Sign In
Your partner
in world-class business learning
Thought Thursdays
Engaging employees through a leadership brand

So you have spent the money and you are now sitting with the results of the latest employee engagement survey. Like every year before, you notice that employees are not as engaged as the leadership of your organisation assumes. The latest Deloitte survey observes that only 32% of employers believe their employees are “fully aligned with company purpose”. So your results are not at all surprising. 

But how should you respond? The most common response is a simple linear one. Our employees are not engaged, so let’s get them to engage. I have seen companies embark on significant employee engagement strategies: carefully planned communication processes, company recognition sessions, Intranet, town hall meetings, t-shirts, and significant investments in incentives and profit share. While this kind of response is common, it is ill-directed. Such a response is no better than when your doctor – having found a mole on your arm and identifying that the mole indicates a liver cancer – recommends removing the mole. 

Things are more complex than this. In our view, the results of an engagement survey tell you very little about the employees and their level of morale. Instead, we believe that the results tell a whole lot about the quality and effectiveness of an organisation’s leadership culture. Employment engagement in systems talk is the feedback loop from the response to your company’s leadership culture over time.

When employees sit in the canteen or around the water fountain and talk, you will often hear them say things like, “Have you heard what they have done now?” The ‘they’ that employees are talking about are the collective leadership of the organisation, the leadership culture that the employees experience. As a customer, you know when a business is well led or not. When the waiter is attentive, the premises are well maintained, the receptionist projects a pride in the company, the product has exceptional quality, and problems are solved with impressive speed, you know the company is well led. You also know that behind this lies an effective leadership culture. All these little actions will also ultimately translate into great company results.  ​
 role of HR.png
The role of HR in creating a leadership brand (Du Toit, 2014)

In 2007, Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood wrote about leadership brand and described the immense market value such a brand has. Organisations that are known to be well led command respect from their stakeholders, business partners and investors. Such a brand is of immeasurable value to the organisation. Investment decisions, trading terms and purchasing decisions are all influenced by the confidence that stakeholders have in a company’s leadership and its ability to deliver. 

Ulrich and Smallwood suggest that the key to developing a leadership brand in an organisation lies in the hands of the CEO and the senior executive team. The executive team need to set the vision, the pace and the example. They build the standards for all leadership to follow.  
It is frightening to consider how far from this mark many of our private and public institutions are. Our board rooms are often political swamps in which super egos are playing out self-interest and alternative agendas during endless meetings. Leadership is seldom an item on executive meeting agendas, and if it does appear it is unlikely ever to include self-reflection. 

There is a large body of research which has shown that leadership is at the heart of organisational success, especially sustained success over time. 

Leadership is found to be a key enabler in: 
  • an organisation’s financial performance; 
  • the development of organisational culture and cultural change; 
  • the implementation of processes improvement and project performance; 
  • the development of a high performance–work culture;
  • improved organisational creativity and innovation; and
  • managing economic crises and transmissions, including mergers and acquisitions.

Thus, if leadership is so critical for organisational success, then ensuring that leaders across the organisation can find their own unique leadership brands is critical. As discussed, an organisational leadership brand emerges from the composite experience that employees have of individual leaders. Developing a personal leadership brand is not something that should be left to chance. But how can an organisation do this?

First: Place leadership on the executive agenda: 
  • Clarify our leadership understanding. What do we mean when we talk about leadership? This is a soft investment with huge potential in hard returns.
  • Include leadership in strategic discussions. Before we investigate the functional components of a challenge, we need to ensure that we have the correct leadership in place. 
  • Actively review the leadership pipeline at executive level.
  • Measure leadership as a performance indicator and a key criterion for appointments.
  • Hold each other accountable for leadership behaviours.
Second: Build enablers which will support organisational leadership: 

My research focused on the role of the HR department in growing and supporting leaders. Every aspect of what HR does with and for our people builds their experience of the leadership brand. How the payroll officer deals with a pay query, how we experience the company performance management system and the work environment, and how we induct new employees all build an employee experience. Rather than viewing line leadership as a limitation, HR departments need to shift to a mindset of creating an environment where leaders thrive.
This shift to customer thinking applies across  all functional areas. 

Finally: Constantly refresh and recalibrate: 

Developing a leadership brand is a life discipline. A company brand is something which needs constant reflection and recalibration.

As an organisation’s leadership shifts to being concerned about the quality of the leadership brand experienced by employees, the employees will begin to shift, and this should be reflected in the next engagement survey. It thus stands to reason that a useful application of employment survey results could be to build a burning platform which inspires a company to build a leadership brand, rather than to focus on the symptom of poor leadership disengaging employees. 

Charles Du toit 2 - Copy.jpg

Dr Charles du Toit teaches on USB’s postgraduate diploma in leadership and is part of USB-ED’s virtual faculty. He leads a new niche Leadership and HR consultancy focused on assisting individuals and companies to develop their leadership brands. 

Email address: