Best Practices in Employee Engagement: Interview of TIAA-CREF’s Head of Organizational Effectiveness

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

TIAA-CREF, a financial services company with over $500 billion in assets under management, has made employee engagement a priority. Its Head of Organizational Effectiveness, Josh Greenwald, agreed to share what his company does to create engaged workplace relationships.

JATHAN JANOVE: How do you define “employee engagement”?

JOSH GREENWALD: Engaged employees are motivated, enabled, and energized to deliver their best performance, and they intend to stay with the company.

JJ: What importance does TIAA-CREF place on employee engagement? Why?

JG: “Value our people” is one of our six core values, and fostering employee engagement is fundamental to how we operate at TIAA-CREF. People are our greatest asset, and we know that we need highly engaged people to fully deliver on our mission to our customers.

JJ: How is employee engagement viewed in relation to TIAA-CREF’s goals or important business metrics?

JG: Cultivating a high performance culture is one of the company’s strategic objectives. One of the key measures on our scorecard is employee engagement as gauged by our annual employee “Culture Survey.” Employee engagement is also a key component of our business unit leaders’ goals and measures, which are aligned to the company’s long-term vision and three-year strategic plan.

JJ: What steps has the company taken to increase employee engagement?

JG: We have taken a number of steps to increase our employees’ engagement.

  • We created an annual “Culture Survey,” and we proactively follow up on the results of the survey.
  • We encourage effective communication and two-way dialogue between our employees and company leaders.
  • The company takes responsibility for all new engagement initiatives (which are not HR-driven). It is standard at nearly all companies for HR to drive and own the full process, but we believe that it is a best and leading practice for the company to own and drive its analysis, actions, and communication.
  • We focus on the areas that statistical analysis from our survey has shown need improvement.
  • We have implemented a number of engagement promoting company-wide programs, including a company-wide mentoring program, a job-rotation program, a business acumen program, a career-advancing education program that highlights internal opportunities, and a job shadowing program.
  • We regularly host regional career forums to explore development resources and to learn more about the TIAA-CREF business areas and career options, as well as to encourage networking with colleagues from across the company.
  • We sponsor seven employee groups that bring our employees together based on common interests, shared characteristics, or similar life experiences. More than 1,100 of our employees participate in these “Employee Resource Groups” (ERGs). The ERGs serve as a catalyst for fostering and encouraging an inclusive environment, and they provide opportunities for employees to bring diverse perspectives to business solutions.
  • We frequently hold town hall meetings with employees, which are led by the CEO and business unit leaders.

In addition, in 2009 we formed a group of “Culture Liaisons”–a group of business leaders from different sectors within the company—to fulfill two company goals: (1) to share their ideas on engagement and best practices across lines of business; and (2) to promote analysis, communication, and action planning within their units.

These Culture Liaisons focus on impact not just process by:

  • partnering with HR, managerial leaders, and employees to create action plans that drive increased engagement;
  • using their network to foster best practice sharing and to overcome barriers to action; and
  • maintaining momentum by communicating regularly with employees about actions taken and progress made.

The Culture Liaisons report regularly to senior leadership on progress and meet weekly. They typically perform these duties in addition to performing their regular work-related functions. It is important to note that Culture Liaisons do not have accountability for taking action across different departments; that remains the focus of employees and leaders within each line of business. However, Culture Liaisons help to keep the organizational process moving and to give it visibility.

JJ: What has been the impact of these efforts?

JG: On average, only one in three employees in a company is engaged (according to standard industry norms). At TIAA-CREF, 75 percent of employees are engaged (based on the results of our annual Culture Survey). The percentage continues to climb year after year.

We have also been able to show links between improved employee engagement and asset growth and talent retention at TIAA-CREF.

JJ: C-level executives are often skeptical of investing in the “soft skills” involved in achieving an engaged workforce.  As one executive put it, “the only things ‘hard’ are program costs and labor hours expended.” What would you say to overcome such skepticism?

JG: TIAA-CREF doesn’t perform, its people do. We will only achieve our strategic goals if all employees are growing, motivated, excited about our future, and contributing to their full potential. By measuring engagement, we know where to focus our attention to ultimately improve organizational performance

Many people think about culture as soft. They view it separately from performance and results. They see it as a “nice to have,” but not essential. But research actually shows the opposite—that a strong culture can impact business performance. Firms in which leaders focus on their cultures outperform firms that don’t by a huge margin. Recent studies have shown that,

  • According to Watson-Wyatt’s research, companies with engaged employees outperform others by 47 percent to 202 percent.
  • According to Gallup, companies with engaged employees have customer engagement that is 12 percent higher than companies without engaged employees.
  • According to CEB, highly engaged employees are 87 percent less likely to leave their organizations than highly disengaged employees.
  • According to Gallup, organizations that have employee engagement scores in the top quartile have 18 percent higher productivity and 16 percent higher profits than companies that do not have employee engagement.

JJ: For leaders who are serious about improving employee engagement in their organizations, what steps would you recommend they take?

JG: Leaders should find a way to take the following actions:

  • Use a strategic approach with well-defined objectives.
  • Ensure the support and business level buy-in of senior leadership. If engagement is viewed as merely an HR initiative, it will fail.
  • Align employee engagement efforts and measures to your core values and business scorecards.
  • Invest in sophisticated measurement tools, models, and external benchmarks in order to show the connection between employee engagement and business results.
  • Leverage multi-level and multimedia communications (such as email, company intranets, town hall meetings, videos, etc.) to increase employee engagement company-wide.
  • Distribute dynamic data in an easy-to-use format across the organization.
  • Create multi-level actions that are relevant to creating engagement with ongoing reporting deadlines and accountability.
  • Empower business representatives to own and drive a “culture” survey, supported by HR and learning partners, to track and drive progress.

JJ: Any other advice or suggestions?

JG: Measuring engagement through an employee survey is very informative, but it is only as valuable as what the organization does with it. By acting on employees’ survey reports, TIAA-CREF is able to create an empowering workplace that leads to sustainable engagement. By looking at data around diversity and inclusion, client focus, and leadership—just to name a few areas—we create systemic change based on input directly from our employees who are in the best position to provide it.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. | Attorney Advertising

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