The Simple Engagement Tool You Can’t Ignore!


An overall look at employee engagement:

A new 2016 Gallup Report, “State of Local and State Government Workers’ Engagement” shows current employee engagement and disengagement figures in 43 states. The findings illustrate the need for these governments to find strategies to help curb disengagement.

Engagement is one of the key areas that local and state government leaders can invest in and according to Gallup can’t afford not to. They found that employee disengagement costs the U.S. economy roughly half a trillion dollars a year.

Although these numbers are overwhelming on one level, let us take a look at one organization that I can personally attest to in my previous work. As a manager in local government, my personal goal was the importance of dispelling the notion that public employees are less productive. Striving to change the way people view service delivery in the public sector.  One of the most effective ways that I found to accomplish this was by working to find the best in people by accentuating their unique qualities. 

Engagement in government is critical

Engagement in government is critical

It’s no secret that managing in the public sector is different from managing in the world of business.  When determining the best approach to improve staff engagement and motivation, the culture in the organization is a critical element in how improvements are made.  This is especially important in the public sector environment.  State, county and local government organizations have the special responsibilities of providing unique services to their respective communities. Governmental entities tend to have a monopoly on the services they provide, such as, police, fire and transportation, which often negates the competitive element and serves as a disincentive to innovate and to be creative. According to Gallup’s report 29% of full-time state and local government employees are engaged at work and this includes police, firefighters, teachers and city and state officials, but 71% of all employees are not in these kinds of jobs. 

When compared to the private sector, public sector entities often lack the kinds of incentives and opportunities that would allow for potential monetary impetus to motivate employees, as well as, other potential benefits.  Many join the private sector with the expectation of earning significant amounts of money while many enter public service to serve others – managing the two are quite different.  It is certainly true that many public sector employees are driven by the desire to serve their communities or that they are inspired by a yearning to help others.

This begs the question as to how public employees stay engaged and stay motivated.  Realizing that monetary incentives are not always the answer, they can be somewhat limited in the public arena.  With these financial constraints – pay raises, stock options, bonuses and other perks, government managers have fewer options to motivate and keep employees engaged.  Faced with this reality, government managers need to focus on agency missions and impact while finding other nonfinancial means to reward employees.  Managers must motivate staff by involving them in the decision making process and helping them to see and appreciate their individual contributions within the organization.

Great management always begins with understanding the unique characteristics of the workforce, figuring out what makes employees tick and creating an environment in which they can and want to do their best work.  Despite prevailing negative attitudes about government workers – that they are overpaid and underworked - many public sector employees find their careers rewarding.  A Harvard Business Review study reported that public sector employees are more motivated by job content, self-development, recognition, autonomy, interesting work, and the chance to learn new things.  Research has shown that public servants find meaning in their work by making a positive difference in the lives of the citizens that they serve.

That being said, government tends to have fewer ways to measure progress and success.  Since there are no profits to count and measuring spending does not necessarily equal success, progress is calibrated by using various performance measures. While, at times, in the public sector it is hard to measure achievement, seeing that progress is made is crucial to operational efficiency.  There are few things that are more engaging than making important progress towards stated goals and objectives.  I would argue that, in the public sector, it is the most important thing.

In many cases, in the public sector, there is an effort to make employees well rounded to give them the ability to work in multiple areas.  These employees are also subjected to managers that focus on fixing weaknesses as opposed to developing their strengths.  This is self-evident in the performance appraisal process were employees are told that in order to advance their career that they must broaden their skill set.  Many appraisals include words of congratulation for a year of excellent performance, but later, the conversation changes to how to improve in areas where the employee struggles. 

A case for making a change:

Focusing on Strengths equals more engagement. 

Focusing on Strengths equals more engagement. 

In the work that I do now, I help people find their strengths.  I have learned that individuals, teams and organizations function better when each person is working in their strength zones while avoiding areas of weakness.  Doing this also plays a major role in the success or failure of an individual, team or organization.  According to a previous Gallup report, employees who receive strengths feedback have turnover rates that are 14.9% less than employees that receive no feedback or negative feedback.  I believe that it is a leader’s responsibility to facilitate a strengths based approach to management.  Using this approach, people are more fulfilled, confident, productive, focused and engaged.  The most effective managers invest in their employees’ strengths.

When managers focus on strengths:

  1. They increase awareness of the collective and individual strengths of members of their staff
  2. They increase the application of strengths and track performance through this application
  3. They create partnerships that allow for gaps in strengths by paring staff with varying talents

In order to be effective in the public sector teams need to be highly collaborative and have a number of complementary partnerships.  Having effective collaborative teams is imperative to ensuring that these organizations are successful.

