Bumbling leaders and grumbling workers

Dropping stocks and drooping dividends

Crumbling morale and stumbling managers

Fleeting jobs and retreating markets

Helpless Boomers and hapless Millennials

          Sound familiar? For many, these are now everyday workplace realities. Whether we like it or not, they are, in a sense, the “new normal.”

            Consider the tumultuous times facing us:

  • Significant financial stresses, not seen in a century, are causing record unemployment, with the realization that many of those jobs are never coming back.
  • Thousands of workers have seen their retirement accounts wither, and many are forced to stay in the workforce beyond their intended retirement dates.
  • We have a health-care crisis where the skyrocketing costs of care are rising much faster than salary increases, leaving more people with a fool’s choice—taking care of their health or paying for other basic needs.
  • The public’s trust of company leaders continues to erode, fueled by greed, mismanagement, and the financial collapse that began in 2008 and that many blame on the “corrupt corporation,” a disease that has stricken nearly every industry.
  • Many of our greatest corporate icons—including those in the banking, finance, and automotive industries—have withered and blown away, leaving many to wonder what level of security they may have in any occupation or employer.
  • For the first time in history, the pace of change has produced four distinct generations in the workplace, and conflicts among them have gone beyond clever drama in the movies.

            The work setting where we felt a sense of entitlement has vanished. We can no longer count on lifetime employment the same way our parents did. We can no longer feel secure that our business leaders are generally honest and trying to do the right thing for all of us. We can no longer rely on the bootstrap mentality that if we just work hard enough, everything will be all right.

            And when our workplace is bad, we suffer. When inept leaders turn our company to rubble and threaten our retirement funds, we no longer think about leadership as a concept that doesn’t impact us, because it’s hitting us right in the wallet. When a self-absorbed, petty supervisor makes the life of our spouse miserable and he comes home stressed and angry, we know our family life is directly hurt by what goes on at work.   When a loved one tells us she’s been harassed at work and gets no support from the company to address the complaint, we know her spirit has been wounded. When we receive dawdling service from an establishment that we’ve paid good money to patronize, one staffed with employees who clearly don’t care, we wonder whether we’ll ever again “get our money’s worth.”

            It’s sad, really, how a negative workplace can impact our lives and the way we feel about ourselves. The situation is reaching pandemic heights—most people go to work at jobs they dislike, supervised by people who don’t care about them, and directed by senior leaders who are often clueless about where to take the company.

            Sad, indeed.

            The glimmer of hope in this malaise is a small, but growing, group of employers who are creating remarkable workplaces, where employees are nurtured and, as a result, thrive—achieving exceptional results for all. These elite employers seem to be cutting against the grain, steadily and confidently going about the business of engaging their employees.

            They’ve often carved their paths in the face of adversity. Some stock analysts, for example, can’t see past their noses to understand that investing a little extra in engaging the workforce will pay for itself with happier and more loyal customers in the long run. This relatively new breed of premier employers is second-guessed even by the well intentioned, who tell them that “employees will just take advantage of you if you give them the chance.” Other skeptics admonish that those “people programs” may be nice when business is riding high, but they need to be the first things to go when the bottom falls out of the business.

            The companies profiled in this book have a very different mindset about all of this. They’re a principled bunch, and when the economy gets shaky or market analysts get nervous, they know that “when the going gets tough, the tough work even harder to maintain a great place to work.” They don’t set aside core principles in turbulent times—“they don’t drop the aircraft in order to fly the microphone,” as the aviator would warn. They challenge employees to keep themselves engaged even as they challenge all leaders to be accountable for engaging employees. When other leaders are hiding away in their plush executive suites, these true leaders are out in front of employees and customers, talking openly and honestly. And when they must make job cuts or put salary freezes in place, they do so in a professional and dignified manner—no ducking and running in this all-too-exceptional group.

            Nor is there anything willy-nilly about their approach to building a great workplace. To begin, there actually is a plan—that alone sets them apart. Moreover, their plans are tightly bound to the organization’s key values. This allows their leadership to make clear decisions about what actions are important where people-related investments are being considered. Many of these better places to work even create their own language, which serves as a shorthand for the human capital values they so passionately treasure, a language that functions to clarify, guide, and inspire.

