are the way they are? Why do you think those numbers are so one-sided or wrong sided? Do you understand?
Kevin: I do. Again, I think a lot of people are mystified by this because there seems to be such rich literature now about the correlation between an engaged workforce and better results. I mean, how can there not be? An engaged worker is going to give you discretionary effort. They’re going to go the extra mile. If they’re in sales, they’re sell harder, if it’s service, they’re going to service harder. If they’re building widgets, they’re going to build them faster and with fewer defects.
So why doesn’t everybody care about engagement? Why aren’t people investing the little bit of money here, or time that it takes?
I don’t really know. My theory is that, unfortunately, this isn’t something that’s taught in business schools, or as like a core curriculum in corporate training programs. So, I think, it begins, the problem is the C-level executives, they don’t understand engagement. They think it means happy or satisfied. “Oh, yeah, we’re going to do a survey every two years and if it’s low, we’ll give them an extra company party in the summer. We’ll have dress down Fridays,” or things like that.
Engagement is not happiness. You can have a happy employee who is not productive, who is happy goofing off or playing games on a smartphone. An engaged employee is committed to their organization and their organization’s goals. I mean, sometimes they might even be a little stressed. They are engaged. They’re fighting for the company. They care.
When you realize what engagement truly is, then you realize that picnics and parties don’t move the needle. The problem, C-level executives will say, “Eh, it’s this off stuff. All right. Fine. We’ll survey it. We get the results back, we, in our big top floor C suite, will figure out the answers, more parties, casual dress code, let’s add a few extra benefits, give everybody a two percent pay raise.” Those things might be nice, but they’re not going to move the engagement needle.
When people realize what this is really about, as Gallup also says, over 70% of the variance in engagement has to do with the role and relationship of the frontline manager, who your boss is. That is so enlightening, because it means that’s what you need to be measuring, and that’s where your action, your activity needs to transpire.
My second book was called “Employee Engagement 2.0.” I think it’s sort of this. . . The first generation of employee engagement, people just thought it’s like employee satisfaction. Let’s make people happy, let’s give them more parties. It’s soft stuff.
Two point zero is about no, no, no, it’s all about discretionary effort. It has nothing really to do with happiness. It has everything to do with frontline workers, so it needs to be a grassroots effort. The solutions need to come up team by team, manager by manager, location by location. It’s really that it needs to be bottom up instead of top down. I think the top down approach is the one that failed in the past.
Jacob: I feel like that’s much easier said than done, though, no?
Kevin: Well, perhaps, I don’t know. Look at all the best place to work winners. There’s hundreds of them. Look at Genentech, look at Campbell Soup. I mean, there’s hundreds and hundreds of companies that do have way better results than those Gallup scores, and they’re performing way better than the companies that aren’t doing it.
But, do we overall still only have one third of the people engaged? Yep, unfortunately, we do. What’s wrong with all those other lame companies, lame CEOs? I don’t know. What do you think?
Jacob: I don’t know. It’s a really interesting question. In all honesty, it’s something I think about a lot. I don’t get it because it all seems so common sense to me. It seems so obvious to me. Why wouldn’t you treat your employees with respect? Why wouldn’t you give them real-time feedback? Really, I’ve never fully understood it.
The one thing that I boiled it down to, and this is my own opinion, I really could be wrong about this, was money. I really put it a money issue. I think they do go hand in hand. It’s kind of a chicken and egg problem, right? It’s like what comes first, the money or the engagement? I know that you say if you have engaged employees, you will have more profits and you will make more money. I totally get it, but I really do believe that if you’re struggling with money, you almost don’t have time to think about engagement and doing these things because you’re so focused on that next sale or the next quarter, or whatever the case.
Jacob: You’re literally not able to think about any long-term vision or long-term thing. That’s my own personal opinion. Like I’ve said, I’ve asked this question to a few people. They’ve all given me relatively similar answers to yours, things like it’s not taught in business school. They’re used to how they work, taught when they were working when they were younger. I don’t know. I don’t know. I think it’s a combination of things. What were you going to say?
Kevin: I think you put your finger on an important variable, which is that timeframe, the time horizon, because unfortunately, especially in the bigger companies that have outside shareholders, or public shareholders, unfortunately the CEO focus is so often now on every 90 days, every quarter, or one year annual results.
