Kevin Kruse on Engagement 2.0

October 15, 2012 Darcy Jacobsen

We caught up recently with Kevin Kruse—serial entrepreneur, author and contributor to—to chat about his new book, Employee Engagement 2.0. Here are some of his thoughts on the best leadership strategies to help you unleash discretionary effort on your team.

Thanks for talking with us, Kevin. Starting out, can you give us a definition for employee engagement?

Kevin Kruse: That question gets a lot of attention, actually. I was pretty surprised when I wrote a very simple article called “What is Employee Engagement?”  for the site, and it quickly trended to the top of their list and became one of the most popular articles.

For me it is a simple answer, employee engagement is the emotional commitment that an employee has to an organization and the organization’s goals. And because they have that emotional commitment, it results in discretionary effort in the pursuit of those goals.

Your new book is called Engagement 2.0. How are you distinguishing that 2.0?

Kevin Kruse: Well, old school employee engagement in my mind is the top-down approach that says “We’re going to run an employee satisfaction survey, and we’re gonna look at the results and brief the senior executives on how we’re doing—and come up with some programs to try and improve it.”  That results in initiatives like: let’s work on better benefits, or we’re not doing enough to recognize people so let’s have a summer picnic, or let’s create a fun committee. Things like that.

But the 2.0 approach, the new approach that really does move the needle on employee engagement says, we’re gonna have senior leaders’ support and we definitely want do the survey—but engagement comes from the ground up, and employees and front line managers are the key.

So you make managers accountable at the team level for improving their results. And the best way to improve those results is for them to share them out in an action-planning session with their team, and hear from their team members what they can do. So instead of being a top-down, parents-have-all-the-answers model, Engagement 2.0 says: we’re going to measure it, share it throughout the organization, and let the answers bubble up from the employees.

How important do you feel that high engagement is for a company and what are the benefits?

Kevin Kruse: You know, I’ve started and sold several small businesses related to the tech space, and I’ve always focused on what I call a “talent first” strategy. How do you attract the absolute best talent and then how do you get them fully engaged? These were companies that made the Inc. 500 list, so they were very fast growing, but they were also winning “Best Places to Work” awards for employee engagement.

I always used to say that I could do many, many things wrong (and I usually did). I could even get my strategy wrong. But if I had incredible talent, they’d figure it out, they’d adjust, and they’d succeed. But if you flipped it around it wouldn’t work. If I had the best strategy and the best product ideas, but I hired dogs, it is never going to work. So for me it is all about talent and engaging that talent.

Research proves that out. My favorite study from Kenexa looked at publically-traded companies that were in the top 25% of engagement scores vs .the bottom 25%, and it was a five fold share price difference. Total shareholder return was five times better in the engaged companies vs. the disengaged.  It’s astonishing that more CEOs don’t get that. That the “soft stuff” called engagement really does lead to the hard stuff like sales growth, profits and ultimately share price.

The great case study is what Doug Conant did at Campbell’s Soup.  He was brought in as a turn-around CEO in the year 2000. Campbells’ Soup was almost going out of business. They’d lost half their share price in one year, and their sales were declining. And when they asked Doug Conant what his great turn-around strategy was going to be, he answered: “To win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace. I’m going to put employee engagement front and center.” People thought he was crazy, including his own managers. Ten years later, Campbell’s Soup was hitting an all-time high. They outperformed their peer group by 400% of share price. And Campbells’ Soup went from having among the worst employee engagement scores in the Fortune 500 to having the best.  23:1 engaged to disengaged ratios.

So whether it is my own experience on a small level, seeing what workplace heroes like Doug Conant are doing—employee engagement is critical to achieving breakthrough business results.

So if you’re in the C-suite and you’re looking for more systemic engagement, how do you address that?

Kevin Kruse: About 70% of engagement comes from the managers’ role and 30% is what the company can do. So part of that is having a good engagement system in place so you can measure it. You’re going to care about things like salary and benefits. You’re going to institutionalize recognition. And you’re going to systematize front-line manager training. You’re going to make managers accountable for being leaders of people, not just managers of tasks.

That’s where it is a paradox… it’s not in the company’s control what the front line manager does, so they have to make sure they are controlling what the front line managers are doing. You can’t just give them their scores and assume that they will improve on their own. Doug Conant ended up firing about 300 out of 350 front line managers, when after two years of coaching, training, mentoring, reinforcing, tying bonuses to engagement scores, they just weren’t getting it. So they fired them and got in front line managers who were good people leaders in addition to being good task-masters, and who took it seriously. Most of those were promoted from within—some came from outside. And it created this leadership culture within Campbell’s Soup.

So the things that are under the CEO or senior leadership’s control are things like having a great strategic vision, making sure everyone knows what the five year plan is, boiling it down to a phrase that is repeated often so that everybody feels like they know what the future holds. That is definitely a C-level opportunity. But a lot of it is going to come from that sacred relationship between the worker and his or her boss.

What are two or three behaviors that you see from strong people leaders?

Kevin Kruse: There are three, actually. The vast majority of engagement—how we feel at work— comes from growth, trust and recognition.

Growth—am I learning and advancing? Trust—do I trust the leadership of the company that they’re going to take us to the promised land, and we’re going to have a bright future. And Recognition—do I feel appreciated at work? C-level can influence all those items, but it is really the front line manager day to day and week to week that is responsible for making their team members feel that growth recognition and trust. Those are the three behaviors that you want to develop and activate in your leaders.

Is there more advice that you can give to line managers for developing?

