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In 2005 or 2006, I was appointed as part of an employee engagement program with my then employer. The bank had hired a consultant to drive the process. The board and management had realized that the bank was lagging behind in a number of strategic objectives primarily due to lack of employee commitment. The terms of reference included a requirement that the consultant build internal capacity so that the bank can continue running with the program long after the consultant had concluded the assignment hence the appointment of “Brand Champions” as the team was christened. The team was diverse in terms of staff grade, departments, age, gender, geographic regions, race and nationality amongst other aspects of diversity.

The team of brand champions was the first to be taken through a Training of Trainers workshop where we openly discussed all issues that were preventing the bank from achieving its objectives at the right pace. We also co-facilitated employee engagement workshops with the external consultants with a view to being equipped with skills for conducting such workshops after the consultant had exited. The workshops were primarily conducted in the form of focus group discussions where employees raised their concerns and made recommendations on the way forward.   After conducting all the workshops, we developed a “Start, Stop and Continue” list containing all the good things that the board, management and staff needed to continue with, things that were to be initiated and those that the all stakeholders needed discontinue. The list contained of issues to be addressed in the short, medium and long-term.

Most of the recommendations were implemented especially those that did not require major changes. For example, salary review and rationalization was done within one year. On the other hand, review of organizational structure in order to eliminate overlap took approximately 2 – 3 years to conclude since the bank was keen on ensuring that no staff member was laid off or rendered technically jobless in the event that their position was scrapped.

The engagement process was largely a success since financially, the bank grew its profit before tax from KES 481 million in 2004 to KES 1.2 Billion in 2007. In addition, the bank’s total assets grew from KES 18 billion to KES 29 billion over the same period. The foregoing growth in financial performance could partly be attributed to improved employee motivation emanating from having issues raised during the engagement program being addressed. Since the program was initiated the bank has grown from being a small Tier 2 bank to a Tier 1 bank and has also opened subsidiaries outside Kenya.

The program was not without negative impact. For example, there were employees who felt disempowered once reporting lines were changed resulting in some of their responsibilities and reports being transferred to different departments. There was even a case of a senior executive who was left without a single report and had to build a department from scratch. Not to mention, the changing roles and responsibilities also brought about new forms of conflict. For example, one manager always felt undermined since his colleagues would always refer issues he considered minor to his predecessor who was now his immediate supervisor in the new structure. The worst part came when some talented staff left after feeling either disempowered or technically demoted once a new senior position was created within their departments – which pushed them lower in the organizational structure – and filled with either a peer or a person recruited from outside the organization.

I left the bank three years after the engagement program was initiated and worked for two other banks where I encountered different versions of employee engagement – one formal, one informal. In the formal case, the bank had selected a group of long-serving managers and officers who had been trained on various leadership, management and technical issues by the bank. These staff members were the drivers of employee engagement through staff induction, in-house staff training, formal and informal staff interaction. Over a number of years, they were able to create a core of fanatical adherents to the bank’s core ideology. The bank’s growth into one of the largest banks in East and Central Africa can be partly attributed to the efforts and determination of these fanatical adherents. In one media interview, one of the bank’s Senior Executives likened the bank to a religion or a movement where believers stay and non-believers simply leave.

In the other bank, a group of employees had informally formed a kitchen cabinet surrounding the majority shareholder who, though not an executive director, was influential in strategy and staff matters. Over the years, new and existing employees would be recruited into this informal group and once they fitted in, they would reap the benefits in terms of career progression. This group held informal gatherings mostly outside the bank and would make decisions that would influence strategic and operational decisions. The group was responsible for the exit of two Chief Executive Officers with one being driven out due to non-performance while the other leaving due to incompatibility of his leadership style with that of the informal leadership group. The bank’s average performance over the years can also be partly attributed to this group.

From the foregoing, it is clear that employee engagement has both benefits and drawbacks. Though it drives motivation and improves performance, it also carries the risk of demotivating talented staff. In addition, the process, if not well managed can create unhealthy competition at the very least and toxic organizational politics at the worst. Organizations should therefore not only promote employee engagement but must also carefully manage the process in order to ensure minimal damage to the brand.

Dr. Weru Mwangi is the CEO & Lead Consultant at Ultimate Management Solutions, a firm specializing in training & consultancy in Finance, Governance, Strategy, Risk Management and Leadership Development.  He can be contacted on weru@umslgroup.com  

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