I mean, they will sell off their desks if they need to raise money to hit their numbers. I mean, they so fear missing Wall Street estimates. There are some brave executives out there, Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Amazon’s grown huge and gets all these accolades. They don’t make any money, and Wall Street gets so angry with them over it. When are you going to start. . . He just keeps spending, innovating, innovating, innovating, investing. Bezos says, “Look, I’m not running this on a 90 day cycle. I’m running this on a 100 year cycle. Don’t like it, don’t invest.” Those kind of leaders are very few and far in between.
It was Marshall Goldsmith, I think, that told me once that even when he coaches executives and they make dramatic changes in their leadership behaviors, they’re surprised when their team doesn’t automatically rally and say, “Oh, cool. Kevin’s now a good guy. Kevin’s a good boss. Oh, I’m engaged.” Goldsmith says it’s because it takes time. At first they don’t trust change.
So you need to not just show up one day and do all the cool things as a leader, you need to do it again, and again, and again. All those years and time of being a bad leader or having a bad culture, it takes time to win the trust for people to say, “Oh, Kevin really is like this new person,” or he really is consistent in these behaviors.
Back to your time point, companies will invest money and time, which is very short these days, doing a survey, sharing out results, doing some training, changing some behaviors. That cycle can take a long time, and they’re spending out money quarter by quarter, rolling it out. So that timeframe horizon could be an important variable. I think you’re right.
Jacob: Yeah, maybe. Yeah, I think it’s a combination of a lot of things for sure. My next question for you is around an article that you wrote on Forbes. Obviously, I’m going to put the link to the article below the video when we publish this video. I forgot the exact title, but basically the premise of the article was that employee engagement is such a hard thing to measure because it’s a feeling, right?
Jacob: I’d love for you to expand on this. The example that you gave was basically something like, if you said how much do you love your life on a scale of one to ten, what would you say, what does that mean, exactly? Right?
Jacob: If you can, just expand on that, how engagement is such a hard thing to measure.
Kevin: Yeah, I get a lot of comments about that article. It’s called something like ‘How do you Measure Love or Employee Engagement,’ or something like that. This is another, like the naysayers like to say, “Employee engagement is so squishy. How do you ever measure it? You can’t measure engagement, it’s impossible. It’s all voodoo. It’s pseudoscience.”
Where they are right, employee engagement is our level of commitment to our organization and their goals. Your feelings of commitment are feelings, right? I can’t just crack you open or stick the engagement meter in your arm and see the number go, “Oh, you’re a 4.8 out of 5 on the engagement meter.”
There’s no way to measure our feelings. It’s like, you love your significant other, whoever that might be, I can’t see you or measure you or run an X-ray on you and get a number on how much you love your spouse.
But, we can use proxy questions to get at those emotions. Most people would agree that if I loved my wife a whole lot, I was madly, passionately in love with my wife, I probably wouldn’t think about cheating on her and being with someone else. If I really was tired of my wife, bored with my wife, angry with my wife, I might be more likely to think about straying outside of my marriage. If I was madly, passionately in love with my wife, and I’m hanging out with my buddies at the bar, I’d probably be more likely to say, “Guys, when are you getting married? It’s awesome! I just love it! Having someone there for you, someone who’s got your back and is reliable and that just loves you back. It’s just so awesome. When are you guys going to get married?”
Now, if I was miserable with my wife, I wouldn’t be saying that. I’d be like, “Oh, dude, you got engaged? Oh, condolences, man. I can’t believe. Don’t do it. Get out of it,” right?
So, these are proxy questions. We can’t measure love with a number, but we could say, “How likely are you, Jacob, to suggest to your buddies that getting married is a great thing? How often do you think about being with another person? How satisfied are you in your marriage on a scale of one to five? Give us a number.”
Then, when you average some of these numbers together, you can give that love meter score. So, the similar questions, now different companies will use different proxy questions, Gallup, Forum, Kenexa, me. The questions I like to use, I would recommend, if there was a job opening in your company, would you recommend to a good friend that they apply for the job? How likely are you to recommend employment in your company to a good friend?
This is like that net promoter question. I know you know about that and like that because you interviewed the godfather of that. It’s a great question and it comes from a client satisfaction background. You buy this car. How likely are you to refer this car to a friend?