Strengths-based teams:

  1. Are able to collaborate more effectively while achieving greater performance
  2. Have clear and compelling goals and outcomes and are more productive, creative and adaptive

  3. Create sustained growth and success by continuously investing in each other’s strengths

Using a strengths-based approach in the public sector is the best solution because, as mentioned, the reasons that people work in public service can be quite different than the reasons they work in private industry.  In Simon Sinek’s book, “Start with Why”, Sinek asserts that understanding the purpose of what you do (“the why”) is key to achieving excellence in any organization.  He points out that making money is a result and is not “the why”.   The public sector can often have a hard time identifying its “why” or how to sustain its purpose.  Public servants need to be clear as to who they serve, why they do what they do and why people should care.  This means that public servants need to clearly understand that what they bring to the organization matters and that they are empowered to make appropriate decisions.  They need to be emotionally and psychologically engaged at work to be truly successful and effective.

A cost effective, viable solution:

In government, there is not much room for error.  The things that you do are often viewed through the lenses of an inquiring public that wants to know how their hard earned tax dollars are being spent.  Leaders who run these programs must use whatever is at their disposal to be successful.  Then I pose the question, what if they could leverage more of who they already are in order to accomplish their missions?  In a recent research study, the Gallup organization found that employees and leaders were 6 times more likely to be engaged and productive by understanding their strengths, applying their strengths and being provided opportunities to practice their strengths.  Also, teams that are actively engaged in intentional strengths based experiences see overall performance improve up to 30% (Wagner & Harter, 2006).

In today’s demanding workplace, people not only need to work hard but they need to bring creativity and insight into their efforts. (Peter Drucker says that is what a knowledge economy is all about).  Creativity and insight requires hearts and minds commitment.  Therefore, innovative solutions to problems calls for people to be fully engaged and to care about their purpose.  This requires a spur beyond the merely monetary.

Using a Strength based approach is making the potential a reality.

Using a Strength based approach is making the potential a reality.

Real engagement, doesn’t flow from trying to convince yourself that what you are doing will change the world for the better.  True empowerment must be sought in how the scope of your work allows you to reach your highest potential.  Meaning in work isn’t vested in the product or outcome, but rather in how the daily experience of doing your work helps you to develop as a human being.  By exercising autonomy and allowing people to work in their strengths, is the key to topnotch engagement and employee motivation.  Having the confidence that is garnered by working in your strengths is paramount to successful execution.  Honing and developing what is best in employees is the right formula for sustained excellence.  In as much as people need to see value in what they do, they also need to see themselves as better people for having done the work that they do.  Incorporating a strengths based approach into employee development programs in the public sector gets at the heart of creating engaged teams and workers that are committed to organizational excellence and achieving progress.

Larry Hammond, Sr. – Certified StrengthsFinder Coach and Principal with V1H Consulting.

Find out more about strengths based workshops and training in our services area.



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Uncovering your Strengths…A Journey of Discovery

Ivanhoe Donaldson – “Hard but Fair”- Finding My Strengths through a Mentor


In my varying leadership roles over the years, I have worked to develop staff, managers and professionals to perform their best in their respective roles.  I have employed many techniques to extract the highest performance achievable in the administration of projects and programs.   Now, as a strengths consultant, I engage my clients in helping leaders to breakthrough performance barriers that have been holding them back from achieving optimal success.

While on my journey exploring the virtues of using strengths to bring out the best in yourself and others, I became drawn to how other people have helped me over the years to become the person that I am today.  Just recently, I heard that one of my mentors had passed away.  His name was Ivanhoe Donaldson, a civil rights activist and an astute political tactician who became a confidant of Marion Barry, the former Mayor of Washington, D.C.  In his early years, Ivanhoe assisted in voter-registration in the South where he became a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  He worked with SNCC for a number of years as director of their New York office where he had an enduring association with Marion Barry who was the national chairman for SNCC.  He went on to manage Barry’s successful campaigns for the D.C. City Council and then later his upset victory to become mayor of the District of Columbia.  During Barry’s term as mayor, Ivanhoe was described as a combative but effective troubleshooter for the mayor where he served as Director of the Department of Employment Services and Deputy Mayor for Economic Development.

It was at the Department of Employment Services where I first met Ivanhoe.  I was just out of college and had begun my public service career with the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program.  The summer youth program was the mayor’s signature project.  He had run his campaign on promising all young people in the city between the ages of 14 and 21 a summer job if they wanted to work.  This, to say the least, was a daunting task.  Registering, hiring, placing and paying over 30,000 youth for summer jobs proved to be too much for the system and the first year of this ambitious endeavor was dubbed a failure.  Kids got lost in the system, job placements were inadequate and, worst of all, many of the young people didn’t get paid on time or at all.  The mayor took full responsibility for the flop and insisted that the breakdown was due to his overzealous plan that overloaded the system.  While, not backing down on his promise to give all youth the opportunity to work, the mayor promised to dedicate the proper resources and leadership needed to fix the problems.  To do this, the mayor hired a new staff and called in Ivanhoe to oversee the program who was charged with ensuring its success.

I remember sitting in a room with newly hired staff waiting to meet the new director.  While I had heard of him, I had never seen of met him before.  When he came into the room, I remember him being much smaller than I had imagined.  He was very animated and moved around a lot.  He seemed a little nervous.  He was introduced to the team, an eclectic group of movers and shakers, who were fired up to get started.   Being from Bronx, Ivanhoe brought is distinctive New York accent to his persona.  He challenged the group to do their best and to be their best while noting the challenges that were before us.  He said that we needed to keep up with him and not to fall behind.  He said that, “I’m hard but I’m fair”.  This phrase stuck with me because I wasn’t quite sure what that meant.

