Media leaders can engage employees, set priorities with innovative ideas day

Matthijs van de Peppel

NRC Media

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Xavier van Leeuwe

Mediahuis Nederland

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

We recently wrote about how motivated teams are paramount for innovation, but it’s important to know what leaders can do to drive employee engagement. A new co-worker’s involvement and success is really defined by how they start off. So we set ourselves the goal of making their onboarding process an unforgettable one. We want them to connect straightaway — lock, stock, and barrel — with company culture.

On the first day they receive, at their home address, a hand-written card welcoming them to the team. They are instantly assigned a buddy and get a bunch of flowers and an introduction to the team. The buddy has them meet the team members and get a rundown on the key informal networks — a team lunch always worked well.

As others have done before us, we conclude that good leaders first and foremost personally care about someone. When people first become leaders, they are amazed at the level of attention all the personal difficulties of teammates require, from sick kids to the midlife crisis. When do they get to the “real work” instead of being an “emotional babysitter?”

The answer is that this undervalued emotional work is not only part of your job, but key to being a good leader. By making time for real conversations and making yourself vulnerable as a supervisor — like admitting you’re having a bad day — you’re building a relationship of trust with your employees. Only then will there be room for the second element of being a good leader, which is challenging directly.

That means giving clear as well as tough feedback, determining who does what on the team, and setting the bar high when it comes to results. A good boss is tough on the content and soft on the relationship.

Setting priorities together

Employee engagement is one of the most important predictors of successful business operations. Research by UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School showed companies with above average engaged employees generate significantly higher revenues than companies with less engaged employees.

For employees themselves, too, commitment to their work is an important factor in their job satisfaction. This applies to all employees but to young people in particular. They appear to be extra critical of diversity and flexibility and are less patient when they are not satisfied with their job. Two-thirds of Millennials would rather earn US$40,000 a year with a job that gives them satisfaction than US$100,000 with a job in which they are unhappy.

Kenan-Flagler’s research mentions several methods for increasing involvement:

  • Act on the ideas and input of employees.
  • Involve employees in decision-making.
  • Give employees the opportunity to shape their own work.
  • Care deeply about the health and wellbeing of employees.
  • See to it that executives give their praise immediately.
  • Let them lead challenging projects or task forces.

Ideas day

Over the years, we have developed a method to determine the department’s strategy together with employees. We call this method the idea day. With this approach, everyone gets the opportunity to contribute ideas, and we jointly determine the priorities. In this way, we align and the knowledge and creativity of the team is used optimally.

For managers, it is a test of humility. They should not put themselves above the group. An executive’s ideas are weighed in the same way as any other idea.

There is no limit to the number of people who can generate ideas. However, we do appoint someone to manage the whole process. We also appoint a selection committee because choosing from hundreds of ideas with hundreds of people at the same time has practical objections.

The selection committee consists of a combination of managers and employees. This prevents managers who do not know the reality of the shop floor from building castles in the air. You also run less risk of the real needs of the shop floor getting snowed under.

Ideally, the group size of the selection committee should be eight to 16 people, which is sufficiently large to include all points of view and small enough to have a good substantive conversation. Just as King Arthur sits at a round table with his knights, nobody is in charge in this selection committee. It doesn’t matter what’s on your business card. There is no hierarchy in the group.

Every idea is fair play during an idea day brainstorming session.
Every idea is fair play during an idea day brainstorming session.

The process consists of three rounds:

  1. Gathering ideas: Anyone in the department can contribute ideas that support the organisational mission and goals.
  2. The points circus: All employees are allowed to divide a certain number of points over the projects. For projects, extensive consultation and priority-setting make sense, because budget and capacity need to be made available. Small tasks are simply picked up at the department in the order determined by the manager together with the department. The big points circus produces three lists: (1) projects with points, (2) projects without points, and (3) smaller tasks. Only the first list is discussed together in the third step.
  3. The idea day. This is a day outside the office where we discuss the ideas with the team and determine the priorities for the coming period based on impact and effort. On the ideas day, we discuss all projects that have received points in the form of a short pitch. This way everyone understands what is meant by the idea. The projects with points are written on sticky notes and pasted into the impact-effort chart. The impact is determined based on the goals of the department. The effort is estimated on the basis of financial costs and other resources. The last round on the idea day is Dr. Love. In this round, all participants get the opportunity to highlight one project or job that they feel has not done enough justice.

This blog series is based on the book The Human Touch, in which Xavier van Leeuwe and Matthijs van de Peppel share their experiences as media executives in turbulent times. They deftly applied smart data and technology, but the quantum leap lay elsewhere: in the connections between people, within and beyond their companies.

About Xavier van Leeuwe & Matthijs van de Peppel

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