It’s All About Engagement!


I really enjoy listening to a Ted Talk on YouTube by Ernesto Sirolli titled, “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!” Over many years I have heard numerous intelligent smart people talking about the need to ‘educate’ people about many things. I have been to numerous workshops in many countries which end up being talkfests with invited speakers exceeding their time allocation resulting in the time allocated for discussion and interaction being cut back or even eliminated totally. What I have found is that many people who are the intended targets of such ‘education’ or who sacrifice their valuable time to participate in workshops end up becoming frustrated and angry because they were unable to share their experiences or contribute their views through ‘engagement’.

What’s ‘engagement’?

Many people love to talk and ‘educate’ others. There are far fewer who love to listen and become engaged. ‘Engagement’ is totally different to ‘education’ in that it does not involve just one person sharing what they know with others or how they think things should to be done. It is quite the opposite. ‘Engagement’ is a process in which the minds and experiences of a group of people are harnessed to generate new thinking and answers to challenges that we need to address (and some we didn’t even know we needed to address!).

Why is it important?

Because no one person is that smart that they know all the answers. And that’s what Sirolli’s Ted Talk is all about. By trying to educate people instead of engaging them, totally negative outcomes can quite often result – such as the hippopotamuses that came out of the river ate all the tomatoes! Highly successful global entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, always engaged with people in order to become successful. For example, Branson invited a group of smart innovative scientists to his private Caribbean island in 2014 so he could get up to speed with leading edge technological developments that might or might not add dimensions to his many business interests in future years. He didn’t educate these scientists – he listened to them and engaged them so that everyone, including himself, could leave the island a few days later on a much higher plane.

What’s an example?

Some years ago the senior management team at a large New Zealand whiteware manufacturer asked staff to think of a way they could speed up the change-out of plastic injection moulds for their many product lines. Often the runs were for only a few hundred units and the change-out times to switch moulds took 6 hours or more – a lot of down time. The person who came up with the solution (and who was highly rewarded) was the guy who swept the floors in the production area. He spent hours in that area each day – but wasn’t ‘blinkered’ like the technical staff. Not being an engineer, his answer was quite logical and simple. He figured out that if the six most-used moulds were fitted onto a single swivel unit which could be easily rotated from one mould to the next, a large time saving would result. The company implemented his suggestion and achieved time savings of over 80%. This ‘outside the box’ solution was generated through bottom up ‘engagement’, not top down ‘education’.

What are other examples?

A large water retailer in New Zealand was working hard to improve its operational efficiency and customer service. As part of its strategic planning process, one of the 16 people asked to contribute in  interactive working sessions was the lady who sat at reception and who also processed water account payments for many ‘off the street’ customers. The CEO deliberately included her because she was the person who had the greatest interaction with customers and knew more about their views towards the utility than anyone else in-house. In April 2014 I wrote this about another business; “Digital Business is an example that many other businesses in Trinidad &Tobago can learn a great deal from. Success today, particularly in a world where talented people are in demand internationally and who tend to be highly mobile, requires everyone in a business to be engaged and to be encouraged to contribute towards that success. It also requires thinking outside the box and doing what no one has done before.” Engagement is something that the CEO (Quinten Questal) and his Board excelled at and that was reflected in the rapid growth rates this business had achieved in a very competitive field over 11 years.

What does this mean for Boards and Executives?

Chief Executive online recently published an article titled,“6 Trends That Will Drive Better Board Oversight in 2015”. The thrust of the article is that boards need to be more proactive and not simply rubber stamp what senior executives put in front of them. Being prepared to engage with and listen to ‘Activists’ was also identified as a particular priority area. ‘Activists’ are both in-house and external people who are often very knowledgeable people with a strong interest in what a company does. But they are rarely given the chance to become engaged. If board members and senior executives took more time to ‘shut up and listen’ and engaged with such people, it is quite possible the business they guide would benefit in two ways - the first in not having to ‘educate’ people to try and redress situations where things have gone seriously wrong and second, by integrating external views into the informational and decision-making processes and adding new dimensions to a business. Both would reduce company risk exposure.


Ian Ivey


Ian is an internationally experienced businessman and consultant and an investor/partner in several businesses internationally. He is fluent in several languages and has worked with clients in many different sectors in more than 40 countries over the past 25 years.

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