Employee Engagement

Blog_24.pngBy Anna Caraveli

What else is there to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon than contemplate the meaning of member and customer engagement, right?  It struck me that all this talk about engagement assumes that the party to be engaged is always the member/customer.  What about employees and other stakeholders?  The assumption is that a mechanical process—the right strategy or action — will result in engagement. Yet simple truth is that disengaged employees cannot engage customers no matter how brilliant the systems and mechanisms.  This really captures the essence of what I have to say in this post. I could just stop here, but it is still raining outside and I need to “engage” myself intellectually.


My thought process began while I was reading an article in MIT Sloan Management Review this morning, titled, How to Become a Sustainable Company, by Robert G. Eccles, Kathleen Miller Perkins and George Serapheim. In our forthcoming book, Andrea Pellegrino and I argue that the flexibility to constantly adapt to demand is the foundation of sustainability, especially in today’s fluid, fast-paced environment.  Like the authors of this article, we found that resilient, sustainable organizations outperform competitors and have a number of shared characteristics. The authors of this article identified three common elements in sustainable organizations:

  • Effective engagement with external stakeholders and employees
  • Cultures based on innovation and trust
  • Track record of  implementing large scale change

The themes of innovation and relationships run across all these characteristics. In fact innovation can only be enabled through relationships with stakeholders that inspire trust and motivate.  And this is where the factor of employee engagement comes in. For change to be successfully executed and sustained, there have to be significant cultural and behavioral changes by individuals. This is why the personal engagement of employees is crucial.  How do you achieve this?  Not through training or persuasion.

First, the authors argue, you need the right leaders; leaders who are capable of creating enterprise-wide vision, and have the clout and commitment to see that it is realized. Yet the lynchpin of execution is their ability to motivate stakeholders to commit to the vision and all that it takes to execute it. “For people to change their behavior, they have to believe that it is worth it. They have to understand and believe in the reasons for the change and recognize what they need to do to contribute to it.”  To achieve and sustain engagement,  the authors conclude, requires three building blocks:

  1. Communicating the impact that the employees’ contributions will have on the company
  2. Articulating the connection between each employee’s work and the sustainability goals
  3. Enabling cross-functional communication and idea exchange

How do these findings compare with our findings in the associations/membership organization realm? Judge for yourself!  Below are the key characteristics of two organization personality types that we developed through our research, in six critical categories. They represent two opposite ends of a continuum: the conventional, product centric organization that seems to be losing relevance and market share on one end; and resilient, demand-centric organizations that are growing, succeeding and resonating with the new environment, on the other end.  There is of course a range of variations and levels between the two. We found that the more demand-oriented the organization the greater its capacity for engaging and motivating knowledge- age professionals because of the increased opportunities for autonomy, improvisation, leadership and creativity it offers.  Which of these characteristics most resonate with you?

Defining Characteristics

Conventional, Product-Driven Organizations

Motivating, Demand-Driven Organizations


Leadership & decision-making

The role of an association’s executive director is to implement the board’s strategy. Leadership is equated to governance processes and bylaws; top-down, process-driven decision-making; multiple channels of approval

A leader’s role is to perceive the “big picture,” beyond what is visible and immediate; understand how disparate pieces are connected to the whole; and motivate others to achieve a common purpose. Decision-making is fast and   collaborative, with many people on several levels taking on leadership roles

Priorities in resource allocation

Governance, policy, maintenance of status quo; will   cut member or staff benefits before cutting perks to board members, senior   executives and internal priorities; usually top-heavy organizations

Customer/member and business development; and the constant building   of new individual and organizational capabilities for the long-term; usually lean, flexible organizations with unconventional models.


