the ceo magazine, employee engagement,
Tim Cole, Founder & CEO, The Compass Alliance

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sail.”
 ~ William Arthur Ward

An intriguing factor continues to challenge many organizations and indications are strong that the crisis will not subside in the near term. That challenge – the continued disenfranchisement of employees who are no longer engaged.

The scope of this malaise is pervasive – a 2013 Harris Poll suggests more than half of American workers want to leave their job. That percentage drops as employees grow older but we’re talking numbers that are still disturbing. 

  • Sixty-four percent of those in their 30s want to change jobs.
  • Fifty-four percent of workers in their 50s wish for the same.

A more recent Gallup Poll reinforces those findings with over half of workers reporting they are effectively uncoupled.

The most afflicted sufferers - the group the New York Daily News describes as the “disenchanted millennials.”

The People Factor

The premise here is simple but disturbing. Even as margins diminish and the competitive landscape becomes more daunting many companies and senior leaders face a crisis in the area of “people capital” that threatens.

No equity stake, compensation plan, or unique human resources approach will adequately address employees who are effectively saying, “No mas.”

The compelling question – why?

That’s a puzzle that becomes even more perplexing when we consider this from an employee standpoint. 

  • At minimum, most workers will spend some 100,000 hours over the course of a career (40 years times 45 weeks a year times 50 hours a week = 90,000 hours. That is the low-end estimate for most employees.)
  • Translation - this is the greatest single financial investment of most people’s lives.

The complicating factor for a great many – little to no critical thinking around that investment – to include honest self-assessment of skills and aptitudes; goals; or sense of direction.

The general default for most - the educational pedigree (if I majored in business, I’ll get a job in business) and then transfer of career aspirations to the company, the department, or the supervisor of record.

In effect, a great many execute against a career strategic plan that is no plan at all – it is an “I’ll go to work and see what happens” mentality.

The Cost

The result – a great many struggle to find their way – and many companies bear the brunt of that nomadic search. And the cost – a 2015 Gallup Poll placed impact in the United States alone at between $450 and $550 billion dollars.

This is not a U.S. limited affliction. A Hay Group Study suggested similar impact in Great Britain – with costs exceeding 340 billion euros.

The impact globally is almost incalculable.

So, if we accept the premise that worker disengagement is potentially crippling – what are the steps that can be taken to remedy it?

The standard “fix” isn’t working

The traditional response to organizational dysfunction is typically organizational solutions. We address our problems by conventional means  – greater worker recognition, more involvement in decision making, enhanced focus on people and culture, etc.

All offer hope. They will not offer resolution.

The real answer may lie less with companies and more with workers– or the partnership between the two.

The problem statement

It can be argued that a majority of employees don’t begin their career with a sense of direction or purpose.  Minus a plan – they simply go to work.

Translation – no map, no guidance, no clue. And as circumstances change, the titles and the paychecks suddenly dim – and the worker begins to take a more critical look at the world around them. The disengagement cycle – for many – begins.

A compass for the future

There is potentially a different approach and for companies courageous enough to entertain it – a potential long term solution to the crippling effects of employee malaise.

Imagine offering a legitimate critical thinking model for career development that is employee centered– and company sponsorship of that initiative.

Over the course of almost four decades in the healthcare industry (and the requisite mergers and restructures) I built a framework for leading my career to ensure my survival. 

What I was to call The Compass was based on four cardinal points – and it did more than allow me to live to fight on. It offered the greatest single defense against disengagement because it enabled me to build a career strategy.

The Compass was crafted around simple but powerful principles. Its lodestar – Personal Accountability. That North Star’s premise – my first obligation was to optimize my own potential. The supporting pillars underneath this broad banner – performance, ownership, self-development, and balance – all fully focused on the notion of my responsibilities – not the company’s.

Over time I was to fully form the other points of The Compass – effectively transitioning accountability for my job satisfaction from the mother ship to the career pilot.  The impact was astonishing.

None of it was company issued.

I believe it could have been.

An organization that accepts the premise that a great company is built on the foundation of great careers can be powerful but it requires more than a perfunctory “wave of the hand.”

It demands a systemic approach – and the courage to allow for creative thinking at the individual level – not just top down.

A recent conversation with a senior executive yielded what might be the greatest objection to helping employees in that vein.

“What,” he asked, “if workers decide they don’t want to be here?”

My response – “If they don’t want to be here, do you WANT them here?”

The Compass is driven by principles that can change the Multi-billion Dollar Challenge and offer broader insight into four factors that ultimately characterize careers of significance – effectively answering:

  • Did I realize my full potential?
  • Did I help ensure the full potential of those around me?
  • Did I help optimize the company or companies I worked for?
  • Did I strike a balance in the above – physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally?

The solution may be closer than we realize – but it must begin with employees first.

Great companies are built on a foundation of great careers.

About the Author

Tim Cole is the founder and CEO of The Compass Alliance.  His book, The Compass Solution: A Guide to Winning Your Career offers practical direction to both senior leaders and employees on how to cultivate a rich culture – and ensure a significant work experience.  You can learn more at

[Image courtesy: freeGraphicToday/ Pixabay]


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