Interview: Nick Lynn on his new book 'Employee Experience Leadership'

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Nick Lynn’s new book ‘Employee Experience Leadership: build trust through employee experience and engagement’ is a fantastic read. Nick’s background as a practitioner and consultant, working with senior leadership team to implement employee insight and insight-driven changes is apparent yet this not a book designed to sell more consulting assignments (though I do hope it does that for him) but a comprehensive and information-dense guide to what is for many a new topic.

Although I had previous experience in related topics such as HR, marketing and especially UX, my first full-time Employee Experience role was in 2006. At the time there were few resources to learn-from and like Nick I had to develop them myself, working some very smart customer experience experts, and employee insight folks to adapt CX approaches to employees. What became very obvious from reading Nick’s book is how much I managed to get right, and how making this journey resulted in me developing very similar mental models to how Nick sees the world.

What I didn’t have, and something that Nick covers so well in Employee Experience Leadership, is the contextual background. Having this understanding provided me with great insight into how insight should be used to drive EX, and how EX shifts the focus from Employee Engagement’s team-based approach to one demanding more cross-business leadership.

Like any great book this one triggered a stream of thoughts and questions and fortunately Nick agreed to spend some time discussing these in more detail. I hope you enjoy our short interview & I thoroughly recommend you getting a copy of his book.


What inspired you to write this book?

 

We are at an exciting point. Employee Experience (EX) is an emerging science, which will become more important over time. Many companies are thinking about EX at the moment, so I wanted to reflect on the opportunities and also the risks. 

 

You talk about the history of employee surveys and how they transitioned from a bottom-up leadership tool to something owned by HR. How do you see EX in this?

 

Yes, employee surveys began as a leadership tool. They provided a means of direct upward consulting, so that leaders could tap into the best thinking of their workers.

Employee surveys are now a routine, like performance management. They are organised by HR, often with little enthusiasm. To be frank, in many companies, engagement surveys are poorly managed and leaders find them boring.

EX is a chance to reconnect leaders with employee insights and to shift the focus back on to critical business issues. There are new data sources and new analytical approaches, which mean you can think about the business questions you need to solve and then adopt an evidence-based approach for doing so.

 

You describe how engagement 'passed the buck' to the line management. How do you see this changing with EX and how should it be owned?

 

In some organisations engagement is seen as purely a line manager issue. For sure, having good managers is important. There are too many “accidental managers”. But line managers are only one part of the equation that drives motivation and performance.

 Based on my work, leadership is actually more important. In my book, I highlight three key aspects, in particular: providing a sense of purpose and meaning at work; focusing on individual and team learning; and personalising communications and feedback. Above all, EX leadership has to be authentic and demonstrated practically.

 EX, then, needs to be a focus for leaders. But there has to be governance and structure around EX, just as there is with Customer Experience (CX). In some of the companies I highlight in my book, that are pushing the boundaries in terms of EX, they have already established a Head of EX position, for example. Their role is to connect different stakeholders and to ensure consistency. There is also a big emphasis on integrated analytics. Because of the importance of aligning EX and CX, some companies have simply introduced a “Head of Experience” role, which crosses traditional functional boundaries.

 

I loved your discussion on trust. We see situations where either employees trust their team, but not the organization or vice versa. Do you have any generic recommendations for organizations where the data suggests this to be true?

 

Thanks, and yes, trust is at the heart of EX. I think all the projects I have been involved in fall under the heading of “building trust”. I worry that the trust challenges businesses face are becoming more difficult.

Trust in teams is really important. There’s a lot of evidence that links team-level trust to improved business performance. Many people now work in rapidly-assembled, short-term, global and virtual teams, which increasingly depend on a notion of “swift trust”.

However, I think it can be a dangerous situation, from an organisational point of view, when you have strong team-level trust, but low trust in leadership. Trust and confidence in leadership matters. Without it, you get silos, poor collaboration and often very political work cultures.

 In this situation, you also need to look closely at the role of team leaders. How are they dealing with changes and restructuring? How are they communicating your strategy and priorities? Are they doing what you really need them to be doing?


How do you recommend a large organization, probably with an established engagement survey transition to an EX approach? What parts of the old approach should be kept?

 

There are potential risks from using new sources of EX data and new analytics. If you’re not open about why and how you are doing things, you can damage trust, rather than strengthen it.

 This is one reason why many companies have kept an anonymous employee survey as a key part of their listening strategy. Notably, this is true even in firms like Facebook and Google – companies that work with lots of personal data.

 Many companies have introduced pulse surveys and life-cycle surveys in addition to traditional surveys, and these can take a variety of forms. Moving beyond surveys, companies are also looking at Metadata, for example to help individuals improve their productivity. The big future trend is social media analytics, which is effectively taking a performance-marketing approach to employee engagement.

 In terms of introducing new EX approaches, the best advice is to take small steps and to think of making lots of small changes, which can have a big impact overall.

 This means zooming in on key cohorts, such as your mission-critical talent or your best performers or at the employee-customer interface. It also means focusing on the most important business problems and those processes (like performance management) that touch multiple key moments for employees.

 For this reason, I believe design thinking is a useful lens on EX. Simply put, it relies on building empathy to understand the problem you’re trying to solve and then prototyping and iterating in order to improve your approach as you go along.


You discuss new measurements, more qualitative and maybe delivered by bots. To how do you recommend organizations deal with the privacy implications, especially as text is often more identifiable than averages.


 Yes, I believe we’re going through a qualitative revolution in data analytics, with exciting new approaches for making sense of unstructured data, including chat, images and video.

 This has obviously taken off in the customer experience field. Companies are exploring how they can do something similar with internal data. Social platforms like Workplace, Slack and MS Teams potentially provide a wealth of information for EX analytics, including using bots to personalise data collection.

 The situation is different for internal feedback, though. As a customer, based on my input, I am quite happy for Amazon to suggest books for me to read. As an employee, however, the balance of benefits is less clear. Potentially, there is a cost to individual feedback. This is why most EX data still needs to be anonymised and reported for groups.

What is new is that the groups you analyse data for are likely to be “non-traditional”. In other words, rather than groupings like departments and teams, it is more useful to identity critical talent segments and cohorts.

 Similarly, the analysis should focus on refining your understanding of employee journeys, touchpoints and processes, and on producing in-depth employee personas, rather than an engagement or sentiment score.

 

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