Making the hard yards - Engagement is the key...

"The skills needed to fully engage people can usually be found inside organisations - the challenge is to create the playing field on which they can flourish..."

Ray Atkinson - January 2012

Those of you that are familiar with Wadenhoe's approach will be aware of our passion for trying to make the activities of leadership and leadership development as transparent and understandable as possible.

We have an aversion to jargon, fads and fancies. And that is our focus today!

Our passion is not solely driven by an irritation with the development of the current fads, but rather with the belief in many organisations that there is some very special pixie dust that, when sprinkled (the word often used is "cascaded") liberally down an organisation, will somehow create dramatic change.

Being an ardent sports fan, I am always mesmerised by the flashes of genius that illuminate a cold, wet afternoon, whatever the game. But I am equally conscious of the commitment, energy, confidence and competence of individuals that must exist before that genius can be released. This is sometimes called "making the hard yards" and it's that extra level of individual skill and energy, which when combined in a team can achieve extraordinary results.

Common sense?

It is very easy to say that leadership is just common sense, but that sense is often not very common in some organisations. Yet we have all seen the acts of genius that have enlightened our world. The work of Kaplan and Norton on Balanced Scorecards, Porter on Strategy and Goleman on Emotional Intelligence are all examples of genius transforming the way we think so fundamentally that we can never return to our previous thinking.

But still at the heart of leadership lie the solid frameworks of motivation, communication, performance development and the whole panoply of knowledge, tools and techniques that we have relied on for years. These are the leadership "hard yards".

As professionals in leadership development, we are always interested in any tools and techniques that can enhance and sustain the impact of what we do with our clients. So where does Engagement fit in all of this?

Engagement Skills

Regular readers will know that over the last few years we have focused heavily on Engagement, to the point where we can demonstrate that it is one of our core capabilities. However, even describing it as a core capability is a little uncomfortable, because our work is really about re-discovering what we have always covered with clients who want to learn more about effective leadership of change.

For over 20 years the Wadenhoe Consultancy has worked in partnership with organisations to design, deliver and sustain individual, team and organisational development activities that have measurable and permanent performance outcomes. In the end, the vast majority of this work comes down to how effective the organisation and its leadership is in engaging their people. So when, in 2007 we decided to look again at Engagement, we had plenty of research and experience to draw upon.

There were two parallel strands to the project:
  1. Simplifying engagement conversations: Understanding what Engagement is and isn't, so that managers recognise how simple conversations can make a big difference, and how little time they need to take.
  2. Creating an environment for engagement: Drawing on research and experience, in order to establish the critical factors for creating an environment in which people "choose to engage".
Simplifying Engagement Conversations

One of the main drivers for us spending more of our time and resources in this area was the number of requests from organisations to focus on Performance Management (by which they often meant "handling difficult conversations"). Many organisations have developed a range of complex competencies and behaviours, which sometimes appear to be designed to create measurable criteria for Performance Management Reviews (Appraisals).

Yet we know from our experience that most "performance" issues are rooted in factors like:
  • Unclear job expectations
  • Absence of standards
  • Lack of feedback
  • Lack of motivation to perform
  • Task interference
  • Skill & Knowledge requirements
So the language for "making the hard yards" needs to be Performance Development and in our work leaders at any level deliver this when they are creating straightforward conversations around:


Helping people to shape their own goals and believe that they can make a difference

Being consciously clear about what we are looking for and spotting people doing things right

Giving people the courage to walk towards challenges and make decisions


Spending more time developing people and continuously exploring ways for them to utilise their full potential

Over the last few years there has been an increasing number of references to "engagement" in the HR development press and in the specifications that HR departments put together before they come to talk to us at The Wadenhoe Consultancy.

Some practitioners in the field justify their "specialism" by saying that "engagement" is a highly skilled activity, and that many leaders lack the capabilities to deal with the issues that it opens up! This surely is a development issue for the organisation rather than a reason for developing another new initiative and language.

Yet, I also harbour a suspicion that we have to take some of the blame. Together with our fellow leadership development professionals, we acknowledge that some of the work we have done on leadership and motivation in the past may have fallen on deaf ears. We have allowed our clients to say: "We tried X, Y & Z and that did not stick what do we do now?"

Creating an environment for Engagement

Back in the early 90's when The Wadenhoe Consultancy was founded, a major piece of research was completed looking at the aspects of Management Development that prevented it from delivering measurable benefits to our clients (the word Leadership had a very precise meaning at that time). We looked at how we, as professionals can increase the likelihood that our activities will add measurable benefits to the clients we serve.

The stimulus was a frustration that organisations were still asking for workshops and programmes on the basics of management, leadership and motivation when they had already spent small fortunes with consultants to correct them. Clearly the learning generated had not transferred into the culture of the organisations; into "the way we do things around here".

In the course of the research, we discovered an encyclopaedia of development tools (which has no doubt tripled in size by now). So we did not lack techniques or approaches! What we appeared to lack was joined-up thinking (and I dislike that expression intensely!). We found that people lacked a clear understanding of the performance required of them and how that performance contributed to the overall strategic ambitions of their employees. Not a good starting point for organisations trying to engage their people!!

We found that managers lacked a clear understanding of their own limitations, as their performance review was a ritual that involved generating the right mix of A, B, C and D ratings to enable their managers to conform with organisational expectations.

We found managers trying to develop and deliver the appropriate behaviour in an environment where the culture, style, systems and procedures actively worked against them succeeding.

Our findings were published in a book entitled "The Wadenhoe Model - making management development strategically effective" and the resulting framework (The Wadenhoe Model®) has shaped our thinking ever since.

Measurable Impact - Fast!

Organisations don't need another new development technique called "Engagement".

Instead it's about simplifying, re-learning and implementing the techniques already available, in a rigorous way. That is our justification for placing such a strong focus on Engagement now. When all the cost-cutting, de-layering and process improvements have been made, Engagement remains the key factor in achieving the "Hard Yards" - with conscientious managers being supported in a culture that enables them to practise what they know and to instil it into "the way we do things around here".

And that flash of genius - that pixy dust from above?

Trust me - it's probably there in your leadership teams and Wadenhoe understands how to support you in developing it.

For more information on recent assignments and their measurable outcomes, please contact:

The Wadenhoe Consultancy Ltd

Prama House
267 Banbury Road

Phone: 01865 339558
Mobile: 07899 796993
Fax: 01865 339301

Registered in England No: 6717860

©2012 The Wadenhoe Consultancy Ltd