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Leading to be a Top Employer

It is widely proven that top employers achieve enhanced financial performance, attract and retain top talent and have increased levels of employee engagement. Also, when discussing top employers, it is often mentioned that they try to understand their employees and their needs, allow for work-life balance and support employees to grow in their careers. But how does one achieve this in practical terms? It is fairly evident that there is more to it than furnishing the break room with a table tennis table and some gourmet coffee. I believe that the key lies in achieving a sense of connection, balance and purpose.

As social beings, our brains are hard-wired to connect with others. We are drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain link-up when we engage with other people. With the lion’s share of their time spent at work, employees want to be a part of a culture that is aligned to their values and which allows for meaningful engagements, switching them on. This becomes increasingly difficult in the digital age where it is so easy to hide behind emails and project management tools.

While digital tools are vital for productivity, it is important not to lose the personal touch. Sheldon Yellen, CEO of property restorers BELFOR Holdings Inc. has mastered the art of building and maintaining connections with each of the company’s 9,200 employees. Yellen travels with a suitcase full of stationery to hand-write birthday cards, thank you notes, anniversary cards, holiday cards and even notes to his employees’ children when they are sick. Yellen says that this improved communication and afforded him respect while creating a culture of compassion throughout the company.[1] This is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but we can all find ways to better connect with those whom we lead, which will also foster a more connected culture.

Not only does the digital world affect our sense of connection, but also our sense of balance. Less than a decade ago, we would indicate our absence from telecommunications with the phrase ‘be right back’ or we could set an email auto response to inform the sender that we are offline and inaccessible. Since the advancement of communication methods and increased connectivity to the internet, we are contactable around the clock. Though this wonder has been an enabler for globalisation, it is not without consequence. As workloads increase and job descriptions become increasingly blurred, we often work long hours to meet unrealistic deadlines and find it difficult to unplug.

According to the World Health Organisation, burnout is a syndrome that occurs as a result of chronic workplace stress and has been classified as an occupational phenomenon in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).[2] The predator can be identified by employees’ exhaustion, mental distance from or cynicism towards their job and reduced professional efficacy. It occurs when work pressures overshadow the rewards – demands increase though this is not reflected in compensation.

To achieve a healthy work-life balance, it is vital to offer benefits such as flexi hours and remote working, as well as encourage your team members to develop healthy habits which will allow them to occasionally switch off from work so that they are able to return with a fresh perspective. However, I think that we could take it one step further.

You might have heard of the Japanese principle of Ikigai, but have you ever thought of applying it to what you offer your employees? By helping team members find an internal balance, we can overcome most of the challenges associated with the modern workforce.

Roughly translated, Ikigai means “reason for being” and it is based on the following principles as explained by Francesc Miralles[3]:

If your employee value proposition was based on Ikigai, what would it look like? Consider the following thoughts, but don’t be afraid to get creative:

  • What the world needs: Your organisation makes a promise to deliver something that the world needs, otherwise you wouldn’t be in business. To help your employees find meaning in what they do, it is important that they know how the organisation makes a difference and how their role fits into this. As a leader it is vital that you share the impact of your combined efforts regularly.
  • What I love to do: Give employees the autonomy to develop a love for what they do. If they are all connected to deliver on the organisation’s promise, it is vital to give them the freedom to bring their creativity and unique strengths into what they do and how they do it. If employees feel like they can bring their hearts to work, the result is thriving engagement, innovation and brand ambassadorship.
  • What I do well: It is interesting to know that this does not only refer to what you are already good at, but also to what you are willing to work hard to improve. It is therefore vital to offer your employees opportunity to develop the skills that will help them excel at what they love doing. This is key to nurturing and retaining talent.
  • What I get paid to do: The unique thing about Ikigai is that it does not profess purpose at the expense of earning a living. It is important not to forget that team members do have financial commitments and if you don’t offer a competitive remuneration package, the pressures of providing for a family, or even for maintaining a desired lifestyle, could leave them seeking greener pastures. But don’t just get stuck on offering a high salary. Top employers offer innovative benefits such as comprehensive health and wellness benefits, tertiary education repayment, paid sabbaticals and even adoption assistance.

I believe that the principles of Ikigai are key to becoming a top employer. If we attract and reward the whole person, those we employ will bring their whole selves to work.

Remember, leaders inspire loyalty, not organisations. Therefore, we can’t only rely on the organisation to be an attractive employer, we must make it so by the way we lead. While a reputation as a top employer may attract new talent, we build and maintain that reputation through how we engage and model the organisation’s values, just as much as through the benefits that we offer. As we well know: people don’t leave organisations, they leave the leaders.



[3] The Ikigai Venn diagram explained by Francesc Miralles

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