Your Engagement Strategy Is Broken: Here’s How You Fix Itvideo-your-engagement-strategy-is-broken

Shortly before his death, Steve Jobs shared his approach to engagement and performance with a graduating class at Stanford.

He said…”every day, for the last 30 years, I’ve looked myself in the mirror and asked: if today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I have to do today?”

He went on to say that, whenever the answer was NO for too many days in a row, he knew he had to make a change.

Take a second and think about how you’d have answered Jobs’ question this morning…

In other words, “If today were the last day of your life, would you want to do what you had to do today?”

Steve Jobs - The Engagement Question

My answer is “yes” – and my hope is that yours is too.

But, sadly, the probability that both you and I say “yes” is not very high.

But, sadly, the probability that both you and I say “yes” is not very high.

You see, Jobs’ morning question is a perfect proxy for employee engagement…and the latest engagement data doesn’t give me much confidence.

According to Gallup, just 13% worldwide are engaged; just 13% want to do, what they have to do…

Gallup's most recent engagement survey data

And the crazy thing: these numbers have barely changed in 15 years!


How can this be?!?!

We’ve known about the problem; we prioritized the problem; we’ve thrown money at the problem!!

We’ve got offices with ping pong tables and nap pods, 401(k) matching and wellness programs…

Google's approach to engagement includes gondolas

How can it be that engagement is “FLAT”???

How can it be that we are not all jumping out of bed in the morning – energized and excited to do the work that we have to do?

The fact of the matter is this: our engagement strategy is broken. Fatally flawed.

Your engagement strategy is broken

All of our great ideas and ambitions are not creating the kind of lasting change we both want and need…

The good news: I’ve recently discovered where and how we went wrong and what we need to do to fix it.

Before I share that, let’s talk about why it matters.


First, it matters to you, as a business leader, because this is how you “win.”

Do you want to spend less time working “in” the business and more time working “on” the business?

Do you want to attract and retain men and women who bring energy, creativity and accountability to their work?

Do you want your business to grow and thrive?

Of course you do.

Then solve this problem.

Nothing impacts organizational performance more than a highly engaged workforce.

Engagement is performance

Second, this matters because an engaged world, is a better world.

When more men and women wake up, every day, energized and excited about the work they do and the life they live, we have happier moms and dads, stronger families and healthier communities.

Solve this problem because it matters to you, and it matters to us.

An engaged world is a better world

Let’s talk about how we do it…


First, stop treating people like puppets.

We send out surveys searching for the strings we can pull to get people to work harder and care more.

We ask questions like: “Do you know what you should do to help the company meet its goals and objectives?” to measure engagement in the moment. But is simply knowing what’s expected of you, likely to make you want to do it more?

Not necessarily…

You can't solve engagement by treating people like puppets

We must change the narrative. As my friend and mentor, Marshall Goldsmith, says: “stop asking ‘are you engaged?’ and start asking ‘did you do your best to be engaged?’”

We must shift responsibility from the center to the front line, because engagement begins and ends, succeeds or fails, with the individual.

A better approach to engagement: get everyone to pull their own weight

To paraphrase JFK, stop treating people like customers, “what can I do for you?” and start treating them like partners, “what we do together…to create lasting engagement?”

Hey, I like free lunches and flex-time as much as anyone, but let’s be clear: these and other “perks” address “hygiene factors” — things that make people more comfortable at work, not more engaged.

They make people less likely to leave, not more likely to stay and bring their best self to work each day.

My “ah-hah!” moment, the moment when I realized why and how we were getting engagement wrong, occurred at talk I gave to the alumni of Georgetown University.

My epiphany on engagement

At the start of the session on professional development I asked a seemingly simple question: Do you have a plan?

In other words, do you know where you are, personally and professionally, where you want to go, and how you’re going to get there?

Now, these are Georgetown grads – super smart, driven and have access to resources that 99% of the world would kill for.

I thought this question was rhetorical…an obvious “yes.”

I was SHOCKED by the response …

Of the 200+ people in the room, only 15% said “yes.”

15%!! I couldn’t believe it…

The current engagement data makes me sad...

At first it made me sad…and then it made me curious.

So I started asking this question (“do you have a plan?”) all the time; at companies and colleges.

And, as it turns out, the numbers were consistent – in any given audience fewer then 25% typically have a plan; a clear idea of how they are going to get from A to B.

Your level of engagement correlates to the quality of your plan


I’ve currently got a toddler in the house so I watch a lot of Disney. As such I couldn’t help but think of a scene from Alice in Wonderland…

Alice is wandering alone and lost in the woods when she meets up with the Chesire Cat and asks for directions.

When the cat asks “where do you want to go?” Alice says “I’m not quite sure” to which the cat replies “well, then any road will take you there.”

When it comes to engagement, we have an Alice In Wonderland problem

The reality is that our companies are full of people like Alice…men and women who are ‘not quite sure’ where they are going…and its creating an enormous performance drag.

Our great mistake is that we assume that absent a plan of their own, they will be happy to simply adopt ours – our goals, our values, our strategy – as their own.

Sometimes it works beautifully – we find that perfect fit, the culture carrier – and engagement follows.

But too often it doesn’t…

Confusion drives a lack of engagement

If we want to solve the engagement problem and create the performance lift we so desperately need, we must insist that our “Alice’s” know who they are and where they want to go.

We must insist that they can tell the story that they’ve always wanted to tell: I love this job because it allows me to meet my goals in a manner consistent with my values.

When they tell that story, we all win.

The source of lasting engagement: alignment

Put another way, we have to insist that every member of our team has what I call a “Roadmap.”

A good roadmap will tell you three things about a person:

  1. Their values
  2. Their priorities
  3. What they must do to maintain their energy and engagement over time.

Here’s what a good Roadmap looks like…

If you want to address engagement, everyone needs a roadmap like this.

Sadly, too many people just don’t know…

They don’t know what they want.

They don’t know what they value.

They don’t know what to do.

The drivers of dis-engagement: Questions we can't answer

So instead they turn to us…for advice, development plans, performance reviews…failing to see that without a plan of their own, our advice is just a guess, at best.


The comedian Steve Martin had a Roadmap.

Steve Martin was engaged. He had a roadmap.

How do I know?

I know because, as he shared in his great autobiography, Born Standing Up, he spent over a decade getting boo’d off stage as he perfected his routine.

Despite the jeers and catcalls, he kept at it, night after night, because as he puts it:

“Even the worst job becomes meaningful if you’re convinced it’s bringing you closer to your dreams…”

That’s what a good roadmap does — it helps you to know that you are moving in the right direction, even when it’s hard. It helps you to reframe challenges and setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow.

If we want to solve the engagement problem plaguing your organization, you must insist that every member of your team has a Roadmap; that every member of your team knows what they need to do to move closer to their dreams…

Your engagement strategy is broken, but we know how to fix it.

If you are serious about solving this problem, then it’s time to make a plan.

For more information on how Sands Leadership can help you build a more engaged, high-performing team, please contact Ben Sands at