Today, I’m joined by Lee Ann Pond, author of the new book The Engagement Ring: Practical Leadership Skills for Engaging Your Employees. In today’s business world, we talk a lot about the importance of employee engagement for things like culture, productivity, and longevity. Yet still, as Lee Ann shares in this podcast, Gallup recently found that only 30% of employees are actually engaged at work today.

In this podcast, Lee Ann explains her straightforward ring system, which refers to relationships, inclusion, a sense of being needed, and growth. She also offers the empowering message that no matter the culture of the company or what’s happening in the C suite, it’s actually the women and men on the ground and heading up departments that can impact engagement for the better.

Nikki Van Noy: Lee Ann, thank you so much for joining us today.

Lee Ann Pond: Oh, thanks, Nikki. I’m so glad to be here.

Nikki Van Noy: So, I really like the name of your book, The Engagement Ring.

Lee Ann Pond: Thanks. Yeah. Looking for a sort of a catchy summation of my book and the ideas behind it.

Nikki Van Noy: Yes, it works. And for listeners, this is not a book about marriage or engagement. It’s actually a book about employee engagement and leadership within that. So, before we get into the specifics of the book, Lee Ann, talk to me a little bit about what made you want to write this specific book.

Lee Ann Pond: Okay, well, I have a background sort of unrelated to this in accounting. I have an MBA. I moved up in the corporate world and became CFO. And when you are CFO, you get other departments. So, I had other departments, including HR, and my last position was at one location for 11 years.

During that time period, I got interested in what develops leaders. How did they know if they’re a good leader and how can I help train the leaders in this organization? I actually worked for an EMS organization. It was the 911 provider in the city. I was very interested in particular, for example, a young supervisor, such as a paramedic, who was very good at their clinical skills. How could you help them once they got promoted? So, their good clinical skills got them promoted, but then they were using different skills to lead other paramedics.

How could I help them learn and develop what they needed to know to be successful in their new role? Because leadership skills are a lot different than the technical skills that got you promoted. I’ve always been interested in leadership. We’ve all had bosses–bad bosses, good bosses, and so I’m always interested in what it takes to be a good boss.

I was a boss then and I wanted to be a good boss and I didn’t know if I was doing a good job, so I would always take classes. There’s all this theory for leadership and you’re excited during the course. But then you get back to work Monday and you’re like, “What? Yeah, but what’s the first thing I do? And how would I know if I did a good job? What would be some data or some statistics that would tell me that?”

I think that’s what brought me to developing The Engagement Ring. I’ve since left the corporate world and started my own business doing leadership engagement and development programs, workshops, trainings, and coaching. So, trying to help other leaders know what to do.

Nikki Van Noy: I love that finance lead you along this entirely different, and I’m guessing unexpected, path.

Lee Ann Pond: Right? I don’t know, maybe I missed my calling, but I always wanted to be a teacher. In the time I was choosing my college major, there were too many teachers. You couldn’t get a job, so I thought, well, I’ll go into business. And what part of business? Well, I want to always have a job. Well, accounting. I’ll always have a job. But I never lost that wanting to teach. I always found opportunities for my whole life in teaching others anything I could. I think I’ve come full circle.

What Makes a Good Leader?

Nikki Van Noy: That makes a lot of sense, especially because of how you’ve gone about writing this book, which is you are very specific that it’s a guidebook for leaders who want to better manage their employee engagement. So, talk to me a little bit about why you took the guidebook route to writing about this and what exactly that entails.

Lee Ann Pond: In looking at what makes a good leader. How do you know if you’re a good leader? I had to think right from the start. If you’re a leader, you have followers. What’s a successful follower? An engaged follower? Somebody’s engaged if they are willing to go that extra bit, they’re committed to the mission. They’re committed to the organization. They’re willing to put in that extra discretionary effort for that organization.

If employees are engaged, how do we know they’re engaged? Well, there are employee engagement surveys, so there is a way to actually track and monitor. And I like that. I basically took an employee engagement survey, and you can Google the questions from a lot of places. But there’s pretty much 15 to 20 general questions and they will be things like, “In the last 30 days has someone in a leadership position giving you feedback on the job? Do you have the resources you need to do your work?” A lot of questions like that, so I took those questions and wrote down for each of these questions, what would a supervisor need to know or do to get a positive response?

From that long, long list, I kind of divided it into buckets, say these are practical skills I could teach leaders. In my business, they fall into 12 workshops and in the book, pretty much 12 chapters. They range from things like how to give feedback, specifically what words to use, why you do it, how often to get positive and negative, and how to handle pushback. There’s how to delegate work. Why delegate work to grow your employees, how to track delegation, how to celebrate successes, coaching skills, how to connect the employee to the mission, and communication skills–keeping employees in the loop, and team building.

