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Employee Engagement

Coming Alive: Part II — It Takes a Village to Create a Masterpiece



This is the second excerpt from the book Coming Alive: The Journey to Reengage Your Life and Career,  by Ruth K Ross. 

Before an artist takes out a canvas and selects the material they will use to create their masterpiece, they usually have a vision in their head of what they want to paint. The first thing the artist does is set up the easel upon which the canvas will rest. If even one leg of the easel is of unequal height, or not standing firm and steady, the creation process can’t commence. The canvas will fall and the paint will splatter everywhere.

The process of engagement is similar. Without full participation from all three legs of the easel, the “work” will often end in disaster. To ensure that your work/life canvas is on solid footing, everyone must be an active and willing participant in creating the masterpiece. That doesn’t mean all three parties have the same role; in fact they each have distinctly different ones. It’s how the collective work comes together that results in achieving the mecca of high engagement.

Painting is an art that goes back to the beginning of time, with some of the world’s greatest masterpieces created by solo artists (think Michelangelo, Picasso, etc.). However, in our work lives it usually takes more than one person to bring a company’s vision to life; it really takes a collective village with everyone having a distinct yet important role.

Paint by the Numbers

When I was a child, I was never very good at art projects. I remember my mom buying me a coloring book that had numbers on each page in different sections that correlated to a specific crayon. I couldn’t go wrong. I had the formula to stay within the lines and choose the appropriate color. Thinking back to my corporate career, it was clear to me that for a long time I worked in environments that used an old school method of “painting a masterpiece.”

Businesses have always strived for three equal legs to stand on when creating and executing their vision. That was the cornerstone for most of my corporate career: two legs of the easel were immediately delegated to the roles of manager and employee. The third leg was assigned to the human resources department, which many see as the link between the manager and the employee. Traditionally, HR took the lead in ensuring that they handled employee engagement on behalf of the CEO and their senior leadership team. While this was going on, the executives stayed stationary in the picture frame (usually behind closed doors in their top-floor offices), letting the artists do the painting for them.

While this metaphorical easel was balanced from the standpoint of having all three legs assigned to these particular handlers, it clearly was not and is not the right formula for creating a masterpiece. Looking back at the old school way of thinking, the responsibility for engagement was definitely not a balanced equation. Employees had very little accountability for their own level of commitment and satisfaction in the workplace. Depending on two factors, managers had a varying degree of responsibility. These included:

  1. their own level of personal engagement in the workplace and
  2. whether or not others held them accountable for attaining high levels of engagement in their own departments.

On the other hand, human resources professionals were quick to take ownership for engagement, falsely believing that it would give them a high degree of credibility if they lifted the burden from their already overworked managers. In truth, all they did was give the managers permission to pass on the responsibility for the critical role of engaging their people.

In today’s new normal business environment, the old school methods that previously served generations so well just aren’t cutting it. That’s part of the reason why the number of people who identify themselves as disengaged at work is skyrocketing.

Congratulations, You Are Now a CEO

The world of work has changed and the future of the workplace looks quite different from that of prior generations. When we were all kids, the sky was the limit when it came to our future aspirations. Each and every day, parents indulged the fantasies of their children who felt they were destined to become firemen, police officers, nurses, cowboys, ballerinas, the next great entrepreneur, or even president of the United States of America. Many people even dreamed of becoming the boss of a publicly owned company or their own startup. Now, few realistically believe that will actually happen.

But I have some exciting news for you. You don’t need to be the boss or CEO to change the world. What if I told you that as of today you are promoted? And I am not talking about a small step up the ladder either. As of today, you are being promoted to the role of CEO. Sounds exciting, right? Your first response may be to question my sanity and wonder exactly what I’m smoking. The truth is I’m not talking about becoming a chief executive officer. Who would want that stress and pressure? I’m talking about promoting you to become a Chief Engagement Officer. This is a career goal that everyone must aspire to if we are to reverse the trend toward disengagement in today’s society.

Engagement doesn’t happen without ownership and hard work. It can’t just fall on the shoulders of one person, but rather requires equal but different contributions from senior  leaders, managers, and employees alike. That’s how to create the magic of an engaged and committed workforce. Thus, chief engagement officers provide an undeniable boost to morale and the ability for the entire workforce to reconnect and reengage in a more meaningful manner of doing business.

You don’t always need an easel holding a canvas to paint a picture in the updated school approach to management. You can do it via technology and other new wave methods. What hasn’t changed is that it still takes three equal legs to support our painting. However, what’s different is that the people holding up the painting have changed. While managers and employees still make up two-thirds of the support system, now the senior leaders (including the real CEO) have taken responsibility for the third  leg, coming down from the frame (and from behind their closed doors) to be active participants in the quest for engagement. Each one individually cannot master engagement; it takes involvement from all three parties to create the masterpiece.

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