The Power Play: Employee Engagement May Not Be Relevant at All Levels


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Expert Perspective by Grahall’s OmniMedia Editorial Board

We think that Katherine Ratkiewicz missed the mark in her article Replacing Rahm.  Ok maybe  Ratkiewicz is just trying to “engage” some HR folks into attending the Engagement & Retention Conference.  But to suggest that Rahm Emanuel is leaving the Obama administration because he is “…feeling disengaged” is just silly.   As Obama’s Chief of Staff, Mr. Emanuel is one of the most important figures in the Obama administration.  He holds significant power: granting or withholding access, helping Obama determine priorities, etc.   To draw a parallel to the business word, Emanuel is an amalgam of C-Suite Administration and Operations executives with a healthy dollop of a “gate keeping” Lead Administrative Assistant.  

We expect that the reason Emanuel took the job, and frankly the reason any political appointee takes a job, has little to do with his or her eagerness to “engage” in the business of Chief of Staff (for example), but rather for the power of that position and the promotion of the “cause”.  As Joe Davidson, Grahall Partner and one- time operative in Illinois politics, put it: “The attempt to equate employee motivation of senior political advisors to private sector professionals is nonsense. Power and influence are the coins of the realm in politics, not income and job satisfaction”.

Further, Emanuel is leaving his current position, because there is a “better” (read: more powerful and influential) job available – that of Mayor of Chi-town.  Forty-two of the last 55 years of Chicago mayoral political history have been dominated by the Daleys.  These are very big and very powerful shoes to fill and Emanuel wants to try.

But enough of politics, let’s get back to employee engagement and whether there is a lesson for HR folks to learn about how Emanuel’s decision highlights “…an underlying engagement and retention issue that needs to be addressed.”  The short answer is NO.

Like political appointees, C-Suite executives and those who serve them are there for the power.  Grahall’s Garry Rogers explains it this way.  “Succession planning in corporations is critical especially at the highest levels.   Grooming  the next C-Suite executive not only provides a pipeline of talent, but it helps to retain those individuals for whom it is the power not the money that provides the true incentive  to stay.”  The risk of losing talent at these C-Suite levels exists when succession planning gets derailed.  For example, if the CEO is unwilling to “give up the reins”, the individual who is being groomed for his power seat might decide to find a power seat elsewhere.

So can HR leaders learn anything from the Rahm Emanuel situation or form this article?  Perhaps the most important lesson is that the HR “issue du jour” (this year “employee engagement”) may be important for some employees but won’t apply at all levels of the organization.   Motivating and retaining individuals in the highest positions of a company is far less about what they do and far more about why they do it.

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