There are workshops like that which then became chapters and so in looking to try to figure out if somebody took this course, they were, say, a new supervisor, and they got through all 12 workshops, and hopefully really learned it. But then they went to think back, what would be an acronym or something they could really key into? Because I’m a visual learner, so I like acronyms.

That’s when I came up with The Engagement Ring. Because the R I N G of the ring are the four elements of employee engagement and all those chapters and all those workshops fit into those one of four, and some of them even cross over all four.

So, the R is for relationships. Seventy percent of an employee engagement score is based on questions related to their direct relationship with their supervisor. Also, how you get along with your team, your relationships with your co-worker, Gallup, that does a lot of employee engagement surveys, they even have a question that says, “Do you have a best friend at work?”

The I of the engagement ring is for inclusion. If your employee feels included, part of the team, a sense of belonging, are they in the loop on communications? And the interesting part of feeling belonging to a team is they also need to feel that they bring value and diversity and uniqueness to the team that is appreciated.

The N of the ring is feeling needed, so that is, the employee needs to know what the organization’s mission is, feel committed to that mission, and they need to know how every task they do all day long moves that mission forward.

Then the G of the engagement ring is providing opportunities for personal and professional growth at work, and that will lead to more engaged employees.

Practical Steps

Nikki Van Noy: What strikes me, as you run through all of these things is you were mentioning at the EMS company, where people who were promoted to supervisors were not utilizing the skills that had gotten them promoted in the first place.

I think most of us have had some version of that experience, and in a lot of ways, it strikes me as unfair to leaders that this knowledge isn’t going to be innate. It’s not that it’s rocket science, but it’s also not straightforward if this is not what you’ve built your job around.

Lee Ann Pond: Right, exactly. I look at my guidebook, as I call my book, I look at it as being a fake it till you make it. Here are practical steps that are proven to increase an employee engagement score. I’m telling you how to do them step by step, and then you can add them to your repertoire. Start out with that and then develop your own leadership style based on them.

This isn’t, you know, taking the place of cookie-cutter leaders and telling them exactly how to do it. Everybody has to develop their own style, but these are basics that every leader should know and should be doing. It also applies, not just in the corporate world, but also in volunteer agencies, in trade associations, and anywhere that people gather, someone is in a leadership role. You can use these steps.

I am the president of our local chapter of NAWBO, which is the National Association of Women Business Owners. And I used all these there. So, I want the members of the organization to be engaged. So how can I do that? Well, I keep them in the loop on communications, I over-communicate. I give them feedback. If somebody helps put on an event, they’re going to hear positive feedback from me. If we need to correct something, then we’re going to correct it. I delegate. Sometimes things are not always done the way I might want them, exactly. But you know, it doesn’t mean they’re done wrong by someone else.

If I don’t delegate, there will never be new board members or a new president in the future. So, all those things really can be used for any organization, whether for-profit, non-profit, or corporate volunteer agency.

We all want to know and care about our mission of whatever organization we’re giving our time to, whether we’re being paid for that time or not. And we need to know that the efforts we are making are going to move that mission forward. The engagement ring could be used for various organizations and for any type of leadership.

Nikki Van Noy: That makes a lot of sense. Okay, in your experience, I’m wondering if you found that there is any particular area where leaders tend to especially struggle when it comes to effectively engaging employees, whether it’s because it’s not an obvious thing or because it’s difficult in practice, whatever the case may be.

Lee Ann Pond: I think a couple of difficult ones are feedback and delegation. I know for myself as a leader all those years, I gave feedback, but it’s always preferred to give more positive feedback, which you should, give more positive than negative. Find people doing something right. But it was always difficult to give negative feedback. And part of what my research that I’ve come to and then I put in the book is that feedback doesn’t need to be–you don’t wait for a big problem. It should be micro-interventions. So small interventions.

When you see something, say something, and when you say something, make it be very short. Don’t put any emotion in it. Don’t get mad or upset if it’s negative. It should be three parts.

Could I give you some feedback? Because the listener needs to be ready to hear it. Maybe they’re having a bad day, and it’s not the time for them to hear it. If they give you an affirmative action then when you do X, it causes Y. So, in the future, please do C, and that’s it–done. And that’s it for positive or negative.

You know, when you come early to the meeting, it helps us get set up on time, and it makes the meeting go smoother. And please continue that in the future. Or, when you turn in a report late, it causes the next department to be late. In the future, please turn your report in on time.

