Employee engagement is a strong indicator of a company’s success and is a direct reflection of the relationship that exists between managers and their direct reports. Join us as we talk with leadership expert Alyson Van Hooser about ways managers can more effectively communicate and connect with employees.
Joe White (00:05):
Hello, and thank you for joining us today. My name is Joe White. I'm the host of Supervisor Skills, Secrets of Success. As the name implies, the SOS podcast series is 100% intended for the ongoing development of front-line managers. With each episode, we'll take on a topic of interest and interview subject matter experts for the benefit of our listeners. In this episode, we're going to talk about employee engagement. My guest today is Alyson Van Hooser with Van Hooser Associates in Kentucky. Welcome Alyson, and thank you for joining.Alyson Van Hooser (00:37):
Thank you so much for having me, Joe. I'm excited about our conversation today.Joe White (00:41):
Thank you. So if you would please just take a moment and tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.Alyson Van Hooser (00:48):
Sure. So as you said, I'm based in Kentucky. People listening to this probably can already tell, I have a strong Southern accent. I work across industries, but I work with mid-level and front-line leaders to develop their skills in a way that's going to improve their performance on a day-to-day basis and their team's performance. We work in all areas of leadership, whether it's conflict resolution, building a strong team, employee engagement for our topic today and more. And it's honestly what I'm really passionate about. I first was introduced to leadership development by my father-in-law, who started Van Hooser Associates about 30 years ago. And it was because of some of the teaching that I was in, in some of his classes that I was able to sort of become rapidly successful in the work world. I worked in multiple different industries straight out of college, and was able to connect with people in a way that earned me success. And so now, the heart of what I do is helping leaders connect with their people so that both of them can become more successful.Joe White (01:54):
That's awesome. Thank you. I know in the work that we do, we get a lot of questions about employee engagement and there are just so many pain points that are tied back to employee engagement. And so as we start this, it's one of those topics that we can see it, we have a strong sense of what it feels like, but sometimes it's hard to articulate and put into words. So I'm just going to start off and just ask you in your words, what is employee engagement?Alyson Van Hooser (02:26):
I think you're exactly right. So in my words, and this is not a definition that you would find in Webster's dictionary, or maybe even when you Google it. What employee engagement means, it's how employees feel about an organization, about their job, about their leader. And it's how they feel that drives how they perform for the company. You said it's a hot topic, one that keeps coming up, you can almost feel that it's going on, that there are issues with employee engagement, but it's hard to put your finger on. However, it's the force that drives everything that's happening in your organization. We'll talk about this in a few more minutes, but there are so many indicators that all will point back to the level of employee engagement, which is directly driven by leaders.Joe White (03:23):
And again, I really liked that explanation, the definition. Years ago, and perhaps mistakenly so, I always thought of employee engagement as morale, but I think that maybe that's an output of engagement. What are your thoughts around that?Alyson Van Hooser (03:43):
I would absolutely agree that morale is an output of engagement because I typically talk about employee engagement from the perspective of the leader. What can the leader do to improve employee engagement? How should they engage an employee to improve something such as morale? Morale looks more like someone showing up with a good attitude. Well, that can be directly affected by how the leader engages the employee. We can list a number of things, but it could be that an employee rarely hears from their leader. So the leader isn't engaging them often enough, therefore, that shows up as a morale issue, an attitude issue, where that employee is no longer happy because they're no longer engaged in the way that they want to be.Joe White (04:38):
Right. So let's put this in context. If I'm a construction owner in a private company, 200, 300 employees, what would be some indications of low morale or low employee engagement within my organization?Alyson Van Hooser (04:56):
I think the first thing you can look at is how is your attendance or your employee retention? That is such a key indicator when it comes to employee engagement. Are people actually showing up for work on time? Are they willing to come in early or stay late to get the job done? I think that that's such an easy indicator to say, do I have engaged employees? If they're not willing to show up, if they're not willing to go the extra mile with their time, that's a sign of low employee engagement, most often. You can also look at productivity. Are people doing just the bare minimum to get by or are people willing to go above and beyond in their job? Are they willing to say, I'm going to take an extra minute right here because it matters to me, not I'm going to do the bare minimum because that's what I have to do to earn a check?
