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How Norwich City’s promotion to the Premier League offers a classic case-study of the power of Employee Engagement

Until recently corporate strategy was dominated by the belief that shareholders should take precedence over customers, and employees (if they were considered at all) came last in the pecking order. There were some notable dissenters to this rule, not least Herb Kelleher the former CEO of SouthWest Airlines who believed that:

"Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees and the rest follows from that."

Herb understood that happy employees are more likely to deliver a good customer experience and create happy customers; happy customers are more likely to be loyal customers; loyal customers are more valuable to your business (they cost less to acquire and tend to buy more). Happy employees are also more likely to stay in their jobs for longer, getting better at what they do and making customers even happier. This 'mutual gains' view of motivation and people management lies at the heart of employee engagement and has been amply demonstrated by the achievement of Norwich City in winning promotion to the top-flight of the football hierarchy.

There were few pundits who would have fancied the Canaries (as Norwich City are affectionately known) at the beginning of this year's campaign. The team had finished fourteenth in the 2017/18 season thanks largely to the performance of two stand-out players – players the club then had to sell in the summer break.

An indifferent start to 2018/19 season saw the team garner a meagre 5 points from six games, but then they went on an extraordinary run that resulted in only three more losses before promotion was confirmed. Next season they will be plying their trade in the so-called 'best league in the world' against the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and Spurs. It remains to be seen if they will retain Premier League status but their achievement this year must be lauded. And the secret of their success is a classic demonstration of the power of engaged employees built, as it was, on the five essential pillars of employee engagement: clear vision and leadership; effective communication; giving employees a voice; giving employees the opportunity to achieve their potential; trusting your people.

Clear vision and leadership

Successful companies are those that have a clearly articulated vision of what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it. Typically this is a vision that has been created by a strong and visible leader – think Steve Jobs at Apple (design), Jeff Bezos at Amazon (customer obsession), James Dyson (engineering excellence) – and has been cascaded down through the organisation, influencing everything the brand does. Such was the case with Norwich. A powerful executive team of Stuart Webber (Sporting Director) and Daniel Farke (Head Coach) shared a clear vision of how to engineer a return to the top flight. When things were not going so well the ownership team of Delia Smith and husband Michael Wynn-Jones chose to 'stick to the plan'. And one of Farke's first appointments was Christoph Zimmerman, a powerful, intelligent centre back who quickly became an inspirational leader on the field. A strong spine of leadership from the boardroom to front-line and a shared vision would lead to success both on and off the pitch.

Effective communication

Norwich has always benefited from being a community club. It is the only major football club in Norfolk (some say East Anglia), has strong links with the local population (many of whom are shareholders) and retains a strong relationship with the regional newspaper. Players happily support the charitable activities and many make their homes next door to their supporters – rather than some gated, isolated estate. As such the club has little hierarchy and very open channels of communication. AGMs, fan forums, local events and local media focused on the one team mean communication throughout the club is effortless and effective.

Giving employees a voice

In an interview in the Independent in July 2017, Farke described his open style and willingness to hear others' opinions. "My door is open 24 hours. We can discuss things – I don't think I'm a magician or the only guy who knows anything about football. I said to the players in the first meeting: 'When you think you have other ideas, or you think I am wrong, come into my room, we will talk about everything". He concluded, joking "... and in the end, we will realise I'm always right."

While you don't necessarily need a full-blown survey with a squad of 25 giving employees the opportunity to voice an opinion on a regular basis is the hallmark of a strong and successful business. And it increases the sense of engagement that employees feel with the business.

Giving employees the opportunity to achieve their potential

Brands that excel in customer service tend to be those that have a simple recruitment policy – hire for attitude train for skills. This seems to be a maxim that Norwich City share. They have sought out players (many from the second tier of the Bundesliga) who have not been household names but have shown the will to succeed. Teemu Pukki the EFL player of the year arrived on a free transfer and a determination, shaped by recent fatherhood, to succeed. The club has also brought on young players from their own academy on the basis that 'if you're good enough you're old enough'. Max Aaarons and Jamal Lewis both got their chance through this route.

At the same time, the club has invested in off-field facilities with an overhaul of the academy and training facilities.

Above all trust your people

Recent research from Global PR Edelman shows that people who trust their employer are twice as likely to be engaged with and advocates of the company they work for and are less than half as likely to churn. Norwich City's sporting director Stuart Webber has already stated publicly on Radio 5 his support for his current crop of players as they move up to face the big guns of the Premier League. "We are strong enough to give it a good go," he said. "We back all these players. They still have development in them."

As a Norwich City fan, I hope he's right.

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