So, it may be used for positive or negative. When you do X, it causes Y, so please do C in the future. Feedback’s really for changing future behavior, it can’t change the past, so you want to change future behavior–that’s the only reason for it. That’s number one.

But the number two that I think is harder or was harder for me is delegation. You know it’s just easier sometimes to do it yourself. Just like I was saying about being president of NAWBO. Something might not be to my liking, my taste, or the way I might have done it. But it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And if I don’t let people do it, they will never grow.

The same thing with delegation. A leader has to purposely delegate duties to employees that will help them grow. I call them stretch assignments. Give them something to grow that’s outside of their usual position description and something they can stretch. You’re right there with them, you’re checking in with them, you’re giving them guidance. You have milestones they should be hitting. You’re not leaving them by themselves because the leader is ultimately responsible for what does get done with all the delegation.

So, it is a tough one to let go of. But it’s so important to grow employees, and it’s that G of the engagement ring. Opportunities for personal and professional growth will engage your employees. Also, your department can increase the amount of work that it’s processing. If you can delegate some of your lower level duties to someone who works for you, they will not only learn and grow, but you freed up some of your time to take on new projects, and maybe be delegated by your boss and get those stretch projects yourself. So, I think feedback and delegation trip up leaders.

Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, you know, the way you talk about delegation, I’ve never heard anyone speak about it quite that way before, and I’m not good at delegation at all. It made me realize, hearing you talk about it that way, that the failure to delegate is sort of a selfish act in some ways. I don’t think I have ever made that stretch to thinking about how it’s not allowing other people the ability to move forward or to prepare the company or organization, or whatever the case may be, for what happens when I’m not there anymore.

Lee Ann Pond: Right. And a lot of the excuses are that it’s easier to do it myself. This is an important project I need to make sure it’s done right. I don’t want to overload my employees. They’re already overworked. And sometimes it can even be that the supervisor doesn’t want to give up some of their duties because maybe they won’t be so needed anymore. Maybe they want to be indispensable. So, there are a lot of elements that go into it.

I think leaders need to really think about why they are not delegating. Are you not doing it to take work off your plate? Because it might be just as much work or more, but you’re doing it to grow your employees, and I think that’s important to keep in mind.

Engagement

Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, very interesting. Do you feel like there are any great myths about establishing employee engagement that people tend to fall prey to in leadership?

Lee Ann Pond: Yeah, I think they think they can observe if employees are engaged. Everybody seems happy. I think it’s not something you can see from the outside. An employee engagement survey is really important, and there are elements that have to feel absolutely anonymous to the employees or you won’t get honest answers.

Gallup does a lot of these statistics. But the statistics show that only 30% of all US employees are engaged at work, so only one out of every three employees are engaged. So, you know, leaders need to take a hard look at that and find out which of their employees are engaged and which are not.

Another interesting statistic I read–a study was done, and 35% of the respondents said they would trade their raise this year if their boss could be fired this year. Oh, yeah, there are some unhappy employees.

So, you know, with 70% of all employee engagement questions and 70% of the score being related directly to their relationship with their supervisor, it’s a supervisor job. Employee engagement can’t come down from HR, every individual supervisor is responsible for the engagement within their department.

There’s a lot of organizations that don’t care about engagement, but an individual supervisor might, and they can make a difference. They can do the items in my book–The Engagement Ring and all the parts that go into it, this is something you can start to do today, and it doesn’t cost any money. They can do all of this themselves, whether their organization has a culture of engagement or not. Gallup shows that engaged organizations are 21% more profitable than unengaged organizations, and they have 41% less absenteeism.

So, they estimate that unengaged employees cost US corporations $550 billion a year in sick days and lost productivity. So, it’s a bigger deal, I think than people realize or think about. Another interesting statistic is that 51% of all employees in the US are looking for another job right now.

Nikki Van Noy: More than half of the workforce. Wow. These are some pretty stunning statistics so I want to talk about a couple of them specifically with you. The first one you said really kind of blew my mind is that only 30% of employees are actually engaged at work. What’s stunning to me about that is I feel like this idea of workplace engagement has been part of the conversation for about five years now, and it seems like it’s not that new of a concept. So, what do you think that we’re still getting wrong?

Lee Ann Pond: I think that a lot of organizations are missing the mark on it, and you can’t throw money at it. It’s been shown that a raise or perks at work only increase engagement for a short period of time. So, these are the things that I talk about in my book, these are the things that will increase engagement for the long term, and I give an example of employee engagement in the US.

