"Our employees see a very clear link between their own performance and the performance of the business and it’s easy for us to demonstrate that at an executive level.” Karen Ross

When a business publishes their employee engagement scores in its year-end financial results presentation, you know it understands that engagement is core to business success. Elders—a leading agribusiness and iconic brand in regional and rural Australia that has been around for almost 180 years—is serious about employee engagement. After coming out of some tough financial times and embarking on a growth trajectory which was powered by a committed workforce, Elders learnt that employee engagement pays dividends and has a clear link between individual and business performance.

Employee engagement is widely used as a critical performance indicator by the world’s most progressive enterprises. Our research shows high levels of engagement can help boost revenue growth by up to two and a half times over peer companies. This year we launched the Korn Ferry Employee Engagement Awards to be able to recognise clients that are outstanding employers within their region. Congratulations to Elders, one of the winners of this prestigious award in Australia in its inaugural year.

We spoke with Karen Ross, General Manager of People and Innovation at Elders, to gain insights on their successful employee engagement program and its impact in the business. In particular, we explored two elements that are proven measures of overall motivation, loyalty and well-being and were analysed for the award: the likelihood of an employee recommending the company to family or friends as a place to work, and the sense of pride the employee felt to work for the company.

From our conversation with Karen Ross, we identified five factors that have led to Elders’ high performing level of engagement over the years.


- Karen Ross, General Manager of People and Innovation at Elders

Five factors that influenced employee engagement at Elders:

  1. Having a clear business plan and strategy, with everyone working towards a common goal.
  2. Making it personal: show employees that there is a clear link between individual and business performance.
  3. Implementation of a formal review process where people have clear objectives, are provided feedback and held to account.
  4. Good communication is key to building engagement.
  5. Developing leaders and turning them into mentors for others.

Organisations working through their employee engagement journey, may wish to consider these insights from Karen Ross.

KF: Can you tell us why Elders’ employees are so proud to work there?

KR: A few years prior to starting to measure employee engagement (2014), Elders went through a period of significant financial difficulty. The people who were working in the company through that time had to call on an amazing level of resilience and loyalty to get themselves and the business through that rough period. There were uncertainties, they were managing customers’ expectations on a daily basis, as well as their own anxieties around what may happen with the business. So, I think those people have come out of that challenge with this huge sense of pride because the reality is that it was them who were able to turn the business around.

Elders is also an iconic brand in rural and regional Australia, and the pride our employees have in the business has been developed over our 178 year history. That pride is seen in our pink shirt which is worn by our employees, the long standing connection we have with our clients who have been with us with through the good and bad times and family links to the business over many generations.

That feeling of loyalty and pride and the level of engagement is s quite palpable, and people that joined the business as Elders started to turn a corner and went on a significant growth trajectory, were also embraced by that vibe. I think that the loyalty that has been shown by those people is probably more prevalent at Elders than I’ve seen in other organisations because they have a real ownership of the business results.

KF: Do you think that they feel a sense of personal ownership for Elders coming through that period and are now enjoying the company’s success?

KR: Absolutely. They see a very clear link between their own performance and the performance of the business. It’s easy for us to demonstrate that at an executive level. And the nature of the business in terms of our geographic and product spread means that people that run branches in remote locations treat the company as their own business. We are very lucky we attract the type of people that will take on their role with a very high degree of personal responsibility.

KF: During those tough financial times, communications with employees throughout that time must have been effective to keep them engaged and focused.

KR: Yes, our current CEO, Mark Allison joined Elders at a very difficult time and he takes personal responsibility for communication. There were high levels of communication both internally and externally. We frequently updated staff on where things were at and Mark personally spoke to customers, to individual staff and he was very engaged with the day-to-day operations during that period. At the same time, he was also managing the investor community, so yes, there was a high degree of personal communication and the tone was really set at the top.

"During those tough times, there was a high degree of personal communication and the tone was really set at the top."

KF: Why do you think Elders’ employees would recommend Elders to others as a good place to work?

KR: In addition to pride of working here, another element that is certainly a huge benefit to us it that Elders offers career options that are diverse and fulfilling.  Our broad business base, which encompasses everything from agriculture, livestock, real estate, grain trading through to financial services, provides opportunities for almost any skill set. This allows our employees to specialise in the area that they are either trained in or they love. It also gives them an opportunity to move across other fields or parts of the business that perhaps they would never have had exposure to and certainly would not have had an entry into if they were coming in cold into a business. I think that this partially goes towards the high score about why people think this is a good place to work.