And then finally, I would just say, and it goes back to the morale issue that you tapped on. Are your people happy? I mean, there's a part of someone's attitude that there's nothing a leader can do about that. The employee has to own that. But there's a big piece of leadership actions that affect how people show up from a morale and attitude perspective. So I think overall retention and attendance, are people showing up, are they willing to go the extra mile? From a productivity standpoint, how are they doing and then how is the morale in the organization?Joe White (06:33):
Right. And you think about the perennial pain points that we so often hear about and read about. Things like turnover, customer service, customer satisfaction, employee safety, all of those perhaps could have, at a root level, some connection to employee engagement.Alyson Van Hooser (06:56):
I absolutely think you're exactly right. I would say that 99.9% of the time they do. So those problems are rooted in employee engagement issues, which points back to the leader. And that may feel like a heavy burden on the leader. And is it Shakespeare or somebody who says like, "Heavy is the head that wears the crown"? Like, there's a lot of responsibility that comes with leadership, but then there's a lot of opportunity to make a difference in the organization if you take your leadership seriously enough and especially starting with the fundamental of employee engagement.Joe White (07:33):
Right. So up to this point, I've talked quite a bit about the decision-maker, the owner's perspective. I want to make this a bit more practical and I want to pull it right down to the shop floor. Why is this topic of importance to front-line managers or supervisors that interact directly with employees or stakeholders?Alyson Van Hooser (07:55):
Those front-line managers, they are leading the boots on the ground. As a CEO in a company or someone who's holding VP positions, you're working in a very strategic role. And it's those front-line supervisors, those front-line people who are actually putting those initiatives that you set forth into action. It's there that you see the difference from a profitability perspective, if you're higher up, that's where your focus is. But on the floor from a productivity standpoint, that's where you see the difference. It's those people on the front lines. And if we want more from those people, and I would also spin it this way a little bit. Those people on the floor, if they're coming to work and they want more, then the leader can directly affect how they engage those front-line people, the productivity in the organization. The morale which affects that day-to-day job for those people who are on the front lines has a direct effect on what the people at the very top of the organizational chart want to see too.Joe White (09:06):
Right. So we've clearly established that it's important to companies. We've certainly made it relevant to the front-line manager. So I want to take another swing at this. What are some specific things that our listeners could do or can do to help improve employee engagement? And thinking in particular about that individual that's out on the front line, the supervisor that's out there, perhaps remote from their corporate office on the road, distributed workforce on the job site. What are some specific things that they can do to help improve employee engagement?Alyson Van Hooser (09:45):
So this is my favorite question, Joe, because ultimately you can understand employee engagement and how important it is, but if you don't do anything about it, then you sort of wasted your time. So if there was ever a time to tune in, it's right now. The number one thing I would say as a leader that you should do with your people is simple. It almost feels too simple, but most of the time leaders don't do it. It's talk with your people. Not at your people, not to your people, but talk with your people one-on-one. I always say that you should learn an employee's story and that's going to tell you how to adapt your actions in order to relate and connect with an individual which is going to improve employee engagement. Now, when I say that, and I teach that to people who are in our leadership trainee.
Typically, the number one, maybe you could say reason, maybe you could say, excuse, rebuttal that comes up when I say that, if there is any, is, "I don't have time for that." And so I would draw back to what was said previously in this conversation, that employee engagement is what drives productivity, retention. All of those, you called them perennial pain points, that drives all of those pain points, the turn of all of that. That is where you're going to make a difference is when you spend more time talking with your people. And I would say, when you're talking with your people and I'll give you some tips on exactly what to talk about, but you need to talk on their level.
