Five Strategies to Becoming the Employer You Want to Be

“What kind of employer do you want to be?”

There may be no more important question when positioning an organization for future success. Buteau and Gopal pose the question explicitly in Employee Empowerment: The Key to Foundation Staff Satisfaction, and their findings challenge us to focus on it while building and managing our organizations.

In the same way that we create a value proposition for those we serve, we also create a value proposition for each employee we bring into our organizations. The issues highlighted by Buteau and Gopal—of empowerment, communication, and alignment—contribute to a value proposition between employer and employee that lays a foundation for mutual satisfaction, productivity, and success. As the authors note, “satisfaction matters” to performance, to external constituency experience, and, collectively, to organizational impact—the ultimate goal.

So what actions improve and strengthen our employment value proposition? As sector leaders, we need to ensure that talent and employment issues are top of mind and dialogue as we set direction, create strategy, and engage with grantees. The criticality of our workforce in achieving our goals should guide our actions and conversation around talent and culture.

Foundations can impact this externally, by creating dialogue with grantees around talent and employment issues, prioritizing the creation of an enriching employment experience, and supporting organizational efforts around performance and development.

Organizationally, a significant shift in mindset needs to occur regarding our role as employers. This means assessing ourselves and understanding where we are on the issues raised by Buteau and Gopal: empowerment and communications, among others. It also means investment in our employment value proposition. As pointed out in the paper, this need not be an expensive financial investment, rather a “substantial commitment and investment of personal energy on the part of … leaders.”

Specifically, here are five achievable strategies that organization leaders can undertake to begin moving their organization down the path to strong employment experience, empowerment, alignment—and ultimately higher productivity and impact.

Know the Cycle. Consider that staff experience starts with the attraction and selection process, and continues with all other aspects of the employment lifecycle:

  • Engagement – exciting employees about our work and equipping them to accomplish their goals
  • Development – enriching, educating, and developing employees—for the work they do now, their future goals, and their career aspirations
  • Motivation – creating the drive for high performance, enthusiasm, innovation, creativity, and problem-solving in all we do
  • Rewards – recognizing achievement, effort, and contribution—financially and otherwise

For each phase, leaders should think about the overall employee experience and how the organization creates empowerment, alignment, and furthers its value proposition. In other words, leaders need to continuously ask – what kind of employer do we want to be?

Create the Culture. Organizational culture is how the organization does what it does and accomplishes its work and mission. It’s the fabric and texture of organizational life, and therefore a tremendous part of anyone’s experience in or with the organization. Culture determines what each phase of the employment cycle looks like and is, in turn, shaped by the activities within the cycle.

To achieve empowerment and alignment, the culture of the organization must be able to sustain autonomy, be clear about decision-making, encourage transparency, and emphasize high performance. All aspects of an employment experience must be part of, and supported by, the organizational culture.

Communicate Artfully. Buteau and Gopal point out that clear communication of direction was found to be a key part of staff feeling empowered. Organization leaders need to have a plan and approach for internal communications; how various organizational issues will be communicated, what communication channel works best for each situation, and what exactly will be conveyed.

Communication—like art—is created by both positive and negative space; in essence, what is not said is as important as what is said. Therefore leaders should consider carefully what message and media are best to inform, energize, and motivate staff.

Manage Performance Meaningfully. Survey responses indicated that “staff members are more likely to feel empowered when they believe that their performance review fairly evaluates … and helps them improve.” So how can we make what feels like a chore into a meaningful organizational tool?

First, focus on the conversation. Performance conversations should be straightforward and provide actionable, specific feedback. Conversations should be uninterrupted, filled with illustrative examples, and, ideally, should be part of an ongoing dialogue consisting of at least two to four discussions per year—not one.

Second, the feedback given during any performance conversation should be specific; “great job” is good to hear, but not helpful. Feedback should consist of an observation of a particular action, the effect of that action, and either an alternative behavior or specific praise.

Finally, performance should not be measured against a job description, detailed goals should be set annually, and assessment should be based on the extent to which those goals were accomplished and how they were accomplished (i.e., the day-to-day behaviors exhibited by the individual).

Show Your Stuff. The final strategy is possibly the most simple and subtle. We need to show staff that leaders and the organization as a whole are dedicated to talent issues and to the staff. Leaders need to convey that talent is a filter for decision-making, that performance matters, that leadership cares about staff as individuals, that the organization believes in empowerment, and that talent matters.

Sometimes in doing the work, we don’t effectively communicate how much thought and care goes into that work. Knowing the organization is focused on talent is key to staff understanding it as a recognized organizational priority.

In leading philanthropic organizations, we can change the lives of those we serve, shape the world, and influence policy. By using those same talents to build and sustain a strong employment value proposition, we enhance our abilities to impact the future. Being focused and purposeful around talent issues, we emerge as strong employers, as well as critical change agents in the world.

After all—aren’t those the kinds of employers we want to be?


Pratichi Shah is President and CEO of Flourish Talent Management Solutions and formerly the Chief Talent Officer for Independent Sector.

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