Another element is the sense of connection. We are a business that permits employees to get access to senior leaders, managing directors or even the CEO, pretty much whenever they need to, so there is that feeling of connectedness that you often would not get in a very large business.

Our customer facing staff in our regional and remote locations have a strong sense of connection with the communities where they operate. In some small towns, Elders might be one of the few shops in hundreds of kilometres. The staff there are not only the Elders branch managers - they are managers of the footy club, the cricket club, or whatever else that there might be there, they are really at the heart of the community and that’s very hard to replicate for many other businesses.

KF: Your engagement scores have risen consistently over the past years.  What have you and your team done specifically to drive this positive change?

KR: The biggest driver of our increasing engagement scores has been the success of our turnaround, which has been underpinned by a clear business plan and strategy. We also implemented a performance review process with clear individual objectives aligned to the strategy. This has been fundamental in driving improved financial performance and business growth.

We have also become very good at promoting people across business units. We are moving people from areas you wouldn’t necessarily put together and seeing them really flourish. We are giving people opportunities to use their skills in a business unit that may not suit their background or their skills set necessarily, but we have very supportive receiving managers who will spend time and effort in developing that person to bring them up to speed. We find that this is having great impact on our people and in the business. For Elders, this mean we’ve got this host of well-rounded leaders and operators going through the business and this will only be of benefit to us.

“Our senior leadership program is about embedding the learning from the top, right down to the business. This has probably been the single biggest factor in our engagement scores continuing to rise.”

KF: In your view, why is it important to track, measure and report levels of engagement at Elders?

KR: The main benefit from measuring engagement is identifying early warning signs that something is wrong so that we can promptly address the problem. We are quite fortunate that we have a decent participation rate [67%] for our survey and our people are willing to put their views forward. We have uncovered some really simple and effective changes that we needed to make and, would not have been aware off if we had not been running the Korn Ferry Engagement survey. So, for us it is all about early warning signs and giving our people a voice. If there are a number of people saying the same thing across the business, then we know there is an issue that needs to be addressed.

KF: It sounds like you have an overt link between employee engagement and profitable growth at Elders.

KR: Yes, most definitely. And in fact, I was recently in a meeting with our board where we’re reviewing our strategic plan which we refer to as our 8-point plan. The whole business is aligned to the 8-point plan; everybody knows about it, what’s in it and how it’s set up. Employee engagement is a key feature of that plan and it is most certainly overt, it’s written in there and we’ve got targets around it. It’s very clear that it’s important not only the CEO but also the board and we will continue to use that measure going into the next three years of strategic planning period. There is no appetite for that to be moved or changed and it’s become a cornerstone of strategic planning at Elders.

KF: What key lessons have you learnt along your engagement journey?

KR: To use the survey to understand the key strengths and areas of focus in your business. The survey dimensions provide key insights regarding what is driving your results.  Understanding your results and implementing key actions based on these is fundamental to keep improving. The external benchmarks provide good insight, but a comparison to your own trend indicates whether you are making progress internally.

KF: You’ve had great success in improving engagement levels.  What challenges did you overcome?

KR: In the early days, employee engagement was probably a bit of a foreign concept to many of our employees. Getting the bulk of our business to understand why it was important to measure was something that we had to address. We had to clarify what it was and why it was important to measure. This was achieved by spending time with Managers to help them understand their results and providing support to cascade key outcomes throughout the business. An important part of this was providing key results using simple, easy to read reports, and getting braches or teams to focus on 1 or 2 key actions only. Employee engagement is now more widely understood, and people can see the difference that it’s made to our business.

People perform to their best when they feel good about their work and organisation and have the tools they need to get the job done. Our employee surveys help you work out what’s holding people back, and show them what they need to do to have maximum impact. Get in touch to discuss.

Learn more about the Korn Ferry Employee Engagement Awards.

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About the contributor

Nadhisha Piyasena is a Senior Client Director for Korn Ferry Advisory, Australia. He works with clients to solve people challenges that get in the way of business performance. He focuses on thinking broadly, commercially, and critically to provide evidence-based and practical solutions that add noticeable value to organisations in the areas of leadership development, employee engagement and talent management.

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