After the meeting, the team members began to talk about our new boss and those that knew him began to add flavor to the hard but fair representation – “he’s kind of crazy you know” – “I’ve seen him make grown men cry” – “he will chop you off at the knees and won’t think anything of it”.  Well, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect but I knew it would be an interesting ride.

The summer youth team had a standing meeting with Ivanhoe at 5:30 every day.  We would often wait in his conference room sometimes for up to an hour for him to arrive.  His mood would change depending on how his day had been going.  At these meetings, we had to give updated on the status of program operations.  In one of our first meetings, when he walked in he noticed that on of the participants had their chair pushed back a little too far and his head was touching one of the paintings on the wall.  Ivanhoe paused and glared over at the individual and in a stern tone said, “who in the hell do you think that you are?”  He went on to explain that the picture belonged to the tax payers of the city and that the staffer was defacing their property.  The meetings would often go on for several hours into the night including tense encounters especially when either information or substance from staff was deficient.  Ivanhoe did run a tight ship.  I admired his commitment and his tenacious spirit.  And yes, I did actually see him make a grown man cry in a meeting.  But all in all, he believed in us.  He believed that we could actually pull this off and make the program successful.

One evening, I was bringing some information to his office suite.  As I was about to leave, Ivanhoe called me into his office and told me to sit down.  He asked me how things were going and wanted to know what I thought we should do.  He told me that he saw me as up and coming and that he expected much me.  During this encounter he repeated to me that he “was hard but fair” and told me to never be afraid of that.  He seemed to know how others perceived him.

As time passed, tensions grew as the onset of summer was imminent.   Deadlines were nearing and in all big projects, some aspects program were going awry.  In one specific incident, in the Spring, Ivanhoe became dissatisfied with the contractor that was working on the payroll process for the youth.  In a surprising move, he abruptly fired the contractor and said that we would process the payroll in-house.  Needless to say, this was going to be a most daunting task.  Knowing that I had an affinity for computers and that I had an integral knowledge of the overall operations of the program, Ivanhoe directed me to work with the IT staff to design the payroll process.

Over the next 2 months, staff worked 24/7 to accomplish the task at hand.  It was during a very contentious status meeting were it looked like that we were not going to meet our deadline.  Of course this would have been a total disaster and was unacceptable.  Failure was not an option.  To my surprise, Ivanhoe pulled me aside after the meeting where he actually grabbed me by my shirt collar, held me against the wall and said “Larry, you can do this – I need you to make these IT people see this through.  Let me know what you need.  I am depending on you.”  Well, I was shocked.  First of all, I was probably the least senior member in the room that day and I wasn’t sure what I could do the influence the others on the team.

This experience challenged me to find my strengths.  Now that I have taken the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment I know what my strengths themes are today.  Upon reflection, I can see how I relied on these combination of talents to navigate this test.  I can see that early in my career these talents were manifested in my actions.  My top 5 strengths are: Maximizer, Arranger, Strategic, Analytical and Responsibility.  In this situation, I used each of my strengths to help the team make the summer program a success.  With many moving parts, I grew my talents and pushed my abilities in the realms of arranger and strategic.  I sharpened my skills in the ranges of maximizer and analytical.  And, I became grounded in scope of responsibility as I realized the magnitude of what we were trying to accomplish.

Yes, I grew considerably that year.  I was pushed by a mentor that I didn’t even know that I needed.  Ivanhoe Donaldson saw something in me that I didn’t know that I had – he saw my strengths before I saw my own.  I am eternally grateful to my mentor for spurring my growth and seeding my accomplishments.  But I am most thankful to him for helping me to find my strengths – It was “hard but fair”. 

If you want to reach your personal and leadership potential, then it requires maximizing your strengths.  This only happens if you develop and focus on the areas you are most talented and strong. Take a step back and assess your own strengths.  Understanding what influences you and how you make decisions.  It takes being disciplined and being intentional if you want to become the best in your strengths.  People often miss this opportunity because they never discovered their strengths or they spend more time focusing on and sharpening their weaknesses – they try to be well rounded and master many things and they lose sight of their passions and their dreams.  They fear risk and stay in their comfort zone while never moving past their successes or failures.  If you desire to begin maximizing your strengths and celebrating your gifts and talents, then begin by focusing on what you do well, your strengths and contributions.

Building on and developing strengths is a lifelong process.  It takes focus and tenacity to “Discover, Declare and Develop” your strengths, which is a tenant of the StrengthsFinder® movement.  Employing a strengths-based approach to fully engaging your strengths is the best way to create high performing teams and organizations of excellence.        Larry Hammond, Principal –V1H Consulting

To learn more about Larry Hammond, V1H Consulting or how to build on your or your team’s strengths visit us at:

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