There are a plethora of thoughts and practices around how you win employees’ hearts and minds and how you engage them.


Despite reams of information at our disposal and notwithstanding engagement being the lingua franca of modern business, very few organisations ever really get it right. Natalie Maroun, managing director of LRMG, argues that it’s because engagement is neither fully understood nor owned at the right level in business.

Maroun points out that the core problem with engagement is that it rests on the shoulders of HR alone, and is rarely the mandate of the leaders of the organisation: “You have, in many instances, a largely disaffected HR that is not integrated into the business, not seen as a business partner, not holding a place at the executive table, and yet appointed as the custodians of employees’ hearts and minds.”

“HR tries to address the engagement issue through process, when in point of fact there’s a much bigger calling required. This calling is ‘leadership’”, argues Maroun. “It is leadership or a lack thereof, at the end of the day, that is the root cause of the failure of engagement practices: leadership, in most instances, fails to articulate what it is trying to achieve in the engagement space, what engagement means to the business, why engagement is important and then, most importantly, fails to commit the time and resources required to making it real.”

“It is leadership or a lack thereof, at the end of the day, that is the root cause of the failure of engagement practices.”

“At essence, everything starts with leadership. It is the primary differentiator between people being engaged and disengaged, because people follow leaders and not companies. It is time to reframe our world as leaders on the issue of employee engagement”, posits Maroun. So, if leadership is singularly the most significant influencer of employee engagement, what are effective leadership strategies in the employee engagement space?

The seven effective leadership strategies

  1. Role-modelling:
    “The most powerful thing you can do for people as a leader is to be a great role model,” says Maroun. “It all starts with being absolutely clear about what great leadership should look like.”
    This archetype of a leader should be drawn from the vision, values and ideals the organisation stands for, and then working with various leaders within the organisation around role-modelling these values, such that you build a full cadre of leaders who are acting in a similar way in accordance with this concept of role-modelling.
    “Leaders then need to live into these behaviours, holding their people accountable to do the same, recognising and rewarding strongly aligned behaviour and creating swift and significant consequences where there is misalignment,” says Maroun.
  2. Hire the right people:
    “Organisations need to become better at defining what it is that they are looking for in terms of talent, then gearing their recruitment strategies around finding, engaging and retaining employees that closely resemble what they are look for,” argues Maroun. “Hire for attitude consistent with what the organisation is looking for and then train for capability.”
    People without similar values will have no interest in modelling themselves on leaders whom they do not identify with. When we work for an organisation whose culture aligns to our personal values, we feel more creative, more enthusiastic and more committed to the organisation and, in turn, its products and services.
  3. Management is just as important as leadership:
    Maroun argues that because of the ‘leadership’ thought trend, people have forgotten about the criticality of management: “Managers and leaders are not always the same people. While managers hold hierarchical positions of power, leaders could be anyone in the organisation who is able to inspire and be a role model. Also, leadership does not need to be driven by one great leader. It could be a team of great people.”
    “Managers and leaders are not always the same people.”
    “Leadership is the capacity to inspire the hearts and minds of people, giving them hope, selling them a dream that is bigger than themselves. Management, on the other hand, is the capability to mechanistically understand what needs to be executed, articulating that need to direct reports, and supporting employees in close proximity through the process of understanding and executing on this need,” argues Maroun. Managers are the facilitators who make the vision real and mechanistic enough so that people can deliver on it.
    Without this often “missing link”, Maroun argues that even with the most inspiring leaders, organisations fail to implement their values and vision into their products or services, leading to failure on a practical level, which is every bit as devastating to engagement as an uninspiring workplace.
  4. Authenticity:
    “The capacity for leaders to understand and know themselves and their strengths and weaknesses, and to be vulnerable enough for that to be exposed, is the bedrock of a great culture,” says Maroun. Leaders in touch with their authentic selves take ownership of decisions and actions and understand their impact on others. Authenticity is, therefore, a requirement for anyone who wants others to emulate them.
    Communication that is clear and consistent is an important part of authenticity, argues Maroun: “As leaders we need to be clear about our expectations. No mentoring relationship of any worth, and no successful project or business has ever come from being vague about one’s expectations. There really has to be a lack of noise around what you’re looking for, when you’re looking for it, and constantly reinforcing the same message.”
  5. Being humble enough to learn from direct reports:
    This is an important point for Maroun and she stresses that not enough has been written about this topic in the thought leadership marketplace: “As people move up the hierarchy they lose their capacity for listening actively. As they become more important, other people and what they have to teach becomes less important,” says Maroun. “As leaders, we’ve got to become attuned to what our people say and what they don’t say; we as leaders should be making this our business.” This facilitates real, human connection.
  6. Real, human connection:
    “People are looking for leaders and managers whom they can connect with on a very real level”, posits Maroun. “Connecting is so much deeper than this concept we’ve come up with of ‘walking the floor’; it’s having a deep insight into what the person’s aspirations are, what they’re grappling with, who they are. Without knowing that they are seen, heard and recognised, there is no real engagement, no real relationship,” says Maroun. “Broad-based engagement programmes that do not take into account the individuality of each employee are doomed to fail,” she concludes.
  7. Empower and encourage others:
    There needs to be a balance between empowering people to make their own decisions, not micro-managing them, and yet being there, through constant communication and connection, as a support and encouragement. Without this balance, Maroun proposes, empowerment backfires.
    “Positive recognition, encouragement and affirmation is such an integral aspect of positive, engaged people,” says Maroun. “And part of this encouragement is encouraging people to fail and be comfortable with that failure, and encouraging people to be comfortable with ‘I don’t know’. Without ‘I don’t know’, there can be no authenticity, no real connection, no real learning and, ultimately, people set themselves up for failure and disengagement.”

Leadership is thus a very deliberate, conscious act of creation, says Maroun: “There is a design or default duality at play in every business, and rather than defaulting to an unconscious system that leads to disengagement, we need to get better at designing the idea of what leadership is, and based on that, designing the leaders we want to follow.”