Lessons for Leaders in Engaging Employees

An Interview with Richard McKinnel, Senior OPS Manager and the 2006 Amethyst Fellow at the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies
Human Resources

Employee engagement is a top HR priority for the Ontario Public Service (OPS), says Richard McKinnell, a senior OPS manager and the 2006 Amethyst Fellow at the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. Richard – former Assistant Deputy Minister in Corporate Services Division, and a Director of Communications for several ministries, including the Centre for Leadership and Human Resource Management – shares engagement lessons for leaders in the following Q& A.

Does engaging employees in the public service present particular challenges?

In some ways I think it makes employee engagement easier. As with any large organization, challenges do exist. When you have 67,000 people who are geographically dispersed and have diverse work activities and priorities, it is very tough to make sure you reach everyone consistently, and that you are being heard and understood.

In March 2006 the Ontario Public Service (OPS) conducted the first enterprise-wide employee survey to assess employees’ job satisfaction, commitment to the organization and overall perceptions about the OPS workplace. The survey was sent to 36,000 employees across the organization and more than 14,000 responded.

What emerged – and what I think makes employee engagement easier – is the commitment to public service and to making a difference. Commitment to public service motivated a majority to work in the OPS and they said that their work unit takes pride in their work. This is a tremendous unifying factor across a large organization such as ours. We were really gratified to see this.

How big a priority is employee engagement in the OPS?

Employees are at the heart and soul of the public service. It is important they feel valued and respected, and understand how their efforts contribute to the organization’s goals. It is also important for the OPS to foster a workplace culture that is supportive of innovation and recognizes accomplishments both formally and informally. Measuring levels of engagement help us monitor our progress and identify areas where we need to improve.

That’s why employee engagement is one of our top three HR priorities. In November 2005, the OPS launched a comprehensive three-year Human Resources Plan that aims to help transform the organization into a world leader in public service.

The plan focuses on three key areas: engaging employees to achieve organizational results, attracting talent by gaining a competitive edge and building capacity to sustain a world-class organization.

To do this, we have to improve employee engagement – that is, we need to increase employees’ job satisfaction and commitment to the organization and its goals, and to improve the overall OPS work environment.

What did you learn about employee engagement in the OPS from your 2006 survey?

Results showed that employees are reasonably satisfied and engaged. For example, a significant majority of respondents said they have a good working relationship with the person they report to and that their supervisor treats them fairly. As I mentioned, commitment to public service motivated a large number to work in the OPS, and they agreed that their unit takes pride in their work, which is good.

However, employees told us that as in all organizations, there is room for improvement. It was clear from the survey results and other feedback that there is unevenness across the organization related to performance in key areas of internal communications, leadership practices, career advancement opportunities, and professional development and learning opportunities.

What are you doing in response to the survey findings?

The OPS has developed an Action Plan to address the results. It focuses on actions to respond to the priority areas of opportunities for growth and advancement, leadership practices, learning and development opportunities and organizational communications.

Some of the specific actions include:

  • developing a job rotation pilot program to support career growth and advancement
  • providing feedback to leaders and managers through employee surveys and making better use of 360-degree assessments to improve their leadership practices
  • developing and expanding distance learning as part our broader learning strategy
  • planning a management foundations and pre-management program
  • developing a communications guide for executives and managers with clear expectations for effective, frequent, two-way communication
  • re-instituting a paper copy of our employee newsletter, which had gone electronic

How will you monitor progress?

The 2006 employee survey helped us establish a corporate baseline. This year we are surveying all 67,000 OPS employees, which will provide more detailed results at the ministry and divisional levels. Each ministry will be able to determine where it is performing well and what improvements can be made. After the 2007 survey, we will survey employees every two years and track our progress on key priorities.

Have you any best-practices tips to share with managers based on your employee engagement experiences?

From my personal perspective, one essential is the visibility of senior leadership, getting them out of their offices to meet with staff. You need to build that right into the schedule. The Deputy Minister of Government Services, for example, has just completed a second round of Town Hall meetings in which she has gone out across the province and met with all the staff in the Ministry. Similarly, our Secretary of the Cabinet and Head of the OPS, Tony Dean annually travels across the province, as part of his Executive Dialogue sessions. Meeting the leader personally makes such a difference within the organization.

Another factor is recognizing the importance of communication. It is more than just posting something on a website or sending out email; it is face-to-face discussion, talking about what engagement means within a work unit, giving opportunities for staff to give feedback to us, to share their questions and concerns.

And obviously, ongoing performance management and career planning and development are really important. You need to work with the people who report to you to ensure they are taking full advantage of the opportunities available to them.

What pitfalls do managers need to avoid?

For managers, there is the challenge of ensuring their actions model the good behaviour around employee engagement that the organization is after. For example, the survey yielded interesting findings about disconnects or perceived disconnects on work-life balance that need to be addressed.

They see the email messages sent 24 hours a day and on weekends, which send the message: “These people never stop and probably expect the same of us.” Managers need to be made more aware that not only what you say, but also your actions, speak volumes. On a personal note, this is something that I know I need to be more sensitive to in my work habits.

There are two other pitfalls. Don’t over-promise: never commit to something you aren’t able to deliver. And always follow up: are we really making a difference, have we done what we said we were going to do, and is it having a positive effect? The survey will really give us the means to answer these questions.

How does the OPS keep its senior leaders engaged?

The 2006 OPS Employee Survey indicated that senior leadership in the OPS has a relatively high level of engagement.

There is great flexibility within the OPS to move across areas of responsibility and functional areas based on transferrable skills. So many senior executives and leaders move from organization to organization in different disciplines, which is a great opportunity.

Also, in my own case, spending this year at Queen’s, on leave from a senior leadership role at the Ministry of Government Services, and having the chance to teach, work with students, write, and do research is a great mid-career opportunity. It re-instils my belief in public service – and in the important work we do.

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