Closed organizations that learns through formal channels (e.g. an   occasional survey or focus group) and internal resources and processes (e.g. committees). They feel they already know their markets and customers and do not see the need for deeper and more detailed knowledge. Information is not shared beyond   silos, and is usually not applied to improve results and collective knowledge.   The insights of employees who are most in contact with customers, such as front line employees, are not valued or utilized, hence there is little motivation   for employees to learn about and engage customers or be alert to opportunities. There is no burning curiosity about customers and markets. Employees’ roles become passive and their relationships with members and the market, tactical.  There are no systems for capturing, sharing and increasing knowledge.

Open organizations, learning from the outside-in: directly from the market, their experiences and results rather than formal mechanisms.  There is never a point of satisfaction with   the current knowledge level.  To resonate with demand, requires deep customer and market insight and continuous monitoring. Every employee’s contribution —from executives to call center staff—is needed and highly valued to maintain that level of continuous knowledge   and market alertness.  Knowledge and   foresight are shared and applied to product and business development.  As a result there is curiosity about customers and markets. Staff is motivated to be alert to threats and opportunities. There are established systems for engaging, monitoring, interacting with, capturing  and leveraging members and their intellectual capital. Learning by doing,   experimenting and adapting; sharing and co-developing with others increase staff motivation and engagement


The emphasis is on process and products over relationships; on recruitment over retention and development. Organization talks the “member-centric talk” but treats members as commodities, even disruptions of  the associations “real work,” and relegates them to the “membership” function  or epartment. Relationships with various stakeholders are tactical and lack   empathy and intimacy.Organization perceives role as providing members with standard benefit packages and access to volunteer opportunities. Staff is seen as   implementers.  Leadership’s role is to ensure efficient performance of staff duties. Rewards and incentives are often nominal and generic. They do not resonate with thinking, needs and motivations of members and staff and, hence, are not effective (e.g. rewards for seniority or mere performance; sending birthday cards on member birthdays “to show them we care.” Short-term transactions vs. life time   member value

The organization’s strategy and identity is based on relationships: engaging, motivating, facilitating, coaching, etc. Views customers as assets rather than liabilities and sees their value in developing them into strategic buyers and partners over their lifetime. Emphasis on customer retention and continuous development over  just recruitment.Organization sees its role as a provider of individualized and unique strategic solutions to a range of customers. Staff is seen as partners with shared responsibility for member engagement and satisfaction; trends monitoring and bottom line results across organization—with each employee understanding how his/her share of contribution  fits into the whole.  Leadership’s role is to motivate, empower and inspire them to help organization achieve strategic goals and deliver customer value.Rewards and incentives are based on deep understanding of  stakeholders. They are individualized and effective in motivating (e.g.   profit-sharing; flex-time; opportunities for innovating, learning and developing, leading etc.)

New product/service/business   development

Emphasis on products over solutions, product quality over customer value. Innovation is limited to variations of, or additions to, existing   categories or products, services or processes.  Staff participates in only a small segment of the product cycle in roles that are prescriptive and highly structured.   Development process is slow, internally focused and limited by committee-based planning and approval processes.  Organization produces all or most of its own services, products and content.  Mostly “off-the-shelf,” standard products and services.

Emphasis on innovative solutions over products. Organization innovates on a large scale, constantly re-examining its assumptions and transforming core pieces of its business and value proposition. As a result,  staff contribution is needed on a strategic rather than tactical level (e.g. to uncover nuanced needs, identify and seize  new market opportunities, conceptualize entirely new solutions and categories, form strategic partnerships etc.).  As a result, staff has much more autonomy than in conventional, product-driven  organizations, and a wide range of flexibility. They are usually empowered to innovate across the board, participate in the entire product and business development cycle and be drive products from concept to market launch and profitability. Offers customized integrated  solutions, by configuring programs, expertise and other assets into unique solution packages. Expands the source of inputs and offerings beyond internal production units through external strategic partners .

Measures of success

Quantitative   measures such as number of new members, programs produced etc. Incremental   improvements in retention, renewal rates, etc. Adherence to mission.

Results it has helped customers achieve; revenue and growth; and qualitative value-based measures, e.g.  innovation, strategic partnerships, building of capabilities for the future, etc.

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