Well, it’s the same thing. You’re in a job. You work for a company. How likely are you to refer the company you work for to a good friend? That’s a proxy question. If you’re really engaged, you’re going to be like, “Yeah, five out of five. I’m referring friends here. I love working here.” Or, you hate your boss, and it just stinks working it, you’re doing it just because there’s nothing else out there, and a job opening comes up, you’re going to be like, “Don’t apply for this job. This place stinks.” Right?
So it’s a scale on that referring. Instead of how often do you think about cheating on your spouse, how often do you think about looking for a new job? Hey, if I love my job and I love my boss, everything, I’m totally engaged, I’m going to be like, on a scale of one to five, I’m never looking for another job. If I hate the place, I’m always looking for another job.
How do you measure love? How do you measure engagement? Well, you can’t measure it because it’s an emotion, but you can use proxy questions to come up with a scale that gives us an idea of how engaged someone is or isn’t, how emotionally committed they are to their employer. Does that make sense?
Jacob: Totally. Yeah. Very, very smart answer. My last question for you is, I know that leadership is a big topic for you and leadership development is big. You specialize in that, I guess. I’d love to ask you for my last question, what is a very common theme, or really the number one thing that you think leaders get wrong?
If you had one piece of advice or one really crazy thing that leaders should be watching out for, what’s one thing that you just want to shout at every leader who’s eventually watching this?
Kevin: Okay. When you give me more time to think about this, maybe I’ll change my answer. Here’s what’s coming to mind right now. When organizations pay me to come in and speak about leadership and about engagement, I talk about the definition of engagement, how you measure it, the big drivers of engagement, growth, recognition, trust.
But the big secret, what it all boils down to, what every leader needs to know, what can completely transform an organization if it’s put into practice, it comes down to this. Are you ready?
Jacob: Say it.
Kevin: All right. Be tough on the standards, be tender with the people. Right?
Now, this is something, again, that Conant talks about, other people talk about. It’s a misperception, “Oh, employee engagement, that means being soft with employees, keeping them happy, getting to know them, having lunch with them. Well, what if I have to fire them? I can’t get close to them, what if I have to fire them?”
No, no, no, no. You’re tough on standards. “You will make this many cold calls or you’re going to be asked to leave. You will make this many sales, or you’ll be asked to leave. Your customer satisfaction scores will be this number, or we’re going to ask you to leave. You need to put out this many widgets, or we’re going to ask you to leave.”
Every employee deserves to know what is the expectation. What are you asking of me? What is the standard? Be tough on the standards, be tender on the people.
“So, Jacob, hey, here’s the standards. You need to do this, this, this, this. That’s what the job entails. You want to work here, you want to have a great career here, and we want you to, you’ve got to hit or exceed these standards, and by the way, Jacob, what are your career plans, and how can we help you to get there? Let us help you on growth factor. Hey, you stayed this weekend and covered for somebody, I want to say thank you. I want to buy you lunch, because that shows a great dedication to our customer service.” That’s the recognition aspect.
“Jacob, let’s make sure you know where’s our company going? What are our goals? How does that trickle down to our department? How do you fit into the overall plan?” That’s the trust in the future, the future vision aspect.
So you can be tough on the standards, but tender with the people. No reason why I can’t be tough on standards and still say every Monday morning, “Jacob, how was your weekend? What’s going on in your world? I know you were running that half marathon on Saturday. How’d you do? I know your kid had a birthday party. Did she have a good time?”
You can still be tender with people, thank you notes and all that, and be transparent and tough on the standards. That’s the number one thing that every leader should just do. It all boils down to that.
Jacob: Beautifully said. Yeah, I love that. That was awesome. Great, really, that was incredible.
Jacob: I think we’ll end it here. Really, we could keep going for another hour, but you’ve got to end it some time. Honestly, Kevin, just want to thank you so much. This was incredible, seriously. Really, so honored to have you as a guest on my show here, and maybe, hopefully, we can do this again some time soon.
Kevin: I would love to. Again, thanks for the opportunity to share some thoughts with your tribe. I love the work you guys are doing, and thanks for the opportunity.
Jacob: Awesome. Great. Take care.
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