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Engagement Radio: HR Leader Ruth Ross on Engagement and the C-Suite - Interview transcript

Speaker 1: Welcome to Engagement Radio brought to you by the Enterprise Engagement Alliance and Engagement Strategies Media. This podcast program brings you ten minutes of hard-hitting and important information from leaders and experts to help you and your organization profit from engagement. Go to for the latest news, trends, research and insights and follow us on Twitter @eea_org. Now, let's welcome our host, Paul Hebert.
Paul: Welcome to Engagement Radio. Thanks for listening and for tuning in once again. Today we have a great, great discussion. We've got Ruth Ross. She is engagement evangelist and the author of the book, "Coming Alive: The Journey To Reengage Your Life And Your Career." Ruth has been a force of change and an HR leader of variety of powerhouse brands such as Charles Schwab, Citibank, Estee Lauder, American Express. Immediately before starting her current firm R Squared Resources, she was the Executive Vice President of HR for the Corporate Finance Division of Wells Fargo. Managing employee engagement issues during the finance industries recent ups and downs and helping [reenginate 00:01:17] the world of HR processes for American Express.
Ruth knows the good and the not so good as it relates to engaging employees. Ruth is now leading her own company that focuses on the intersection where people and process is fused together in the organization. Her site is She can also be found on Twitter @ruthkross R-O-S-S. Welcome, Ruth. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

Ruth: I'm delighted to be here. Thanks for the invite, Paul.
Paul: Our pleasure. Our pleasure. I know you're busy and our people on the other end of this wonderful podcast are in a hurry. Let's jump right into it. When you think about all of the stuff that we're talking about as it relates to engagement in your past, how important do you think it is to foster that proactive involvement of all your organization communities under a single brand?
Ruth: I look at it slightly different. I think it's about building a foundation so if you think about when you ... Let's say you're going to put together a house from scratch as my family did when I was younger. I was fascinated by the fact that you had to pour the concrete foundation and let it set to make sure there were no cracks. I think about engagement the same way that it's foundational along with culture. If you don't have any cracks in it then you can start layering and building all the other things on top of it, right? Like what goes on with your employees and your customers and your vendors. To me, it's all about having that wonderful, solid foundation upon which you can build everything else in an organization.
Paul: What would be some of the things that you would suggest are foundational then?
Ruth: Foundational for me is really about establishing a culture of things like trust and transparency and two-way dialogue and communication and connections. If you have that kind of situation going on in your company where it's not an us against them, right? Everybody is really aligned against the mission and the vision and the purpose, that establishes that wonderful foundational basis upon which people can become engage and do their best work.
Paul: That's regardless if we're talking about employees or consumers or suppliers.
Ruth: Anything. It's really about the organization. It's just establishing that baseline that just says, "We will be a best place to work. This is how we're going to do things." Once you have that then everything else comes together. If your employees are going to be happy and engaged they are going to attract more customers, provide better service. Right? You want the best vendors in town to work with you. You're going to support your community. It just all drives off of that.
Paul: From your point of view, do you think this link to engagement and performance or the link between the two of them is strong? Do you believe there is that link? From the start, let me ask the question that way.
Ruth: I think that put it this way, I believe there has to be this link. Now, does everyone have it? Unfortunately not. Here's why it's so important. Because there's an absolute ROI, right? Return on investment from employee engagement. There's such a direct correlation like we were just talking about in the last question, right? The more engage your employees are, the more productive they are. The better customer service they are going to offer which is going to lead to more business. Increase profitability. Shareholder value. Companies can absolutely go out of business if their employees are not engaged and therefore providing really bad customer service. There is a direct correlation between performance and engagement. It absolutely must be a C-Suite priority.
Paul: You snuck into my next step in this discussion here is that it must be but do you think it is at most organizations? Are you seeing yourself in your work that the C-Suite is paying attention to this and actually actively and proactively trying to, for lack of a better term, engage on engagement?
Ruth: Here's where reality comes in to the conversation, unfortunately the C-Suite doesn't truly get it. I've seen that both anecdotally in the work that I do but I was also really struck by a survey. I saw a few years ago done by the AM organization that has really stuck with me and my tagline for that survey I call it bad math because when they asked the question to a group of CEOs, "Can you name your top three critical business imperatives?" Employee engagement showed up in the answer of 80% of the CEOs. That sounds great, right? Here's where the bad math comes in, they asked a follow up question and said, "Okay, for those of you that said employee engagement was a critical business imperative, how many of you actually have a strategy for increasing engagement?"
Only 25% answered yes to that. That's where my bad math figures come in because to me, that's what really shows up to be this crisis because in a really increasingly competitive and difficult business environment where people are being asked today to do more with less, companies today simply can afford to have even one disengaged person on their team. Yet, facts and figures show us most of those coming from the Gallop Organization, the grand daddy of all things engagement when it comes to metrics, they show us that 87% of the global workforce, 87% identify themselves as disengaged at work, 68.5% in the U.S. then the U.S. alone, the cost of loss productivity due to disengagement is staggering 550 billion a year. When you look at those numbers and those facts and figures you can only come to one conclusion that they really don't get it as well as they should at the C-Suite.
Paul: Yeah, it is almost like the word you use was staggering and you're right. When you start throwing numbers around like that and that people still aren't saying, "This is mission critical." You just have to scratch your head. Part of that maybe and this is my own opinion, Ruth is that we're talking about human beings and humans are a little bit soft and squishy so it doesn't always stack up with the same six sigma as some of the other stuff in the organizations. It's not as easily quantifiable so there's always that I think a certain amount of prejudice against going down that path.