            The passion they invoke with their employees nears cultlike fervor. Stories of employees choosing a longer commute or making a lateral career move to be with a winning workplace are common. And the way these employees consistently work harder and take extraordinary steps to serve customers, a great challenge for most businesses, displays the true differences between so-so and outstanding employers.

            Remarkably, these successful employers are willing, even eager, to share their stories, including some of the “company secrets” that have helped them create great places to work. Lest you think them selfless in their efforts to share, many see this as a way to build their brand in the marketplace—great workplaces tend to attract more of those they would like to have on their payrolls. You see, they understand that creating a great workplace is a strategic advantage, one that is within their control and can help insulate them from competitive threats. Best you beware of these winning workplaces—they may be attracting your best and brightest as we speak!

            In some cases it’s clear to us that those who lead these great places to work are almost daring the rest of us to take on this challenge, goading those who only pay lip service to the tenets of great workplaces. They seem to be saying:

  • Stop pretending to care about your employees, and actually . . . care.”
  • “Stop telling your employees they are valued and then treating them no better than a disposable soda can—for limited use and then tossed away.”
  • “Stop throwing unnecessary bureaucracy into the way of smart people who, for the most part, will do the right thing by you and dazzle customers.”

            The stories we chronicle in this book can act as a beacon for those who are weary of those old and tired ways—another path can await you.

            At the heart of what’s chronicled in Re-Engaged is a company’s culture—how it is led, what is valued, how folks come together to get things done, how people really listen to and talk openly and honestly with each other, and how they resolve and often celebrate differences. One executive lamented his employer’s performance on such matters: “We have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to execute.” The leader who wrote this was Elmer Johnson, who penned these words in a memo dated January 21, 1988.

            His employer? General Motors.

            Mr. Johnson may have foretold the ultimate destiny that lay before GM and became reality some 20 years later—its loss of market leadership and product innovation that led to a government bailout and the company’s eventual slide into bankruptcy court.

            Think this stuff doesn’t matter? Think again.

            We’ve titled this book “Re-Engaged.” To some it might sound like a clever word play, especially since “employee engagement” has become one of the most overused and least understood buzzwords of this still-new century. But to us it has very specific meanings. The outstanding employers we introduce you to in this book are effectively re-engaging employees in several ways.

            The best places to work know how to re-engage:

  • Those who have become disengaged because of a disappointing work experience or bad boss.
  • Employees who have been traumatized by an event outside their control, such as an economic recession or the tough times their current employer may be facing.
  • Those who are already engaged and must be effectively led, managed, and supported every day. The best workplaces see this as a task that cannot be taken for granted; even their best and brightest may lose their passion and commitment to the business.

            Some of what we gleaned from our research and present here is quite novel, adding new insights that have emerged in recent years about the elements that create a first-class employment experience. We are just beginning, for example, to see the impact of having four generations at work, and our insights should go a long way in advancing the discussion of how the generations can work, and dare we say thrive, together. And our studies showing how company growth and consequent increases in employee population can negatively impact employee engagement—and what can be done to fight that “tipping point”—also break new ground.

            Other parts of this book we hope will be a gentle reminder of approaches that have well served successful leaders for many years. Caring leadership, compensation that is fair and justly administered, great teamwork—these basics of leadership haven’t changed, but deserve to be revisited, particularly through the eyes of winning employers.

            In the course of writing this book, we’ve heard the voices of over 2 million employees, many whom you’ll read about. We go to great lengths to give them a platform from which they can help you understand how the actions of their leaders affect them. You’ll hear many who work in highly engaged workplaces speak of how lucky they feel to work there. And you’ll hear others who are so disillusioned and disgusted with their employers they can hardly wait to find another position. It is quite apparent these good folks are giving us their verdicts about their places of work. These verbatim quotes express raw and heartfelt emotions that reflect the way they have been led and the workplace cultures they have experienced. The good news, from our point of view, is that we can influence, for the better, how employees feel about their workplace. Many of the outstanding employers we highlight tell us that “things weren’t always this good” and that they needed to change their ways to become great workplaces. Therein lies our hope.

            The longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer said: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” In the course of writing this book we have been reporters, observers and, importantly, learners, looking deeply into how we can manage the change that is in front of us from “the world that no longer exists.” These remarkable employers are helping us to clearly see what that new world is all about.

            We invite you to join us on the journey.


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