Join H+K’s Change+Internal Communications Practice in a look behind the numbers at Fortune® magazine’s 2014 list of “100 Best Companies To Work For” to see what separates the best from the rest and learn why developing a “values brand” can be key to strengthening a company’s employee engagement. 

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This is the fifth post in our December focus on Character Within. To view the entire series, click here

Sustained Employee Engagement that Drives Business Outcomes

As we move into the New Year, it is a good time to take a step back to consider a fundamental question many organizations face today: How do high-performing companies sustain their competitive edge? We know from our recent research that an organization’s character needs to be aligned with the behavior of leaders, managers and employees. If the entire workforce is aware of and engaged with an organization’s aspirations and values (its brand), and is able to translate this into the day-to-day work (behavior), an organization’s reputation is in line with its brand promise. We call this Character Within.

But how can employers create the sustained employee engagement necessary to achieve this synergy of brand and behavior?

To answer that question, we need to consider the employee perspective. Most employees, and particularly high-performers, are seeking more than a job, more than just income and benefits. They want to make a meaningful contribution to something greater than corporate profits, a contribution that is in line with (or at least not contradictory to) their private values and opinions. In short, employees want to identify with the company they work for and relate to the work they are doing every day in a positive way.

The question of sustained employee engagement points to the fundamental importance of character. It is key to think about character from the inside out. While most companies spend significant time and money creating and managing their external brand, internal branding is too often given little or no attention. To identify with an organization, however, employees need to understand, and feel comfortable with, the brand and its values—just as customers do. Even if internal branding is taken seriously, many companies struggle to make the brand and the brand values come alive. It’s only when the values are meaningful and real in day-to-day work situations that employees will have a lasting connection that inspires extraordinary performance.

What is the path to this synergy of brand and behavior?  Based on our experience, H+K has identified four rules for sustained employee engagement:

1. Define the brand internally as well as it is defined externally. While it is important that your brand is competitive in the marketplace, it is key to translate this competitive edge into a meaningful mission and values that provide guidance and direction for employees. The stress here is on ‘meaningful’ as many companies stick with generic values (‘performance’ or ‘diligence,’ for instance, are truisms) and fail to define the internal brand in a way that actually matters or relate it through stories that resonate. Mission and values need to be connected with a greater purpose (the organization’s ‘vision’), and they must be applicable in the work environment employees experience every day.

2. Involve employees from the very start. While internal branding is at its core a strategic process aligned with the over-all business strategy and based on engagement of the senior leadership team, employees should be involved from the get-go. Involvement can begin with inviting employees’ views, opinions and concerns in opinion research. Once the outline of the organizational mission and values brand in its relation to the business strategy is visible, employees ambassadors should be identified and invited to engage more deeply with the internal brand rollout. Their insights into what will engage employees, or turn them off, are invaluable in charting a successful launch and ongoing program for the internal brand.

3. Lead by example. Once the internal brand of the organization is defined, the real work begins. The entire executive team should be involved in the creation process and the rollout. This starts at the very top: Ideally, the CEO is the senior leader living and communicating the values. If this does not suit her or his personality, specific roles within the C-Suite should be defined to demonstrate aligned leadership and to ensure integration within all business units and functions. These senior leaders should refer to the brand, vision, mission and values in their interactions with their teams and communications with the workforce in everyday moments as well as milestone occasions.

4. Ingrain the values at every level of the organization. The fourth and crucial ingredient is to make the values part of the fabric of the organization. This is achieved when living the values is a requirement for a successful career on par with delivering great business performance. This last step is the hardest part, as too often organizations think that sustained high-performance can be achieved with sales incentives only. But sustained business success rests on the deeper employee engagement and motivation that result from an identity of meaningful values and behavior. Employees will take the values seriously when behavior that embodies the values of the brand is rewarded and recognized alongside revenue growth.

Communicating the Character Within consistently and advancing an internal brand that supports your organization’s values will deliver more than sustained employee engagement; it will deliver business success.  Because engaged employees are performing best.

Sebastian Schwark is a Vice President in our New York office.