Kevin Kruse:  Well, I would expand on each of those:

So for a line manager on growth: the most powerful thing you can do for each of your people is to sit down and help them with their career path and help to identify the knowledge, skills, relationships, and experiences you need to go from here to there. Then as the team leader or manager, I will look for developmental opportunities for you. I’m going to continue to coach you. If you know that your manager knows where you’re trying to go, and the manager cares and the manager is actually looking for some spots to help you get there, you’re going to feel like you’re growing.

Trust, again, is that issue about assuring team members that we know where we’re going and I’m confident we’re going to get there.  Now ideally, that starts at the top. An example is Coca-Cola, this massive global organization. You know they’ve got a thousand page strategic plan somewhere. But Coca- Cola has simplified their entire plan down to this phrase: “20/20 Vision.” They are going to double revenue by the year 2020. Now, if you stop the guy dropping off Coca-Cola at your grocery store and say “Coca Cola 20/20 vision” Odds are really high that that Coca-Cola truck driver is going to say “Double revenue by the year 2020.”  Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, talks about having a big hairy audacious idea—a BHAG—well, this is similar. The company should have a big future goal, simplified and repeated often so that everybody knows what it is and has trust in the future.

At an individual manager level, you want to make sure you’re pulling that through. A lot of managers] say to me, “I work for a company and we don’t have a phrase that pays like that.” What I always say is, you know what? Do it yourself. Print out the annual report or grab that newsletter from your president. Then pull your team together and say “Look, just for fun, let’s come up with a simple way for us to remember what the CEO is telling us. How can we boil this down into a phrase that will help us all to remember it?” And that’s going to be very impactful—especially if you’re creating your own phrase at the team level.

And the third is recognition?

Kevin Kruse:  Yep! For recognition, I’ll answer this two ways. The simple thing that every employee can do—especially the managers—is show appreciation and thanks as often as possible, as long as it is well-deserved. We tend to put value on the recognition in proportion to the amount of time it takes. So if you say, “Hey Kevin, good job on that thing the other day” as you walk by—well, that’s good, that’s better than nothing. If you call me out during a meeting and tell everyone that I did a good job, that took a little more time and there’s some public aspect to that, so that’s going to mean more. Thank you notes have become a lost art, because everything is quick email. So a hand-written thank you note has become a prized possession. Doug Conant ended his day, every day, by sitting down and writing out a whole slew of thank you notes. They said that in the ten years he was there he sent out something like 30,000 thank you notes to employees.

And from the individual engagement perspective—I need to feel appreciated at work. That comes from two places. One is from the boss. The second is from my peers. And very often a sense of appreciation from my peer group can mean more than a thank you from the CEO. If they’re saying I’m doing a good job, that makes me feel great. It makes me feel loved.

So I think that again it gets to what can a company do systemically. I think putting in a platform that facilitates peer-based recognition is important. Way back when, I instinctively knew that peer recognition was important, but it was pre-internet. I would do really clunky things like: here is a box and whenever anyone does anything great we’ll write their name on a coupon and we’ll give away prizes or something. But it was clunky. You had to remember to write this thing down and go over to the box, and what if someone did a good job for you but they’re out of the London office? Do you write it down in the one box, or ship the paper to each other? It was crazy.

Now of course, with platforms like Globoforce, people are online, it’s universal—doesn’t matter if a team member is in Boston and one is in Philadelphia—you’re just thanking people and people see that publically throughout the company—it can get tracked up. It’s just a beautiful thing what we’re doing. It’s truly taking this online, social power—the power of the network, and applying it to peer and group recognition, which we were not able to do a few years back.

What makes a thank you really effective?

Kevin Kruse:  In the book, I talk about how to write a thank you note.  It’s a three-part note:

  1. Give thanks—say it explicitly.
  2. Let them know what you are thanking them for.
  3. Tie it back to one of your values.


For example: Darcy, just a quick note to say thank you. It was great that you stayed late Friday night. It really shows your dedication to teamwork and client service. That sort of thing. So I always preach that you tie back to values as the third step.

In your books you talk about spillover. Can you talk a little about that?

Kevin Kruse: Psychologists call them the “spillover” and “crossover” effects. Our emotions at work, good or bad, will spill over into our personal life, and they actually cross over, on a 1:1 ratio, to those around us. So whether it is your kids or your friends or significant others— they experience as much negativity from your job as you do, they will experience as much joy as you do. It’s a 1 to 1 effect.

There is a Swedish WOLF study that tracked thousands of men over ten years, and those who were dissatisfied at work had twice the incidence of hospitalization from heart attack and stroke. The children of dissatisfied workers are more likely to misbehave at school, and have behavioral problems. And the one everyone laughs about—people who are dissatisfied at work have a lot less sex than those who are happy at work, you know, cause they’re going home grumpy and then their significant other is grumpy and that’s not a night with a lot of possibility. But you come home and you had a great day at work, and  you’re enjoying a bottle of wine over dinner—well, that’s a night with some possibility. In every area of our life, our relationships, our health, our kids—our engagement or lack of engagement spills right over.

Further Reading


About Kevin Kruse
Kevin Kruse is a serial entrepreneur and bestselling author who used a relentless focus on talent and employee engagement to build and sell several, multi-million dollar technology companies, winning both Inc 500 and Best Place to Work awards along the way. Kevin is also the author of several books including the NY Times bestseller, We: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement, and his newest book, Employee Engagement 2.0, provides a detailed action plan that turns “task-managers” into “people-leaders.”

This interview is also available in our resource center along with our other author Q&As.