I was recently told a story by someone who was a leader who was in manufacturing. And they're a super smart person and some feedback that they had gotten from their supervisor was, "Hey, your employees have said that when you come around and you do talk to them, it's like you're talking on this whole other level. It's almost like you're talking too smart for them." And the leader that I was talking to said, "What, am I supposed to not be true to who I am? If I am smart, am I supposed to change what I do for someone else?" And my answer was, absolutely yes. And it's not that you're changing who you are when you interact with people, it's that you're adapting what you do to connect with them, to engage them in a way that's going to resonate with them. Today's workforce, Joe, is so diverse. So one approach does not fit all. One approach of leading the people on your team likely is not going to work, which means as a leader, you have to really develop the skill of adaptability. Being able to change the way you interact with individual people in your team and that's not easy, but it's a skill and skills can be learned.Joe White (12:53):
Certainly, you've hit so many points here that are just so relevant to a lot of the discussions that we're having with clients today. The fact that you're able to engage with, talk with, interact with individuals on an individual level, building that camaraderie, getting to know them, them getting to know you. Some of those are really cross-grained to historical practices that I know when I first came along and out of college, you were told as a manager that you didn't eat lunch with the wage roll. You separated yourself and you did that intentionally by design. And I think a lot of that today, those practices today, there's just no place for that. And I think you've touched on a lot of that with some of the suggestions you've given here.Alyson Van Hooser (13:45):
I think you gave me chills when you said you came out of school and they were telling you, don't eat lunch with your employees, those kinds of things. I've heard that too. And it's that separation that, I think it's well-intentioned, where people want to sort of have a divide between leaders, employees, with the intent of being able to establish some sort of respect. But that's just not how respect is established today. Respect is established with those one-on-one interactions where you build trust, where you share your stories and get to know one another. Would you agree?Joe White (14:22):
Absolutely. And again, I've seen evidence that in all industries that I've worked with. And I had an individual tell me recently that it's one of the best-kept secrets that he's been able to come across is just the power of getting to know individuals and really building rapport and camaraderie with them just opens up so many lines of communication that previously didn't exist.Alyson Van Hooser (14:47):
I totally agree. And isn't that so simple? It seems so simple to say, but it's not practiced often enough.Joe White (14:55):
Absolutely. Alyson, I'd like to go back to something that you mentioned earlier. You were talking about the diversity that we now see in the workplace. And again, this is something that I've seen in the 30 years that I've been in the industries that I've worked in. I've seen a huge, huge shift in diversity. And I think for supervisors, our front-line managers, that perhaps have not had the opportunity to develop the skills to be able to communicate in that environment, I think they could be at a loss. And so again, I want to ask you a couple of questions or at least a question, and maybe this will lead to a little bit more discussion. The recommendations that you've offered, are they universally effective across all employees from the five generations that are now in the workplace?Alyson Van Hooser (15:46):
To answer that question in one word, the answer is, yes. But I think it's also really important to say that diversity is a good thing. And diversity is not just race. It is not just religion. Diversity in how people work. Diversity in how people want feedback. Diversity in so many different ways on your team, while it might be challenging to lead this new world, it creates an environment where you can accomplish some really cool things. And it's like you said, it's a shift. It's a change and change can be difficult. I think at first, you have to sort of shift your mindset to say, okay, things have changed. This is good. What can I do about it? And so I would say that, yes, we talked about talking with people, one-on-one, is that universally effective for the five generations in today's workforce? Absolutely. Not only is it universally effective, I think that it is a strategy that if you want to be successful as a leader today and tomorrow, and the next five, 10, 20 years, it's something that you have to start doing.
It's not an option. Talking with people is not an option if you want to be successful because the five generations are so different, but I'll make a point to that or a couple of points. So, if you think about millennials, oftentimes, millennials have been given the name or been dubbed the entitled generation. So a leader can have millennials on their team. I'm in my mid-thirties. So I said mid-thirties, 32. So I'm going to count that as I'm in my early thirties. I'm in my early thirties and so people around my age, millennials around my age, it could be said that if you have those on your team and the leader is not of that generation, then they could think that when a millennial is trying to step up and give an idea or something like that, that they're just entitled. That they think that they should have a seat at the table for no good reason.
Well, that's what the statistics say, but do you know their story? So for me, I wouldn't fit that statistic of an entitled millennial. And I can give you an example, and this is why you have to talk with people and get to know their stories. One example I would give is that my mother and father left when I was really young. My mom, before I was even in primary school and my dad left when I was 13. So I had to find a way to navigate life from 13 on. I ended up putting myself through college and there was a season while I was in college that I would drive to school, sleep in my car in the parking lot, so that I could be at class on time, so that I could graduate early and get into the workforce. Now, if that person shows up on your team, if someone who actually has a strong work ethic shows up on your team and they're not entitled and you treat them that way, that person who potentially could have been a huge asset for your team might go somewhere else.
