“Changing the Rules of Engagement?”
The following is a summary of a discussion with Annemie Ress, Global Head of People Innovation for eBay Marketplaces, on the subject of their approach to engagement.
Annemie joined eBay in 2004 as HR Director for the UK business. During her time at eBay, Annemie also led Skype HR globally and the eBay and PayPal HR team in Europe. Her earlier career was spent as VP HR for the International Petroleum Exchange prior to which she worked for Pepsico in South Africa and the UK and the Swiss Institute for Comparative Law as staff legal adviser in Switzerland.
Annemie is a law graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand and has postgraduate degrees in Law and German.
Fortunately, she agreed to speak to me in English.
Annemie’s move to her current role was enabled by eBay’s very open approach to career management. She readily acknowledged this is not a facility available everywhere!
She perceived that in looking at the outputs of a series of engagement surveys, the same themes re-emerged – work life balance (WLB), career development, trust in leaders and decision making. She wondered why the “needle felt so difficult to move” and determined to explore.
Fundamentally, her self generated proposition was to establish a better understanding of the challenges presented by a changing workforce demographic and culture and the response needed to maximise motivation, identification and engagement.
I asked Annemie if she thought this was due to a further expression of the Generation Y syndrome. She was clear that it was more fundamental than that. Her argument is that the key drivers to motivation have changed and interestingly span generations. She also had some interesting observations on gender differences, but more on that later.
From her analysis, Annemie closed on three distinct elements:
1. People want to be more self directed and to enjoy more autonomy. They will accept project control but strive to be consulted and have a significant feeling of ownership.
2. People love “mastery”, excellence in what they do. It’s not necessarily about recognition but about “feeling valued on the inside”. Impact is more important than recognition.
3. People want to work on something “more noble”, with meaning, where there is an increased sustainability and community factor.
Now, a word of caution that Annemie injected. The data from which the above insights were distilled points to the following. The same themes are reflected in both genders and also at senior and more junior levels. This presents something of a potential conundrum as people’s desire for self management, mastery and meaning requires a very unique approach to leadership and management, which is much more individualistic and differentiated.
In other words, it connotes the requirement for a different management style; one which has less one size fits all, to one which views feedback not as a generality but as something really specific to A, B or C. More fundamentally, she was explicit in drawing the conclusion that command and control and carrot and stick approaches need to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
I did mischievously enquire whether this was just an extension of the “me” fixation which manifests itself in shows such as “Britain’s got (no) Talent “and “X Factor” but Annemie is less cynical than I. She perceived that the lessons are around intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and the increasing importance of intrinsic over extrinsic motivational factors such as reward and environment.
An edge to her work has been provided by the recognition that, even in these austere times, a war for talent pervades with obvious vulnerabilities when the workforce is very mobile and high achieving. So there’s a pragmatic commercial consideration coupled with a desire to “do the right thing”.
In the initial stages of her work, Annemie adopted what she characterised as a living laboratory approach with an underpinning programme based on identifying excellence across the globe and creating an environment where examples of that excellence could be shared.
As a corollary, an open access philosophy was the order of the day which allowed for published programmes to be “tweaked” according to local conditions. This also encouraged a demand pull to participate and circulate. Perhaps unsurprisingly in our geographically diverse but increasingly homogeneous universe, over the last two years a greater opportunity for consistency has been detected and an associated readiness to adopt.
As an example of a success story, Annemie described for me a diversity intervention. Perceiving a desire from the published data and research into needs, a global programme for women was established with the aim of creating a community of female leaders who would be connected, inspired and who could uprate their influence. A combination of in-person events and virtual sessions with speakers on topics identified as important to the group was set in motion and results have been encouraging.
With eBay’s increasing commerce focus and the recognition that women make most purchasing decisions, this creation of a more confident and empowered female leadership cadre coalescing with the market had a strong commercial appeal.
We moved on to looking at engagement as a means to increase contribution. One of the aspects that eBay has been keen to explore is unlocking the capacity for involvement and commercial delivery. I would suggest that the approach adopted has finely balanced the aspiration to promote WLB whilst enhancing performance. Examples of activities in different parts of the business globally include: meetings which last no longer than 45 minutes, no meetings occur without agendas, there are no e-mails over the weekend and none after 3.30pm on a Friday.
This focus on well being has even driven a change in nutritional offerings available, so no pies for me!
Annemie went on to describe the philosophy behind creating the “living laboratory” identified earlier. For example, in a highly analytical and innovative organisation, breakthrough thinking is a critical skill. Experiments have been instigated in leading managers away from a reliance on left brain thinking - traditionally associated with analytics - to right brain development, which is the incubator for ideas.
To accelerate this aspect, 40 people have been trained in Europe as Innovation Champions. They co-ordinate a process in which sessions are convened and everybody in the meeting is taken on the breakthrough thinking journey. In this way, the traditional methods of brainstorming, which often reflect the loudest and most vociferous shaping the agenda is democratised. The outputs are then submitted to the leadership team, so hierarchy persists but with a greater enfranchisement - or that’s the theory.
One of the questions raised from our group asked about the degree to which locally generated or company wide initiatives set the scene. Annemie responded that generally, activities mirror the business model with a combination of top down or bottom up. To be effective demands senior sponsorship but with a “selective” intrusion so as not to weaken the authenticity that people need to feel. Ultimate ownership is very clearly defined. The CEO has set a global engagement target which allocates accountability in which HR is a participant, but not the custodian.
Another query referred to e-Bay’s virtual hi-tech footprint and whether that determined methodology and preferences on engagement practice. The killer fact from Annemie was the revelation that when surveyed, a very small number of respondents wanted to access the process on-line. Face to face, whether in various community sizes or in pairs was far and away the favourite. A nice reminder that whatever the technology, personal interaction is king.
I’ve read recently a couple of articles which highlight story telling as a builder of culture and it was intriguing to see this is reflected in e-Bay’s engagement strategy. Annemie commented on the need to build the story and share it.
We touched on whether bad news diminishes the credibility of the organisational commitment to engagement. Annemie argued it doesn’t have to. She alluded to a regionalisation episode four years ago which was accompanied by significant change to roles. Key to maintaining belief was “communicating seriously and authentically”. Every employee had a face to face meeting with a manager within 48 hours of the announcement and this was aligned to a programme of briefings with a feedback component.
The result was an accretion of trust in the engagement journey fostered through transparency.
eBay might be regarded as a resource rich environment which can afford the expenditure on initiatives which would be more taxing elsewhere. Annemie understood that reaction but was at pains to point to the fact that a guiding principle has been to find things that worked which were internally developed.
To that extent you are as rich or as poor as your colleague community dictates.