If you had a rowboat and you took 10 US employees–just random 10 from any organization–and put them in the rowboat, three would be upfront and they’d be rowing diligently toward the mission. Those are the 30% that are engaged. In the middle, there will be five employees, not rowing, sitting, looking at the mission, not rowing. Those are the 50% of US employees that are unengaged. They’re doing their job. They’re probably fulfilling their position description, but they’re not giving any discretionary effort or extra effort. There’s no oomph to them. And in the back of the rowboat would be two people, 20% that are actively disengaged and they’re rowing against the people in the front. So, 20% of all US employees are actively disengaged, 50% are unengaged and only 30% are engaged.

Nikki Van Noy: And this is not to mention the five that want to jump off the boat or the three that want to throw their boss into the water.

Lee Ann Pond: You’re right. Exactly. That’s it. So, the two in the back of the boat, actively disengaged. We all know who they are. HR knows who they are. There needs to be steps taken, to put them on a performance improvement plan possibly or they need to be terminated. But that’s an HR issue. That leader needs to get involved in that one to turn them around, if possible, and if not, maybe find them another rowboat where they will be motivated to row.

But the five in the middle, the unengaged. That is the biggest chance for organizations to make a difference. And that’s what my book targets. I don’t target the employees, although an employee might be interested in reading the book. I target the leader because the leader’s the only one that can change someone unengaged into engaged.

Create Culture

Nikki Van Noy: I love this idea, that regardless of what’s happening in the rest of the company, you still have the power to create the sort of micro-culture that you want to exist in and that the people who work for you are going to be happy coming into every day.

Lee Ann Pond: Exactly. That’s right. And you know, every department can make their own culture. Every leader has the ability to make their own culture, and they say that culture is not what you celebrate. It’s what you tolerate. It’s the lowest level of behavior that gets tolerated in your department or your organization, and so you could talk a big game, but if you let things go, if you let people be late, if you tolerate shoddy performance, whatever it is, that’s going to become your culture.

So, it’s wonderful if the CEO has a culture of employee engagement that makes your job even easier. But you in your own department need to carry that forward because you can either have a culture not of engagement, or you can do the opposite of the C suite if they’re not caring about engagement and you can make a culture of engagement.

I was saying in the book that your CEO can’t make your employees engaged and your HR department can’t make your employees engaged. Your HR department can make their own employees engaged because it’s an individual supervisors job responsibility to do it.

Nikki Van Noy: When you say that it makes so much sense. If I really think back on it, it has always been my supervisor. That’s made all the difference, regardless of what was happening, but it’s still were kind of told to pass that off. So if you don’t think about it, it’s sort of easy to think about in the wrong way,

Lee Ann Pond: Right. Yeah, exactly.

Nikki Van Noy: I’m curious if you, either at the EMS company or through the work with your company Engaging Leadership, if you’ve seen any situations that really stand out in your head in terms of a leader who’s been able to change the mark or really shift the engagement within their department and what sort of impact that has had?

Lee Ann Pond: Yes, I’ve seen a few. Unfortunately they are harder to come by, I’m afraid, than the bad bosses, as I say. The good bosses are a little harder to come by, but when it happens, what a difference that can make and what a wonderful environment. I mean, a supervisor has the ability to influence a person’s life. We spend more time at work than we do with our families, and you know how we feel at work, comes home with us and transfers to the family, and then transfers out in the community.

So, a good boss is keeping their employees informed and in the loop. He’s delegating and helping them grow and is acting in a professional manner and is helping them set goals and measuring them. He is coaching them, instead of solving their problems for them, giving them feedback, building the team, and making sure there are opportunities for them to connect with their teammates.

These supervisors are having individual meetings on a consistent basis with each employee. These are the ones making a difference for an individual employee and in the world. So, I say in the book that any supervisor reading this–you have this ability in your hands and what a gift it is to give to your employees. We all want to enjoy our time at work, and this has the benefit of also increasing productivity, reducing absenteeism, making happy and fulfilled employees and, hopefully, happy and fulfilled leaders. Hopefully the leaders are engaged. That’s another element that can be missing. It’s harder to engage your employees if you don’t feel engaged yourself.

Nikki Van Noy: Excellent, Lee Ann. There’s a lot to think about here. And I have a very vivid picture of a pretty chaotic rowboat in my head right now. So, thank you for that. Let’s let listeners know where to find you.

Lee Ann Pond: All right. My company is called Engaging Leadership. My website is www.engaging-leadership.com and they can find me there. I’m on LinkedIn. Lee Ann Pond.

Nikki Van Noy: Perfect. Thanks for joining us today, Lee Ann.