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Engagement - A Journey, Not a Checkbox

Engagement is a hot topic. Companies want to know how to keep employees engaged because it reduces turn-over and improves performance. Colleges and universities know that engaged students are more likely to graduate (and less likely to default on student loans!). Given the emphasis on engagement, it's no surprise whole industries have sprung up around improving engagement.

Like with many other "hot topics", organizations can get wrapped up in "New Shiny Syndrome" when it comes to engagement. Somebody packages a glitzy set of practices, slaps a glossy cover on it and peddles it to the HR directors of organizations that want to fast-track engagement, and then everybody's disappointed (at best) or engagement decreases (worse case) when it doesn't magically happen.

(That's not to say good resources aren't out there. There are some great books, engagement programs, and tools that both public and private organizations can leverage to improve engagement, and a number of really great thought leaders doing good work on this topic! Definitely check them out!)

No matter how many "employee engagement surveys" people take, if that's where the engagement initiative ends, it's going to backfire. Engagement is a culture, not a button you can push. I think of engagement like I think of happiness. I can't make somebody else happy, or engaged, but I can create space where they can be happy, where they can be engaged. I also see this process as a never-ending journey where we continuously improve the current environment while seeking new and better ways to achieve yet-greater results. If improvement is the metric, rather than a random, fixed "engagement KPI", we can change the way we see engagement and how we go about creating those spaces.

In the workplace, maybe that looks like true open door policies, where communication is transparent and welcome, and active efforts to help colleagues recognize how their work adds value. Our society doesn't lend itself well to the "just a number" approach to employee satisfaction. People want to feel like they have some agency over their efforts, and that their work has a direct, meaningful impact. So often, just framing the company vision in approachable language or engaging in a robust "workplace improvement" initiative where people see their input being valued and acted on can make all the difference. I really don't care about having yet another gizmo collecting dust on my desk. I do care that my efforts have meaning and make a difference to both my colleagues and the people we ultimately impact.

In academia, the definition of "engaged space" is changing as the world in which we learn changes rapidly around us.

As both a continuing student myself and parent of college students, I'm very excited to see this shift in the academic paradigm, Everyone I know has sat in at least one class and twiddled their thumbs, just marking time until they could breeze through the exam and move on to other classes. The trend towards competency-based learning actively rewards those students who bring a body of knowledge with them into academic space, and makes higher education a place where people are excited to move on to the next new learning opportunity, rather than feeling like they're just part of a faceless revenue stream.

There's also a distinct shift in what student advising looks like. My first college advisor had a lot in common with my Navy recruiter - they both were neither 100% transparent nor honest about a number of topics, resulting in some unpleasant experiences! While the burden is on the consumer to suss out the facts, there's a huge disparity in these kinds of relationships, especially for 1st generation entrants! You can't ask questions you don't even know exist.

Luckily, my latest advisor (WGU calls them "Student Mentors") more closely fit that "mentor" Archetype. We had weekly check-ins, where we talked about everything, from my educational and career goals, specific questions about particular classes or "soft skill" and a host of other topics. Jelda Hostetler was cheerleader, resource-finder, sympathetic ear, and coach, all rolled into one amazing person. Her constant connection to and investment in my progress was a critical component in my ability to complete my degree ahead of schedule while balancing an incredibly robust (and often conflicting) set of personal and professional responsibilities. That same attitude and connection was true of each one of the course mentors, and I always knew I had a committed, capable team ready to offer guidance and support at every step of the way through my graduate program.

As a graduate (and outspoken advocate) of WGU, I've had people ask me about the recent OIG audit. The National Study of Student Engagement (NSSE) quantifies my experience almost perfectly, and I'm not alone. I have spoken with a number of my friends (many of whom recommended WGU in the first place) and our experiences are all very similar. We felt well-supported by engaged faculty while pursuing a rigorous course of study that we feel was applicable to and meaningful in our chosen professions.

That's more than I can say about some of my "traditional" college experiences!

Creating a culture of engagement can be complicated, and the landscape does shift. I applaud organizations that accept that challenge, and look forward to lending my own time and talent to cultivating fertile fields for engagement to grow within my spheres of influence.

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