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Posted by on Feb 23, 2015

Building Leadership Capability: A Roadmap for Improving Employee Engagement

Building Leadership Capability: A Roadmap for Improving Employee Engagement

187490183Just a couple short months ago, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released the results of the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), measuring whether or not the characteristics of successful organizations can be found in agencies across the Federal government.  The FEVS results, and in particular the employee engagement index, are used increasingly by agencies to identify areas for improvement and compare their agency to other agencies and the private sector.

Reinforcing the need to focus on engagement in the Federal government, in December 2014 OPM and the Executive Office of the President released a memo outlining a renewed focus on employee engagement and establishing policies for measuring, monitoring, managing, and holding agencies accountable for improving their engagement scores.  The memo recognizes the value in improving engagement, not for its own sake, but because they know that engagement is linked to important mission-related outcomes that include retention and productivity.

This increased interest in understanding and improving employee engagement usually leads to the question, “What impacts engagement?” There has been a great deal of research conducted to answer that question. One set of findings in particular suggests that leadership may be one of the most significant factors affecting engagement. The good news is that leadership can be taught; leadership skills can be learned and practiced, and with a planned approach, any agency can build the leadership capability and capacity across its workforce.

Here’s the five-step process we’ve developed and recommend for building leadership capability that enhances employee engagement:

  1. Define what leadership means for your agency. Given your agency’s current mission, future mission and goals, and history, you may need more emphasis on some specific leadership behaviors than others. Many Federal leadership competencies already exist and can serve as a good starting point for discussions on what your agency needs to focus on. Many clients we’ve worked with have incorporated the process of identifying mission-critical leadership competencies into a few of their regular planning sessions. Others have convened a cross-section of employees to narrow down the competencies in one long planning session. Regardless of the process, ending up with a set of 8-10 mission-critical leadership competencies is a good starting point.
  2. Measure the competencies. Top management generally has a good sense of where the agency as a whole is stronger and where it needs improvement. But they often don’t know how it breaks down from there. Conducting a leadership competency assessment is a way to get more detailed information on different parts of the agency. This information can be used to create a workforce development plan that is data-driven. In addition, a leadership competency assessment can be a valuable tool for supervisors to understand their team’s leadership skills and for employees to understand exactly where they can improve.
  3. Plan an integrated approach to improving leadership competencies, along with other factors (e.g., shared organizational values, the availability of resources to do the work) that are known to improve engagement. Developing shared values, communicating, going for quick wins. Monica Linhardt of the Partnership for Public Service gives an example of a State Department employee who made a suggestion for showers in the basement of the headquarters building for employees to use after jogging at lunchtime. This change reflects shared organizational values of work-life fit and also of listening to and acting on employee feedback. The showers were installed, positively impacting work-life fit and therefore engagement.
  4. Improve the leadership competencies.  Competency assessments provide quantitative data on areas where you can invest to grow the leadership capacity within your organization. Whether it’s through a formal learning program, individual coaching, or self-directed learning opportunities, making an investment in leadership development is key to the long-term success of any organization. Whatever you chose to do to grow leadership within your organization, be sure the efforts are closely linked to your leadership competencies and that there’s a structure in place for promoting (and reinforcing) the application of new leadership skills throughout the organization.
  5. Measure…again. While the FEVS provides a great source of data on employee engagement, the fact that the data is only collected and available once a year means it can be hard to measure the impact of leadership development on engagement over time. As you invest in growing your organization’s leadership, also plan to invest in periodic pulse checks to see how engagement may be changing over time. Brief, periodic measures can provide information that can be used for minor course corrections, ultimately leading to better return on your development investment.

By defining what leadership is to the organization, measuring those competencies, adopting a plan to develop where needed, and enacting the plan, agency leaders can create measurable improvements in leadership.

Dr. Shelley Kirkpatrick also contributed to this post.

Dr. Shelley Kirkpatrick is the Director of Assessment Services for Management Concepts.  She leads all assessment design, development, and implementation initiatives. Dr. Kirkpatrick is an organizational psychologist with more than 20 years of experience in developing individual and organizational assessments for the federal government, including national security and defense organizations. Her work focuses on conducting skill and occupational analyses, developing online tools that effectively and efficiently collect skill and competency data, and creating actionable reports. A former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and The American University, Dr. Kirkpatrick has authored more than 50 articles on leadership, motivation, assessment, and evaluation in academic journals as well as practitioner-based publications. She holds a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and human resource management from the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland at College Park, and a B.S. in psychology from Bowling Green State University.

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