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  • Writer's pictureSherry

SBC February Newsletter – The Engagement Challenge from John O’Brien

Newsletter – John O’Brien, VP Employee Performance on Engagement in our work world

We see heated competition for many categories of talent across multiple industries and specialties.   With unemployment at an all-time low and a scarcity of skills, we thought it was good timing to talk about how critical it is to keep those human assets.

I learned of BI Worldwide, a global firm, headquartered in Minneapolis, focused on inspiring the people that matter most to customer success.  That intrigued me so I hope you enjoy this discussion with John O’Brien, VP of Employee Performance for BI Worldwide.  He shared his view s on the challenge and unprecedented realities of worker and workforce complexity.

Sherry Benjamins: What brought you to this work in performance and engagement?

John O’Brien: Early on in my college career I was drawn to behavioral psychology and that is where I focused my studies. I had the chance to be a counselor and learn there were opportunities to make a difference when helping others understand behavior and what changes might lead to their increase in happiness.  With a Psychology background, I landed at BI Worldwide and over the past  34 years have focused my work in engaging talent which supports strategy and ultimately profitability for our clients.  The work we do for customers is specific to HR strategy.  Large organizations are looking at ways to attract and retain talent. We see that as relevant today.

Worker expectations have changed. We once defined ourselves by who we are and what we do.  Staying in one career was not uncommon.  The new generation defines themselves by what work will provide them.  They define themselves differently.

It is fascinating today to see five generations in the workplace.  The average manager age is 30 to 32 years old and managing two generations ahead and behind themselves.  This would challenge any of us in understanding the mindset and behaviors of our workers and leaders.  Out of the gate expectations have changed so drastically that through many channels, our worker today is more sophisticated.  The manager to employee connection is more important than ever.

SB: The collective wisdom of workers is a concept and not always a reality. How are you seeing the best companies understand this?

John:  There are organizations that do this really well.  I see three factors here.  First, workers want to lead.  So, letting them lead gives them an opportunity to take risks and engage with others earlier.   Leaders are working to understand the collective wisdom for it comes from a very diverse group.  The younger generations want to be challenged and have an emotional connection to the work, the team and the company.  Great leaders give them the confidence to take risk and allow them to lead. It can start in the onboarding process.  As an example, a new hire in the onboarding process may be invited to participate in a cross functional team working on a new product or service. This comes at an early stage in the worker relationship and great managers allow this to happen for those with potential.  Workers can see their future and how they will progress.  This is important to their career plan.

Secondly, organizations that offer meaning in what you do allows a context which drives performance.  Meaning provides an emotional connection to the company.  Workers want to be part of something bigger.

The third important factor is collaboration or “unite them.”  People will go above and beyond when collaboration and connection occurs.  Environments that support collaboration allow a unified approach and improved performance.  Our clients are utilizing technology to collaborate across the globe and we encourage them to use reinforcement, progress to goals discussions and team oriented behavior so that goals are met and rewards are given for those reaching goals.  Sometimes we get held back due to culture or language or the way things are done so being transparent is key to helping our clients build a unified approach.    

SB: What does the future require of leaders that we have not seen before?

John:First, recognize good work and be transparent with expectations.  Managers need to understand each employee individually.  This will maximize performance.  It is still true that people leave managers and not companies. We are spending more time helping our clients set goals and reinforce good manager and worker behavior.  Compensation and benefits can only take you so far in the engagement space.  Once an employee sees compensation is fair, the discretionary contribution matters.  How we deliver the message will need to be new.  There are more individuals working on jobs that they are not necessarily trained on.  As an example, we may have to rely on a team in India for work needed.  The future of how we work is more distributed and requires new skill sets for managers.

You will see more technology based tools to help managers in the future.  We have a recognition tool that uses data and insights as a way to inform managers to take action. We also have some predictive models that indicate turnover levels based on frequency of recognition.  Watch for developments in this area across the engagement market.

SB: How do we shift from a doing more with less mindset?

John:  Organizations will continue to work with less. The shift to AI and technology is not there yet to do more with less but we are moving in that area – such as what we see more of in retail or manufacturing.  Individuals will be asked to work on assignments where they hold newly developed skills and they are learning as they go.  Work will also be done in a distributed, team structure that changes how work gets done with greater efficiency as the goal.

SB:  How do we do more and better?

John:  Are organizations challenging their workers to bring forward creativity?  Managers think they may know a creative solution but are removed from processes.  Let’s look to those that have direct line or touch to the work. It is important to understand the current state and what work flow looks like.  Employees do know what can be improved.  The generations that are coming in have access to technology and are more productive in how they operate their social and work life. Simplifying the message and the clarifying intention helps this new generation move to greater levels of participation and happiness.

The biggest shift I have seen is that recognition and engagement is a key pillar to the strategy of the company, it is a stated initiative from the CEO.  It is aligned with a return on the expense of an investment.  Recognition is strategic.

SB: What have you learned about yourself through this work?

John:  I have learned that if I put in the effort and the attitude, it is good for me and the organization. I have also learned the value of being curious, taking risks and being recognized for contributions.

We all have more of a say in how and where we do our work .The best talent steps up takes initiative here.  Of course, that means our company cultures needs to be ok with that.   I have learned that makes the difference for me.

Conclusion by Sherry

Today’s business environment grows more complex by the minute.  It could be AI, technology, process efficiency or the newest thing in bitcoin.  We then add the power of choice into the mix.  Workers have choice and are exhibiting that in assessing career options and where and how they want to work.  We are in a new place where feedback is even more critical across your organization.  It is a fluid labor market. One of our clients said they are embracing all workers (Regular, Full time, Part time, contract and freelance) in hopes to improve engagement inside and out.  It isn’t just a one size fit all initiative.  Feedback is driving performance for customers and workers of all types.  How are you stepping up to this reality today? Your current and future talent will want to know and they are impatient.

Make sure to check out the BI Worldwide Event in Orange County next month: Innovative ideas to inspire the people who impact your business in 2019

Thursday, March 21, 2019  4:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.

This event is complimentary. For more information and to register check out their website:

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