Expert panel featuring Waitrose and MediaCom urges HR to focus on introducing a coaching culture

A relentless focus on ‘macro’ initiatives that fail to deliver is the reason most employee engagement programmes fail to achieve their targets, according to an expert HR panel.

Speaking at a London HR Connection event, leaders from the NHS and the private sector agreed that employee engagement aligns to business performance in a meaningful way – but said that focusing on building a coaching culture and fixing relationships between line managers and their staff was far more fruitful than ‘big ticket’ ideas.

Karen Blackett, chairman and former chief executive of MediaCom, the UK’s largest media agency, exemplified the panel’s experiences as she explained how her business’s attempts to arrest surging employee turnover rates had focused on all the wrong areas. “We did loads of macro initiatives and it became initiative overload,” said Blackett. “We tried meditation classes, free fruit, yoga… anything to try and make ourselves more attractive to people.”

The true fixes, she said, were far simpler – MediaCom held sessions where leaders answered queries that had been submitted anonymously: “People were able to ask really difficult questions that clearly weren’t being answered.”

Meanwhile, offering life coaching and introducing a broader culture of coaching conversations helped bring turnover back to industry-beating levels and saw a 37 per cent increase in employees’ self-reported ability to handle stressful situations. “It’s as simple as fixing the relationship between managers and their teams,” said Blackett. “We were able to have conversations… not about the work people were doing but about what really matters to them.”

A similar approach worked in radically different circumstances for Jackie Daniel, chief executive of the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust. When she took on the role four years ago, the trust had been deemed inadequate and was reeling from reports of avoidable deaths among mothers and babies, which were later investigated in a public inquiry.

Today, the trust is rated good and the quality of its care is outstanding. While there were many factors in this turnaround, Daniel said creating small groups of staff that could agitate for cultural change by talking about what could improve, and what stopped them being able to deliver excellence, was critical.

“The real work was breaking down hierarchies and getting rid of tribalism between different groups. We had to create coalitions,” she said. “We recruited as many activists as possible around us and didn’t worry if it was chaotic.”

At Waitrose, meanwhile, a broader shift in the way stores are run has been underpinned by a group of 100 internal coaches, and another 50 are being recruited. This has created a culture where people talk to each other openly.

“Pensions and other benefits are wonderful, but what keeps people engaged is their relationship with their line manager, the sense of being part of a bigger conversation and a realisation that you have a real voice and an opportunity to change things,” said personnel director Helen Hyde. “We will coach people throughout the business, but we recognise that it has to start from the top. It’s no good hoping junior line managers will somehow think coaching and mentoring are good things to do.”

The retailer has also rethought the concept of being a ‘partner’ or employee, which is underpinned by its co-ownership model. When employees have served for three months, their manager and colleagues are asked to give their blessing to them receiving full partnership; those who don’t make the grade are given another three months to try again or will be asked to leave. In stores where this system has been trialled, customer service levels have risen noticeably, said Hyde, and there is a greater sense of belonging.

In conclusion, said Anna Rasmussen, CEO of consultancy Open Blend: “A lot of the structure and process that exists [around engagement] just isn’t fit for purpose any more. Addressing engagement only at a macro level is very short-sighted. What support are you giving managers to enable their people at a micro level?”