And then I'll take that even a bit more day -to-day. So Gen Z, that's people who are about 24, 25 years old and younger, who are in the workforce today. A lot of them are entering the workforce and they're on your front lines. So when you think about the world and how much we're using technology today, most people might assume that Gen Z, those younger employees, they want to be engaged through technology, that they're probably not going to want to answer your phone call. They'd rather text you. They'd probably rather use texting and email at work versus a face-to-face conversation. But what we're finding is that's actually not the case with the younger people in the workforce with Generation Z. They want to talk more than millennials. They want to talk to their leaders face to face. So, are you spending time talking with them face to face, figuring out their story? How did they get here? Where do they want to go? What do they want to accomplish? Engaging them in a way that makes them want to stay and work hard for you.Joe White (20:06):
And tying that back into motivation, knowing each individual at an individual level and their individual stories and the things that are important to them, all of that's relative and all of that's so important to building those connections and again, to driving employee engagement. So we're kind of on the back end of our discussion here. And one of the questions that I have here, it's very important. I want to make sure I get this across is, in your mind, if there's one thing that you would like to suggest that the listeners do today, let's say that they've heard this podcast at something they have interest in, they think they can improve in this area. If there's one thing that you could suggest that they do to help improve the engagement levels with their employees of direct reports, what would it be?Alyson Van Hooser (20:55):
It would be to go out and at least with one person, learn their story and tell one of yours. And I've got three stories that leaders need to know. And so I would challenge you today if you're listening to this podcast to do this with at least one person. Tell them one of these three stories and then get them to tell you one of these three stories. And here's the three stories. Number one is, how did you get here or how did I get here? When you share that story of how you got to where you are in your leadership position, they're going to get to know you better, where you came from. It's going to help them feel more comfortable to share their story, which is going to give you the answer for how they want to be led. So the second question is, why are you staying here?
Oftentimes, organizations do exit interviews. How about having a conversation with an employee about why they're actually staying? So they can then tell you, these are the things that you as my leader or this organization, these are the things that are going right for me right now, so that you can be sure as a leader to keep doing those things or to not take those things away. Or if you have to take those things away, you need to be sure you communicate why really effectively. And then the third question that you could choose from, and I would challenge you to do all three when the time is right, but at least one of these today. Where do you want to be in five years? So open up and tell your employee where you want to be in five years, but then it's really important that you listen when you ask them the same question.
Maybe they would love to be in a position, maybe in your position or a position equal to you. I worked in an organization before where I was only promoted based on the people under me getting promoted. How well could I lead the people under me, that determined my future in the organization. So if you know, okay, this is what my people want to accomplish, maybe you can give them extra training. Maybe you can let them sit in on a meeting or a special project so that they can learn more to achieve their goals. That will hopefully keep them around longer, which saves you money in the end. You don't have to retrain somebody. So I would challenge you today for listening to this, pick one employee today, pick one of those questions, go talk with them, learn how you can be a better leader by listening to their stories.Joe White (23:23):
That's powerful. I can only imagine the impact it would have if a supervisor or front-line manager were to do that for all their direct imports or direct reports and the impact that would have both near and long-term. Alyson, thank you so much. We're out of time and again, I can't thank you. It's always a pleasure to speak with you. And again, I just want to thank you for joining us today.Alyson Van Hooser (23:48):
You're welcome, Joe. Thank you so much. I'll look forward to hearing the success stories whenever these listeners go out and put into action what we talked about today.Joe White (23:56):
Awesome. Thank you so much. Okay. For those that have joined today and would like to speak with Alyson, perhaps get more information, her contact information that's going to be available in the show notes for this episode. Also, for those listening, I certainly hope you found this discussion of value and benefit. If so, help us spread the word, share the podcast with others that you know that may have an interest. The SOS podcast series is brought to you by AEU LEAD, a consultancy dedicated to the needs of front-line managers. And for additional information, follow us on social media. Please use the links in the show notes. That's it for now. Stay safe and thanks for listening.
About our guest, Alyson Van Hooser
Alyson Van Hooser is a Kentucky based Author, Keynote Speaker, and Leadership Trainer with Van Hooser Associates, Inc. Alyson’s tough beginnings, personal leadership experience in the foodservice, retail, and finance industries, and serving as an elected City Councilwoman — all by the age of 30 — helped her uncover the crux of success in today's world. Alyson works throughout the country and within numerous industries to help leaders bridge the gaps that exist within individuals and teams which cause negative results in performance, retention, and engagement results. Alyson’s leadership development work guides organizations and individuals to master the nitty-gritty, practical actions necessary in order to crush their goals!
Where you can find Alyson: