111: Make Your People Care About Your Business with Sri Chellappa

Srikant Chellappa is the president and co-founder of Engagedly, an employee engagement and development software platform that redefines the performance review process. In his spare time, Sri also produces movies, makes music, and hosts the People Strategy Leaders Podcast. We discuss the benefits of having engaged employees, how OKRs ramp up employee motivation, and where most companies fail with employee engagement. 

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Make Your People Care About Your Business with Sri Chellappa

Our guest is Srikant Chellappa, President and Co-Founder of Engagedly, an employee engagement and development software platform that redefines the performance review In his spare time, Srikant also produces movies, makes music, and he is the host of the People Strategy Leaders podcast. Srikant, welcome to the show. 

Thanks a lot, Steve. It’s a pleasure to have you from my own studio here. 

Yeah, I love your studio and the background. It’s very engaging, if I may say. 

Thank you.

So let’s start with your entrepreneurial journey. So how did you arrive at the place when you’re running this company when you also have produced movies and music along the way?

Well, it’s a it just happens, I guess, in many ways with serendipity, right? You work for a company, you realize this is not what I want to do. I want to do my own thing. And you run into people that challenge you. And eventually what happened is I ran into somebody from the last startup that I worked with. And I was not the founder, but I ran into the original founder and he had he had a small fledgling startup and we joined hands and we grew that company 50 fold. And that was really the start of my entrepreneurial journey, essentially, you know, and that was a big success. You know, we sold that company for a high three figure millions of dollars.

And that was really good. And I wanted to find my next gig. And, you know, we, through that connection, through other connections we met, me and my partner met, his name is Jeff, and he had an idea for employee engagement software. And that’s where I, all the dots connected, you know, like Steve Jobs says, you can only look back and see and connect all the dots, not looking forward sometimes. And all my experience with working with Fortune 500, Fortune 1000 companies led me to believe there’s an opportunity in improving employee engagement and this software and the solution that we discussed made a lot of sense. So that’s how Engagedly started about seven years ago and here we are.

Yes, that’s a big topic in employee engagement, especially now that a lot of companies have remote staff, partially or fully remote, or even if they are not remote, it is a challenge to keep people not just coming in and blocking on the hour and get their paycheck, but actually to be engaged and bring their energy and their ideas and their enthusiasm to the business. So. So tell me about a simple framework to think about engaging people at work. So how would you approach it if you really wanted to simplify? Obviously, your software is probably an all-encompassing solution. We’ll get into it later, but just what are the basics of it, basic building blocks of it? 

So we talk about engagement very narrowly, unfortunately, in the world. When you talk about employee engagement software, they’re very narrowly focused on measuring employee engagement or giving them a rewards recognition or giving some sort of a gift or things like that. But really it’s much bigger. Every touchpoint with an employee in an organization is an engagement that you have with the employee. And those are the moments, I’ll call them the moments that matter, where you have to make sure that the engagement is fulfilling for the employee while producing value for the organization.

Every touchpoint with an employee in an organization is an engagement that you have with the employee. Click To Tweet

So the framework that I like to use is the E3 framework, which is focusing on the, the first E is the engagement of employee through recognition, through rewards, through measuring engagement, and just identifying where the problems are. That’s the first part. The second E is really about enablement, which is giving the person the right tools and development and growth opportunities so that they feel like they’re making progress. People become disengaged. Everything else might be fine, but people will become disengaged if they feel like they’re not growing and learning something new.

The third part of the engagement is about execution organizational goals, aligning the people to the organizational strategy, making that transparent, where they feel like their work matters, where they feel they have a purpose in the organization, they’re moving the ball forward, and they have visibility, transparency, and trust in the organization, where the organization is making their goals transparent and open so that organizations can have transparency from both sides, right? A lot of organizations will not necessarily tell people why they’re doing what they’re doing, and then employees get disengaged because they don’t know how their work matters.

And I think the third part of execution, getting them in the execution process rather than telling them what to do is the third E. So it’s the engagement, enablement and execution of strategy. So that’s the E3 framework at a broad level. And obviously we can get into more details if you want, but ultimately you have to look at all three of them. It’s not just one thing. You know, it’s not like, oh, if we give more training, people will be engaged. Or if we just give them anniversary gifts or recognize them for good work, they’ll be engaged. You need to have all these three things working in unison to make this work. So where do you feel that companies are the weakest? Which which is which is the link that tends to be most neglected.

I think the companies as you get bigger, especially if you go remote, the alignment and transparency of the execution of strategy is where companies get really weak. You know, they feel lost, they feel isolated, especially in a remote work environment where they don’t know why their work matters. If somebody is, let’s say, all they’re doing is generating TPS reports. They don’t know why they’re doing that. At some point they feel like I’m just doing some mundane work that makes no sense. All I’m doing is so that I can put bread on my table and that can lead to a lot of disengagement at a broad level.

The easiest fix, however, that cloud companies can take is recognition. It doesn’t cost anything. It’s actually free, but managers are not very good at recognizing, you know, employees effort. A simple thing like thank you for doing this, giving them a shout out, praising somebody in front of others, in front of their peers, simple things like that, which doesn’t cost anything can go a long way. So those are some of the simple things you can do. The organizational strategy, transparency is obviously a little bit more cultural at a broader level. So I would say those are two things that as a manager, you can do one thing very quickly, as an organization, you need to do something more, I would say, a bigger.

Why is it that people don’t pay attention to aligning the organization around the strategy? So how is it difficult to do or why do people oversee them or overlook them?

It’s actually very simple explanation. As a manager or a leader or a VP, you are thinking about your own goals of what you need to accomplish. And then the next thing you think about is, what do I need to tell this person, this person and this person to do? And then if they do it, I will have accomplished my goals. But they are not connecting their dots and thinking beyond saying, well, I need to tell them why and then I need to tell them why I’m doing what I’m doing, what is our overall goal and why it matters.

And that is the next step they need to do to really motivate them, the people, which they’re like, I’m the VP, they should just do what I’m telling them to do, you know, and hopefully they’ll do it. And maybe they will and maybe they won’t. But even if they do, they may not be doing it with the best of their ability? Maybe they’re just punching the clock, you know, as they call it, phoning in to do the job. And I think it’s easier to tell people what to do rather than try to get them to buy in into why you’re doing what you’re doing.

It's easier to tell people what to do rather than try to get them to buy in into why you're doing what you're doing. Click To Tweet

It is more work, but to some people, this comes naturally, to others, it comes as a shock, I guess. So my personal experience with this, I started my career 30 years ago with KPMG, and I went out on this audit, and my manager just came to me and said, run this test, but he gave me no indication why this test was important, you know, how it fits in the big picture. And I felt very frustrated because it was very demotivating to just mechanically do something. And the review came up, and I mentioned this, that I felt it was really important to do, and this is what I want to do with my subordinates. And they look like right there in the headlights. It came as a shock to them that it was even a thing. And it shocked me that they thought that way. And then as I moved forward in my career, I saw that it was not an obvious thing at all for most people to do that.

And that’s right, because if you don’t know why you’re doing something, you will just go through the motions and be maybe you are on the ground, you will have a better idea if you understand if if why you’re doing makes sense. Maybe you’ll come up with a better way of doing it because you’re ultimate. You understand the ultimate goal rather than just a specific task. So for example, you know, if you tell somebody, hey, let’s run this email campaign. And you don’t tell them why that email campaign is important. Maybe it’s part of a bigger product release or a solution release.

Maybe you’re doing a big announcement at a conference somewhere. If they get that full picture, maybe they’ll come up with a better idea. Say, hey, maybe we should run this email, but we should probably message it with this conference campaign that’s gonna come out or the announcement that’s gonna come out. They’ll think a little bit beyond what their current task is. So I think that’s, and that’s where the engagement comes in because then they feel like they’re actually contributing to the overall success rather than just running this task which they don’t know how it connects to the bigger picture.

That makes perfect sense. So let’s switch gears here. Let’s talk about your business, which is focused on engaging people. It’s called Engagedly. So what do you do and how do you help business leaders to engage their people?

So, Engagedly uses the E3 framework that I mentioned earlier. So we basically have modules for recognition, rewards, employee engagement survey, and then a module for learning and developing, building coaching programs, mentoring programs. We also have modules for aligning people to goals, building skill paths, capturing their skills so they can understand where they need to go next, what skills they need to work on, and then aligning people on their overall organizational objectives. And then so the review process is a little bit more, is a lot more objective, but it’s also more continuous because you’re doing all these discussions throughout the year.

So we really changed the way performance reviews is done because that is a point of engagement. You know, doing a review and preparing for the review and having the review discussion is a point of engagement. You want to make that as painless as possible. It’s never going to be fun. I get that, you know, but performance reviews are never fun. It’s actually one of the most stressful events that an employee goes through in a year. What we can do is reduce that pain, make it a little bit more predictable where they’re not getting a surprise at the end of the year or end of the performance period.

So a lot of companies have done away with annual reviews. Some of them don’t even use ratings anymore and some of them do use ratings. We are fine with all that approach. Whatever works is fine for the company, but doing what you do between those reviews throughout the year, that’s what really matters. So this whole argument about whether we should do ratings or not, do ratings, whether we should do annual review or not, is actually missing the point. I think it’s what you do between the reviews is actually what sets the context for employee engagement and performance and overall employee growth. Yeah, that’s a platform.

What I experienced, the way I see this, the way I experienced this is if a company only does the annual review, then what’s gonna happen is two or three weeks before review, the employer is going to think about all the good things that they did for the company, and they are going to make their case that they have done a fantastic job. They’re going to rationalize it because for lack of feedback, they will just have to make things up. And then they come into the review, their reviewer may or may not be prepared with all the information that happened.

And then the reviewer might even have a quota or not being able to promote a certain number of people, a number of people or pay raises, whatever, and becomes this tense discussion. So what I like to suggest to my clients is to have at least a quarterly conversation between these reviews. I call the mentor meetings when you talk about you give feedback, you also get the employees feedback. You know exactly where they are. You give your you share your expectations. You understand their expectations. You reenergize this relationship so that the employee, by the time they get to the annual review, they already know where they stand, they know what the expectations are, so it becomes a much smoother conversation.

Right, exactly, exactly. And especially if you, as a manager, have 7 or 8 or 10 people reporting to you, there’s no way you’re going to remember that because you are busy with your activities and answering to your boss, you’re busy with that. And when you get to the review time, you only remember what happened in the last four weeks. You don’t remember what happened six months ago or nine months ago. And that’s where the annual review only process works. So it’s not necessarily a beat on the annual review process itself. What it is, is an issue with what happened throughout the year. Did you do, like you said, giving feedback along the way? Did you do quarterly check-ins? Did you do monthly check-ins? Did you set objective results, key results that you are focused on? Did you help the employee or did you just throw them out to the sharks along the way? Those are all the things that matter along the way. Analytical becomes a lot more of an open discussion rather than carrots and punishment type of approach. 

Now, you mentioned objectives and key results or OKRs or sometimes called ROCs, which are the core objectives. Are you of the opinion that those should be part of the review process or the review should be based on them or they should be removed from it? There is a school of thought that if you link the achievement of the OKRs with the performance appraisal, then people are going to be tempted to sandbag their OKRs and to go for easier ones rather than ambitious ones. So what is your thought on that? 

I don’t necessarily have, I mean, I can understand both points of view, right? I think sandbagging and trying to make OKRs easy so that they look good in the review process can happen. To me, that displays a lack of trust and psychological safety between the employee and their manager. When tough OKRs are set, and OKRs, in my opinion, should be stretch goals. They shouldn’t be the ones that you will hit 100% of the time. I mean, some people sometimes do hit 100% of the time, but it should be a rarity, in fact. And as long as managers and employees understand that that it’s a rarity, that that’s when it will happen and you’re not going to be penalized because you didn’t hit 100% of your OKRs. That then it’s fine to do that for review process.

But it’s like, how do you know whether an organization has that or not, right? Some organizations may have the psychological safety. Some organizations don’t where they have that. I think OKRs can be part of the review process. Where they don’t have that, maybe the organization doesn’t make it part of the review process. But there needs to be some level of accountability for the OKRs. If it is not part of any accountable impact to the employee or the group or the team or function, then what’s the point of doing OKRs at all, right? Because if you know that if you miss it, nothing happens. And if you achieve it, maybe nothing happens, you know. And so at that point, you had a question, how do you make person or the team accountable for cash? So there’s a lot of different approaches people can take. I don’t know if I have a good answer. Maybe, Steve, you can you can tell us what what you’ve seen work in that sense.

Yeah, I mean, I’m just wondering that if there is a culture where people are engaged with the mission of the company, where they are excited by their work, then wouldn’t they want to achieve their OKRs whether they get a pay raise or not? 


Or is it the pay raise or the bonus that is going to motivate them to shoot for the OKRs? 

Yeah, I think it depends. In sales and all revenue related jobs. It does motivate them to shoot for the OKRs because salespeople inherently are motivated by monetary incentives. But in a team like engineering or operations, that’s not the case necessarily. Right. They are not motivated by that, but they are motivated by maybe coming across as somebody who’s an expert in their area. They’re motivated by making sure that they’ve done their best job and the end product looks great. And that gives them satisfaction when customers love their product or the rest of the organization loves their work. So it, so it, it, it varies by individual based on their role and their motivation. So it’s, it’s, there’s not unfortunately one best practice that I would recommend. I think it really depends on the team and their role, and to some extent, the individual themselves. That’s what the managers have to be smart about. How do you set the right incentives for the employee based on what motivates them?

Yeah, I agree. That makes sense. So the Engage with Lee platform, how does it help a manager to create that engagement or to stimulate it?

So there are tools in the platform and across all three E’s. So it has a tool for giving recognition publicly on a social feed. You can create badges for each of the values and other type of badges if you wanna create, you know, if you’re on challenges, you wanna create badges for that. So managers and organization leaders can give badges out and people can give badges and praises to anybody. It’s not just manager to employee, it can be peer to peer, or it can be even from a peer or an individual to their manager or to their leadership as well. Because I think that motivates the manager too.

It’s not always the employee, it’s a lot of times it’s the manager who sometimes need to be more engaged. In fact, the more engaged the manager is, the more engaged the team will be. And then it has tools for creating learning programs, onboarding tools for trainings that people can get assigned to, sharing ideas, but also it has tools for giving real-time feedback in a private setting, getting 360 feedback for assessments and development needs, also OKR. So there are all these things, you know, as I mentioned earlier, assist in building better engagement because you’re developing people, you’re recognizing people, you’re making your goals transparent and aligning people better.

The more engaged the manager is, the more engaged the team will be. Click To Tweet

So there are various different tools that allow you to do that. One of the things that we also have in our platform, which is fairly unique to our platform as a performance management and engagement platform is mentoring platform. We have a mentoring module where you can assign and you can select your own mentors from any part of the organization and then have a private mentoring relationship completely disconnected from your manager. So that way you can have a lot more personalized discussions without having an impact on your role or your relationship with your manager.

Now, I wonder who manages this platform inside the company. Is it HR that manages or is it completely distributed? And if it’s HR, then maybe I have a second follow-up question, whether they should be people-driven, the HR people, or should they be strategy-driven? So what is their ideal role in that?

So we call our platform, you know, People Strategy Platform, which is where the people and strategy leaders is the podcast as well, because it is aligning people process to business strategy. So it needs to be driven by both. So there are people processes that HR people are assigned with, right? Hey, you need to run an annual review. We need to do annual 360s or quarterly 360s or whatever the format is. We need to be compliant with some of our training that people need to take. So assign them these training because they are maybe a healthcare company. So they all need to take HIPAA awareness training every year or some security awareness training every year. So there are HR pieces in the platform.

Then the strategy pieces of the platform is OKRs, you know, understanding my skill pool, trying to understand where my next future leaders are coming from. As a CEO and as a VP, I am interested in understanding what the capabilities and the skill sets are for my people as I continue to grow my team. Should I always be looking to hire from outside or should I look to promote from within, which is what we recommend as well as promote from within, which is then building a mentoring program for them. HR is a facilitator at that point, because they are the ones running these programs with the input from the business leaders. So it’s actually both. But a primary person who has to facilitate all of this is typically an HR leader or somebody in the organizational development role or talent management role?

I think it can be a tough spot for HR leaders sometimes to be between the people and the strategy. They understand the strategy. They understand the people. But how do they, you know, reconcile the two? Sometimes strategy or, you know, top leadership strategy changes are going to create people changes that are not necessarily merit-based. If the leadership decides to cut the division, then you might have to lose people that otherwise are really high performance. 

Yeah. Yeah. So we have a, you know, we have a philosophy that HR leaders should be executives at the strategy table. Right. I think there are, we see a lot of that happening lately, but most of the time HR has been focused, has been relegated to a compliance role and keep people happy role instead of being a strategic planning and execution person with the rest of the business leaders. To me, HR is part of strategy because if you don’t do that well, then HR gets relegated to a somebody you just give stuff to do and there’s not necessarily a buy-in across the board.

So for example, OKRs, right? OKRs, a lot of times HR try to run OKRs and it fails miserably because OKRs are not necessarily an HR thing, it’s a business strategy thing, right? And HR is given that task to run it without even any level of commitment from the CEO or the VP or the other executives. They have to run it. HR can facilitate that to make sure that people are actually following along. But the primary driver for an OKR or a primary driver for even mentoring, for example, has to be driven from the top. Otherwise, you know, people just look at it as one more thing they need to do in their work.

Yeah, I agree. So that’s a lot of moving pieces in the engagement, the three E’s, engagement, execution, and enablement. And then how do you link the strategy with the execution? How do you link the people, your people strategy and your business strategy together? How do you make sure people are not blindsided by their performance appraisal because they have been communicating along the way? This is really important. And if you can bring all these pieces together in a software platform, that can be very powerful. So if people would like to find out more about the Engageedly platform, where do they go? And if they want to learn more, maybe how do they reach out to you?

Yeah, so Engagedly.com, E-N-G-A-G-E-D-L-Y.com. They can connect with me, Sri Chellappa, or Srikanth Chellappa on LinkedIn. And obviously check out my podcast as well, People’s Strategy Leaders podcast, where we talk about people’s strategy quite a bit and leadership in our podcast as well. So that’s the best way to learn about our product, our solution, and myself.

Okay. So, for those of us listening to the show, and if you have a business and you want to improve your people process, you want to get your people more engaged so that they are missionaries rather than mercenaries in your business, not just showing up as task executors, then check out Sri’s company Engagedly and see if their software is the right solution for you to make this happen. So thank you for coming on the show, Sri. I enjoyed the conversation. And for those of you listening, next week I’m going to bring another exciting CEO to the show, so stay tuned. And for those of you listening, next week I’m going to bring another exciting CEO to the show, so stay tuned.


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