In Conversation With Shanthi Flynn, CHRO of the Adecco Group

Helene Cavalli Blog

Why do some companies ignore employee engagement as a business issue? Why do others conduct engagement surveys and then ignore the results? Shanthi Flynn, CHRO of the Adecco Group, discusses these and other mysteries in the pursuit of the truly engaged employee.

LHH: Have you come across organizations that succeed despite having no engagement strategy?

I think there are a number of organizations that don’t focus on engagement overtly. They may not pay the price in the short term, but ultimately they do because the true foundation and culture of the organization are at risk over a longer period. 

Look at organizations like the John Lewis Partnership (JLP), the UK department store that’s more than a hundred years old. It’s hard for an organization to sustain itself through all the change the retail sector has experienced in consumer shopping behavior and technology. And yet, JLP has its people anchored at the center of its business model and service. And everyone who touches that organization can feel it.

And then you’ve got other organizations, of which there are many, that don’t focus on engagement and they churn through people at a high rate. People will stay through good times but will not stay and help through the tough times.

At Adecco, we have six strategic pillars, one of which is engagement. You walk through our offices around the world, and you’ll see our commitment to engagement. Most of our businesses will have specific activities that relate to the five categories of the Great Place to Work survey to ensure that living a culture of engagement is not just about posters and visual communications; it is a key business metric and core to our leadership.

LHH: Can engagement surveys be used to persuade skeptical leaders and organizations about the value of engagement?

Yes.  Most business leaders understand numbers, so if your engagement numbers are dropping or have been static, that can mean you have some focus areas for improvement. I think the true insight really is in the details of the engagement survey. It’s only valuable when you break it down and look at some of the drivers of scores. There appears to be a correlation between survey data and customer satisfaction in our business. As a services provider, this is strongly connected to good results. The most important thing is to be transparent in communicating the results and get everyone involved in finding solutions to issues.

LHH: How many organizations mistakenly believe that a survey on its own will spark engagement?

Far too many organizations do surveys but don’t follow up on the results. I’ve seen lots of organizations do a survey, and then the results go in a drawer until the next year when they do another survey. The results get reviewed, and people are happy if they get a good score, but they don’t see managing the elements of the data as part of day-to-day people leadership and engagement. I think doing surveys without follow-up action is worse than not doing a survey at all. If you ask an entire workforce questions about what they think and then ignore what they say, I think that’s worse than not asking.

You need to be very careful about what insights you’re gaining from the data. What’s really important is to make sure that you’re asking questions of your people that you really want to know the answers to. There are some questions, like asking people whether they think they’re paid well enough, that will not provide enough detail to create solutions. You should really only ask questions where you have the capacity to do something with the answers. Should you gather information about pay? Yes, you should. Should it be through the employee survey? Probably not.

LHH: Do you believe organizations focus enough on taking action on the results of an engagement survey?

I think the most important thing about doing the survey is what you do in between surveys. There’s lots of evidence to support the importance of sharing the data in a transparent way with the organization. No matter what your score is, you tell people how everything panned out, with as much insight about what has gone well and what hasn’t gone well. That increases employee trust when you do the survey the following year. More importantly, the best practice that I’ve seen in global companies has been where specific action groups are set up to deal with particular issues that emerged from the survey.

In one of my previous organizations, there was a question in the next year’s survey about what actions were taken to address the issues in the last survey. Some issues were really practical, easy things to fix that were just annoying people on a day-to-day basis but which they didn’t feel empowered to solve. It wasn’t about the leadership team solving the problems; it was the organization solving them. You just need to get the right people involved, and then everyone feels that they played a part in creating a more engaging environment.

LHH: Can you talk a little bit about your “get, keep, grow, enable, and inspire” framework and how it relates to engagement?

“Get, keep, grow, enable, inspire” is a framework for HR strategy that goes beyond engagement and aims to ensure that we have balanced activity relating to leading our people and the organization. 

When we define our Employee Value Proposition so that we can consistently communicate and deliver an inspiring culture, it allows us to attract and develop good people.

For us to get someone, we have to inspire him or her to join us. But we also have to tell the truth about what we actually do. The “get” and the “keep” are quite integrated. You have to decide how you go about getting someone, and then figure out who you want to keep and what will make them want to stay.

The “keep” and the “grow” are also pretty closely aligned, because after you decide who you want to keep, you have to make sure you grow them in order to keep them. Growing individuals helps them stay relevant and drives the business and the organization forward, so it’s able to meet the needs and challenges of the future. Growth comes mostly from the work people do, supplemented with other types of learning experiences being shared by others formally and informally.

The “enable” bit for me is about equipping both your infrastructure and people in order to make the whole ecosystem hang together. So “enable” is really about how you make the organization effective and what in your people, systems infrastructure, organization, processes, rewards, and policies are going to make that work?

