How product leaders can drive purpose and belonging
This episode is sponsored by PDMA, the Product Development and Management Association. PDMA is a global community of professional members whose skills, expertise, and experience power the most recognized and respected innovative companies in the world. PDMA is the longest-running professional association for product managers, leaders, and innovators, having started in 1976. I have enjoyed being a member of PDMA for more than a decade, finding their resources and network very valuable. Learn more about them at PDMA.org.
PDMA invited me to their conference, which was in Orlando, Florida, to interview some of their speakers. This speaker gave a keynote on “Reimagining Engagement in Product Development and Management: A Masterclass on the Employee Experience in the Future of Work.” Employee engagement remains very low, and everyone wants more of it. What seems to be missing from the conversation is an understanding of the science behind engagement. I want to learn how engagement is so connected to creativity and innovation, and I bet you do to.
Dr. Brad Shuck is an internationally recognized and sought-after thought-leader in the areas of employee engagement, leadership, and organizational culture. He is the author of Employee Engagement: A Research Overview (Routledge, 2020). He routinely works with leaders throughout the public and private sectors, and his insights are widely applied in the world’s largest Fortune 500 and Fortune 50 companies, as well as small- and medium-sized organizations seeking to grow and empower employees at all levels.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[3:19] What is employee engagement?
We define engagement as maintenance, intensity, and direction of effort given to something. Employee engagement is what one gives at work, in a job or to a project. We can apply those ideas to spaces like creativity, innovation, and development and look at engagement from a variety of perspectives.
Maintenance is the ability to maintain putting energy into something. How willing am I to stick this out?
Intensity is how much one is willing to give. Am I willing to do things differently to be part of this? When people are really engaged in something their level of energy is intense.
Directionality separates employee engagement from other job attitudes like commitment or satisfaction, which have a sense of status quo. Engagement has a driving force that pulls us forward.
Belief is a really powerful force in engagement. Belief has an emotional connection. Our beliefs drive our behaviors. When we believe in a product or an innovation, when we’re sold out to an idea, engagement happens naturally because there’s some sense of belief and purpose in what we’re doing.
[9:13] You take an evidence-based approach to improving employee engagement. What does that mean?
We use science to drive decision-making. My job as a research faculty member at the University of Louisville is to do primary research, running field surveys ad talking to people. We do mixed methods research—blending qualitative and quantitative research. From that we derive insights that help us understand what steps leaders should be taking today. Using an evidence-based strategy helps leaders make evidence-based decisions.
[12:04] What can product leaders do to improve employee engagement?
Build a community around you. Be intentional. Culture and engagement don’t happen by accident. There’s a narrative you can use to drive engagement.
There are two areas of currency right now around culture and engagement: purpose and belonging. Having a direct line of sight to work that is meaningful and knowing how my work impacts the end product are important.
Belonging has everything to do with how I see myself here. Do I fit here? Is this a place I can be myself? Am I part of the team? There are messages we get that build over time and tell us whether we really belong here or not. Is this a place I can raise my hands in meetings and give my best ideas? Or maybe I’ll just keep those to myself. As a leader, you’ll see disengagement. Sometimes it looks like physically pushing back from the table in a meeting or someone who is normally vocal staying quiet. Investigate those things. Driving that sense of purpose and belonging is absolutely critical to driving engagement.
[15:31] What suggestions do you have to drive belonging?
I love the idea of pizza parties, but it’s not the pizza; it is the intentionality behind it. We’re gathering together to just get to know one another. We just happen to be having pizza. Helping people know they belong is often rooted in things that are easy to do but easy to not do. It’s a simple recognition that says, “Hey, I see you and I value you.” That can come in the form of an email: “You did a really great job in this meeting. Thanks for speaking up.”
Somebody spoke words of encouragement to me today at the PDMA conference. They didn’t have to take their time to do that. That’s a gift for me. Now I’m thinking, “Maybe I need to become a PDMA member. Maybe this is a place that I could belong.”
We need to almost overcommunicate that sense of belonging to new employees. Maybe they get a box of swag from us, which is about helping them know we’ve anticipated their arrival and there’s an expectation for them to be part of something. Those kinds of things not only build engagement but also build a sense of loyalty and pride in the team. People say things like, “I’m proud to work here.”
[19:29] Product VPs and other leaders may feel lonely, like they don’t have anyone they can talk to who understands their work and problems. How can we help with loneliness?
Community is really important here. I was talking to the senior vice president of a very large tech company about helping with activities for an offsite retreat. I started to go through a list of activities, and then I mentioned that leadership can sometimes be really lonely. I could see her facial expression completely change, and she said, “We’ve got to talk about this. Can you talk about loneliness to my team?”
And that’s what we did. What was scheduled as a 90-minute session turned into a four-hour listening session, asking, “How are you? Are things okay? What are you doing to care for yourself? How are you pouring into your bucket, because you’re pouring a lot into each other.”
We ended the conversation saying, “This team here has to know, each individual member has to know they can come to anybody on this team and you’ll have their back, that there’s a sense of community, that this team is aligned. If you don’t have that, you’re working on islands. That sounds really for good for a week. The longer that goes on the more isolated we feel.”
I think right now there are a lot of leaders and employees who are lonely. This is why purpose and belonging are such critical factors in driving culture and engagement.
Make sure you’re being inclusive in group events. Make sure you invite people who need to know they belong. Many times I assume someone knows they are invited, but it’s really important to invite people. Tell them, “We’re going to do X. Do you want to come with us?” even if you think they know they’re welcome. It’s okay if somebody says no. It only matters that you extend the invitation.
[25:00] What else should we know about improving employee engagement?
Engagement is a long game. Engagement and culture, which is how it feels to work somewhere, develop over time.
Use data to help drive decision-making. Make sure those data are valid and reliable, i.e., you can trust the data.
Action Guide: Put the information Brad shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.