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By Paul Hitchens

paul-hitchens-blog-photo (3)The Elfin Oak can be found in Kensington Gardens close to the venue for the Symposium Employee Engagement Summit. The Oak was carved in 1911 by the illustrator Ivor Innes and depicts the ‘Little People’ working together ascending the tree with Wookey and her three jars of Health, Wealth and Happiness. These three treasures are highly prized indicators of a thriving enterprise. Employee happiness and wellbeing are significant factors in the prosperity of a flourishing organisation.


My first three blogs prior to Symposium’s ‘Employee Engagement Summit 2014’ borrowed from the fantasy worlds of Disneyland, Legoland and Oz to examine the issue of employee engagement and its effect on the bottom line. The summit was held in Kensington, an area of London long associated with another fantasy, that of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. However, at the conference I witnessed many compelling case studies and first-hand accounts of how employee engagement is certainly no fantasy but very much alive and real in some of the UK’s most thriving businesses.

The event was chaired by Amy Armstrong, a research fellow at the Ashridge Business School. Before introducing a line-up of distinguished speakers, she began by setting the tone for the day with the eye-opening insight that, according to a recent Ashridge report, ‘CEO’s still struggle to define employee engagement.’ Whilst much of the morning was to focus on measurement and action to increase engagement, it is important to remember that there is still a lack of understanding undermining the employee engagement ‘cause’.

(For more info on the report click here).

Doug McIldowie, Group HR Director at engineering giant GKN, proclaimed their barometer for engagement to be the modern ‘Positive Climate Index Score’, whilst ValUENTiS CEO Nicholas J. Higgins reminded us that, in spite of the ongoing struggles with the concept, employee engagement surveys were actually pioneered in the 1930s by US retail giant Sears, before disclosing the findings of his latest report on employee engagement in organisations entitled ‘The State of the Notion.’

Then came some fascinating insights on initiative to improve levels of engagement. Beverley Rowney, Head of International Communications and Cultural Transformation at British Gas, explained how their engineers have been equipped with smart phone technology, including the ‘Yammer’ app, that allows them to stay in contact and share information, claiming that the freedom of choice and power of information at their fingertips has led to a significant increase in productivity and engagement. She asserted the importance of these front-line ambassadors by stating that ‘Our engineers are our brand’, meaning that initiatives to ensure their engagement were key to the success of British Gas.

Emma Sutton, Head of Credit and Fraud Risk Operations and Joanna Jepson, Culture and Engagement Workstream Lead, revealed the mettle behind the Explore Engagement Programme at their organization, MBNA, by claiming that their employee culture compass has been re-calibrated to ‘true north’. Inspirational keynotes by speakers including Sir Ranulph Fiennes have helped to build a psychological contract between employee and employer at MBNA, a contract on which their efforts to increase productivity have been based.

Lucy Wilson, the UK Leadership Development and Employee Engagement Lead at BAE Systems, recognised the power of storytelling for engagement. Her colleagues across departments were encouraged to share their story by video, which became a short film titled ‘Hall of fame’ celebrating the defence, security and aerospace brand.

Alexandra Buck former HR Manager at CISCO explained the peaks and troughs of the engagement curve and recommended Stephen Covey’s ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, before Mairi Probin, Internal Communications & Engagement Manager at Iceland Foods confirmed the relationship between HR and the bottom line by stating that ‘happy teams serve happy customers who want to come back’. Mairi referred to herself as ‘Head of Happiness’ and her colleagues would surely agree as the high street frozen food retailer was awarded the 2014 Sunday Times ‘Best Big Company to Work For’. The award is based purely on what colleagues think of their employers. Iceland has a stable career ladder with over seventy percent of vacancies filled by internal progression. Mairi underlined the importance of leadership and insisted that the fortunes of the brand have been closely linked to CEO Malcolm Walker, who let the cameras in from BBC2 to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary called ‘Iceland Foods:  Life in the freezer cabinet’.

Principal Research Fellow for the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), Dilys Robinson, concluded the day by reminding us that engagement is neither new or different and referred to the critical perspective of Professor Rob Briner at Bath School of Management. Engagement as a discipline is open to criticism: there are too many definitions as to what engagement actually is, measures are not reliable, evidence is poor and anecdotal, the benefits are often overstated or misrepresented. Dilys pointed to the future of engagement research and outlined key questions that need to be addressed over the next decade.

The IES defines Employee Engagement as:

  • belief in the organisation
  • desire to work to make things better
  • understanding of business context and ‘bigger picture’
  • respectful of, and helpful to, colleagues
  • willingness to ‘go the extra mile’
  • keeping up‐to‐date with developments in the field.

Dilys brought the conference to a close by asking the delegates if engagement was a fad that’s getting tired? We all answered with a resounding ‘No!’, but we must now ensure that decision makers in organizations agree. The case studies and evidence suggests that employee engagement significantly improves an organisations ability to share health, wealth and happiness and grow productivity and profit too.


Thank you

Paul Hitchens

Brand Consultant

Paul presents the following one-day courses with Symposium Training

Brand Strategy and Human Resources – Building the Employer Brand

21 May 2014 – London
2 July 2014 – Birmingham

Your brand needs you! The power of employer branding.



Speaker, author and branding guru, Paul Hitchens, will share his key insights into how your employer brands can be managed and enhanced at this workshop

Paul Hitchens is the Author of ‘Create the Perfect Brand’, a ‘Teach Yourself’ guidebook to branding. He has extensive experience in branding, including manufacturing and service brands. He has created and implemented many brands for new business ventures, start-ups and established organisations. Following a successful agency career that included an award-winning recruitment campaign at the PA Consulting Group and Automotive Branding at Wolf-Olins, he became a founding partner of the Brand Consultancy Verve Interactive Ltd.

Paul is a course director with the Chartered Institute of Marketing and has lectured at The Henley Business School, presenting the brand module for the MSc in Strategic Marketing Leadership. He has contributed articles on branding to business journals including Management Today and Start Your Business Magazine and has been interviewed on both Television and Radio regarding brands.

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