Interview With Best Selling Author Kevin Sheridan: Building a Magnetic Culture

“Culture” is frequently cited as either the “secret sauce” of organizational success or the cause of institutional decline. Every executive I’ve ever spoken with has an opinion about his or her organization’s culture. It’s either something to carefully nourish as an asset or a success barrier to fix. Everyone seems to agree that a great culture with highly engaged employees is an advantage worth striving for.  The “What” seems settled; “How” is the question.

Well, we are in for a treat today! I recently interviewed Kevin Sheridan, author of Building a Magnetic Culture: How to Attract and Retain Top Talent to Create an Engaged, Productive Workforce.   His book has been on six bestseller lists, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. If you want to improve your organization’s culture through employee engagement, Kevin knows how!  His years of experience in leading and advising organizations are reflected in his incisive yet practical insights. Kevin generously shared his perspective on commonly asked questions about building a great culture through employee engagement. My questions are in italics; his responses follow.

The “Yes, But…” Leader

Imagine that you are meeting with a CEO who is leading an organizational turn around within a turbulent industry. She “gets” that employee engagement is important, but is something to focus upon when the organization is on more stable ground. How would you make the case to focus on engagement as part of a turn around strategy?

One of the things I’d say to that CEO is “Employee engagement equals performance. If you knew that engagement is a vital tool to turnaround the organization and avert future turnarounds, why wouldn’t you use it?” I’d share the Wharton Business School study, which shows that organizations with best in class employee engagement (i.e. top 10%) make 3.5 times more money than organizations with average employee engagement. Would she say that it’s not the right time to make more money? (Comment: Building a Magnetic Culture is loaded with data that proves the relationship between employee engagement levels and organizational performance.)

The other thing I’d ask about is employee turnover.  If she were in a turnaround and always fighting fires, I’d wonder if the organization is hemorrhaging people. Turnover costs the U.S. economy $300 billion each year. For each person who voluntarily leaves, estimate the annual salary of the departing person to find and hire his or her replacement. So, I’d ask her to look at the number of employee departures and multiply by their annual salaries to estimate her turnover cost. Then, I’d tell her that (in the U.S.), 59% of all new employees are gone within a year and 79% are gone within 18 months. So unless engagement is addressed, including how to hire for cultural fit and engage early, the cycle just repeats.

The key to this conversation is to make the business case that a focus on improving employee engagement, in particular the numbers of highly engaged employees, is a critical component to her turnaround strategy.

The Ambivalent Majority

Much of the engagement research has a focus on actively engaged or actively disengaged employees. You emphasize the importance of attending to ambivalent employees. Why? And, how might organizations do that?

Tend to the ambivalent employee population because that’s the biggest category.  There is a huge financial reward for getting the ambivalent population re-engaged. 60% of all U.S. employees approach their job with a “time to make the donuts” mentality. They have little vigor or passion in their work. They get by, but do not expend extra effort. Ambivalent employees display lower energy levels and lackluster performance.

There are three good ways to reignite ambivalent employees.  Ambivalent employees are the most easily influenced by their coworker’s engagement levels. So, match them with actively engaged, positive employees for a project. If they don’t volunteer, have them “voluntold.”  Tell them you can’t wait to see the awesome results this team will produce. Second, assign a mentor. Actively engaged employees tend to enjoy being mentors and can set a great examples for ambivalent employees to take charge of their engagement. Finally, examine the job fit for the ambivalent employee. Many are simply in the wrong jobs. People want to do meaningful work in ways that match their skills and interests. When possible, recast ambivalent employees in better-suited jobs and watch their engagement level rise.  As Jim Collins advises: “It’s not jut getting people on the right bus, but in the right seat.”

A very common error by managers is to spend too much time with the actively disengaged. The chances of turning the “water cooler malcontent” or the “workplace terrorist” around are slim. Either coach people up or coach people out. The solution for actively disengaged employees is to transition them out. They are toxic. If you want to build a highly engaged, magnetic culture, you must bring those willing to be highly engaged in and escort harmful, actively disengaged people out.   (Comment: Kevin shares an instructive story from his own experience to support this advice in his book.)

The Two-Way Street

You make the case for “shared ownership” of engagement between leaders and employees. How does a “shared ownership” model work? What’s the responsibility of leadership? Of employees?

Among the things of which I am most proud is that my firm was the first to advocate the concept of “shared ownership” for employee engagement.  Why are we setting up this model that engagement is only the responsibility of the leadership team? Shared ownership does not absolve the organization’s leadership for owning employee engagement and caring about it. In fact, in best in class companies, CEO’s and senior teams are intimately involved with improving engagement.  With that said, the predominant model is still: Do the survey, and then point your fingers at the leadership team to fix the issues. Employee engagement without the employee is the ultimate oxymoron. When the responsibility for increasing engagement is shared, outcomes are much more favorable for both the employee and the employer.

What’s the responsibility of management? Care about what employees think. Ask them.  Quantify it. Address the real issues with employees. Those companies who don’t do employee surveys  and work on opportunities with employees manage by the “squeaky wheel” effect; always responding to the loudest voice.

What’s the responsibility of employees? Be responsible for your engagement. Reflect upon what you can do to be your best in jour job and to help co workers be at their best. Discuss obstacles with your manager and suggest solutions. If you manage others, discuss engagement  in informal occasions like “one on ones” or formal ones such as performance reviews. Only 5% of managers discuss engagement with employees . Most aren’t asking questions like: “What makes you excited about your job? How can I help you do more of it? Is there anything disengaging you in your job?” (Comment: Kevin has a list of 20 questions that managers and employees, or employees on their own, can use as the basis of an engagement discussion. If you’d like a copy, email Kevin at

A Great Investment

The hour I spent with Kevin Sheridan about employee engagement was the best hour I spent at work last week. I was excited and energized just from our conversation. My only regret is that it came a few years too late for me to make a difference from within an organization. But it may not be too late for you. If you are responsible for building a dynamic culture through employee engagement (and if you work in an organization, you are), Building a Magnetic Culture is your Bible and “How To” Guide all in one resource. There is so much more that I could not include in a blog post: Engagement Drivers, Overcoming “De-Magnetizers”, Recruiting, Diversity, Engagement Trends, etc, etc. etc. If you’d like to know more about Kevin or order a discounted and personally signed copy of his New York Times and Wall Street Journal Best Seller, please visit his website: bamc_cover_small

One thought on “Interview With Best Selling Author Kevin Sheridan: Building a Magnetic Culture

  1. Pingback: What Do Hourly Employees Value? | Media Meme

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