With all of that background, with all of those numbers, with all of the evidence that shows that engagement is critical to an organization it has yet to become a practice really. It's an add on for potentially compensation people. It's an add on for recognition rewards companies. It's an add on to a lot of places, communication, employee branding. Do you see this becoming its own field or its own discipline like marketing is or advertising is?
Ruth: You know what? Heaven help us if it does become a discipline or an industry because if it does, we're really missing the mark on what needs to happen because I am a staunched believer that engagement isn't about programs or perks. Frankly, it's not rocket science. I think all too often people want to just throw money at this issue and that's not what it is all about. To me, it's all about getting back to basics and learning how to connect with each other. That is at the core and essence of what needs to happen. I had a boss once who like to do everything by email even though we were in the building next to each other, available by phone or in person.
He proffered email. How I could tell his mood of the day was whether or not the cap lock button on his keyboard was stuck in the on position or how many exclamation points he put at the end of a sentence. He thought that was connecting. That’s not connecting, that’s not engaging behavior.
Paul: No. You surely don’t want like a six exclamation point day, that’s for sure.
Ruth: No, and that would be a good day especially if those cap locks were on, right?
Paul: Yeah, exactly. Wow.
Ruth: That’s not really what it needs to be about and I would just also add and you were so kind and gracious to mention that I had a book out and one of the things I talk about in my book is something that I call my alive treatment plan. An alive treatment plan is a no cost or low cost, it may be you bought a cup of coffee for the person but it’s really about a connecting conversation between a manager and an employee that I prescribe doing a couple of times a year. That’s not a performance review.
Paul: Right.
Ruth: It’s not an update on my task list but it’s really a connecting conversation where you want to talk to people about how things are going. The quick five steps are really to ask the right questions, to generate a conversation, I want people to listen both to what is being said but also what’s not being said, right? Verbal communication is great but nonverbal behaviors can tell you just as much. Then I want the manager based on that conversation to identify two to three reaction steps to what they heard and what they saw. Then come back and meet with the employee again to thank them for the conversation but also to validate that the steps that they want to take or the right ones. That to paraphrase our friends at Nike but the [fifth 00:11:42] step is simply to execute on the plan and really make it happen. A-L-I-V-E, that conversation alone can do more to change the engagement of an employee than any program or perk or discipline.
Paul: I mean I think you’re right on there because there’s big push now for what they call stay interviews and other types of ways to connect with employees other than that once a year performance review. I mean there’s a lot of talk about the death of performance reviews whether they’re dead or they’re just sleeping or whether they’re just reincarnated in different forms. It all comes back to having that conversation, right? When I hear you say that though so then you probably believe or maybe you don’t … I’ll ask you, do you believe that engagement has an employee component where they are responsible for their own engagement? Because what I just heard you say is that the employee should be asking the manager for that meeting. Do you think that engagement is something you own too as an individual?
Ruth: Let me answer the little part first and then I’ll come back to this question. Yes, an employee can certainly ask the manager for the conversation but I believe it is a manager’s responsibility and good business practice to be having these stay conversations a couple of times a year. Now, I’ve had people say to me, “My manager has never asked me for that kind of conversation or invited me to have it,” and I say, “Well then why don’t you invite them out for a cup of coffee,” right? Then that leads into your second question. I 100% believe that we all own our own engagement, I am very fond of saying that all of us need to be CEOs.
I don’t mean the C-suite CEO, Chief Executive Officer, because I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t want to have that stress. I believe that we are all chief engagement officers and need to own this. Yes, a manager has a role in this, yes the C-suite has a role but the employee also have a critical role. If you think about maybe a three legged easel, each one of those three own a leg on that easel but notice I didn’t say my friends in HR, right? Because HR can’t own this, HR can be the frame around the painting.
Paul: That’s good.
Ruth: If you want to paint a masterpiece of engagement, HR can be the facilitator bringing in the tools of working with managers to coach them on this but they don’t own engagement. It’s the C-suite, the manager and the employee that all have a stake in this.
Paul: Yeah, that’s always a big discussion within my HR tribe out there that I deal with is that who owns engagement. They would agree with you what we just said is they can help enable it, they can help remove roadblocks but they can’t own it and that does come back to like you say the individual. Anyway, we’ve covered a lot of ground and engagement is one of those subjects we can go on and on about but we do have to keep this to a certain amount of time that makes it easy for people to listen in. I’d like to kind of wrap up and just ask you quickly, is there anything that I didn’t ask yet that you were hoping I might bring up real quick?
Ruth: I think one point I just like to make and that is that this isn’t just a workplace issue and I think it’s really important to understand that you can’t compartmentalize your life. What happens at home affects you at work, what happens at work affects you at home. If you’re dealing with issues at home would it be a child care, financial, relationship, whatever the case maybe, when you get dressed in the morning that stress get stressed with you. If you’re dealing with things at work that are untenable, maybe you’re being bullied at work which is causing you to become disengaged, you bring that home with you. I think it’s really important to understand that you have to look at the big picture as to how this is affecting you both at work and in life.
Paul: That’s actually a perfect, I think a great way to kind of close this and put the book end on because I think that’s a perfect example of this idea that we’re all connected here and we have to think in terms of life and human beings as supposed to work and life separate. Thank you for that. Again, thank you so much for your time today, Ruth, I really appreciate it. For the listeners out there remember this is Ruth Ross, she’s got a book called, "Coming Alive: The Journey to Reengage Your Life and Your Career." She can be reached on Twitter at @RuthKRoss, R-O-S-S, and her website is, R-O-S-S. Again, thank you so much for your time today, Ruth.
Ruth: Thanks, Paul. I enjoyed the conversation.
Paul: You bet.
Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Remember our site is, and on Twitter @eea_org. Let’s engage.
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