We used the word “inspire,” which is a thread that runs through the entire framework. Are you inspiring your people to drive a high-performance, engaging culture, or are you passive and allowing your organization to evolve around a few strong personalities? The fact is, what we’re trying to do is inspire top talent to join and grow with us by living an engaging and high-performance culture. Our whole HR community is now working with their business leaders to operate within this holistic framework.

LHH: What are some of the engagement challenges you’ve seen in large, global companies?

I’ve worked in multicultural environments for decades, and there are a few concepts that seem to be universal. Respect is one of them. That means respecting not only what people say but also how they are saying it.

If you’re in Japan, the way in which you engage with people can be quite different from how you might engage a group in the UK or the US. In Japan, you would be less direct and more formal until you get to know each other better. One of the things that I believe is necessary is that when employees travel or move from one country to another, you provide cross-cultural training. You talk to your people about different communication styles and the kinds of hurdles they might face in those different cultures. Learning about rituals and protocols in those cultures may or may not help them maintain credibility. It’s very easy for a leader to trip up. One example from a former company was a Japanese colleague in Thailand. It took a year for him to engage with his team because of a mutual language barrier and the fact that he did not find it easy to smile. They took his lack of smiling as an indication he was displeased with their work. They were used to engaging leaders in a warm and informal way in this organization. It is important to avoid individual and cultural stereotyping, but it is valuable to understand the behavioral norms for different countries as a reference point until you get to know people at an individual level.

There are lots of ways to tackle engaging groups of people. We’re a very cross-cultural executive committee. Our strong sense of camaraderie allows us to engage informally to work through different personality and cultural tendencies.  Being open and sensitive to those tendencies allows for a much more diverse way of approaching challenges as well as more creative solutions.

LHH: Do you see companies broadening their focus beyond existing employees to include alumni (former employees), contract employees and returning employees?

There’s a really intriguing book out there called The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford. It’s a very interesting read because it examines how the landscape of work will change in the future. A fundamental part of my role is keeping an eye on how the world of work is changing, particularly in our industry. The world of work is much more flexible than it has been in the past, and it is likely to get more so. How do we build our relationships with our previous employees? How do we build relationships with different types of employees working remotely? 

Part of the advantage of an alumni group is the ability to attract returning employees. Many organizations could be more proactive in pulling their best people back. Some companies get a bit snippy about returning employees. The fact is that everyone makes choices throughout their life in their career, and it’s perfectly valid that they might choose to grow their career somewhere else. It broadens an employee’s experience and perspective. It’s a credit to our Employee Value Proposition if they ultimately decide to come back.

Some of today’s jobs will disappear with the rise of automation, ranging from more routine work to surgeons and professional jobs. New jobs will also be created as we enter the fourth industrial revolution. So I think that the interesting thing is how people’s skill requirements and job types are also going to change. How do we prepare ourselves as an HR function, but also the business as a whole, to make sure that we keep the capability of our people relevant to the kind of work that’s going to be coming around the corner? Our ability to understand skills and to track individuals with relevant skills will become increasingly important—alumni groups could play a significant part in this.

LHH: Can you share some of the things your team is working on to inspire and engage Adecco colleagues?

There are lots of smaller, more nimble organizations doing interesting, exciting things, but one thing I am passionate about is getting people to be much more objective about the way they evaluate their talent.

An individual does not lose competence from one day to the next. They don’t massively increase it either. You grow it slowly over time in various areas, or you might have an intervention that gives you a bit of a boost. In our leadership competencies framework, which we’ve just launched, there are six key areas, each with three or four behaviors that are relatively easy to observe. How well we are embedding and using these behaviors is important to us as an organization. It’s only six things, so it should be quite easy for people to start to see how this embeds in the organization and why you use them for recruiting, development, and career and performance discussions, as well as how you drive the culture.

The other thing that I’ve been talking about are the tools that we use to assess certain types of characteristics. After many years of using all sorts of different psychometric tools, I now believe that you shouldn’t use an assessment tool unless you’re dealing with something that you can’t change or that you can’t see.

If it’s not visible and it’s not easy to change, then it makes sense to use some kind of a tool to get at how you are evaluating that particular competency, value, or trait. And therefore, if you can observe it and teach it, you just have to focus on growth. If you can’t observe it and it is key to success, you need to find a valid and predictable way of assessing that characteristic. You can teach presentation skills but not intellectual ability to solve problems or how to be a hard worker. So teaching leaders how and what to observe, and testing the relevant invisible indicators of success, is our direction.

We’ll help you find a new job or career quickly. 
Every year we help more than 300,000 people around the world find a new job. With thousands of jobs in your industry, connections to more than 7,000 employers and recruiters, and over 2,000 career coaches, we have everything you need to find a new job or career path you'll love.

Register to get started Or Register with an ID Or
CALL 1-800-611-4LHH

Already have an account? Log in to Career Resource Network