For the last two years the Ian Martin Group has been on a mission to re-energize the company.

Externally, we’ve done a major brand refresh, introduced new services, and become a registered B-Corporation. But internally the transformation has been even bigger, as we’ve redefined our values of Authenticity, Entrepreneurship and Stewardship, broken down siloes, and dedicated ourselves to the goals of increasing collaboration and thinking more like owners than employees.

A major driver of increasing collaboration and ownership thinking at Ian Martin has been the creation of the Peer Forum, which is a regular meeting of leaders and middle managers to workshop critical issues and opportunities facing the organization. Having just come away from a recent Peer Forum, I realized that we’re doing a lot of things right when it comes to engaging people in the most important business of the company.

As Med Jones (one of the few people who predicted the most recent US financial crisis) once said: “A CEO’s performance is as good as the performance of his middle managers”. If that’s the case, then our Chief Steward Tim Masson has been smart to spend so much of his time engaging his leaders across the organization. Here are seven things that are helping get people like me all fired up.

1. Communicating the important stuff

With the amount of emails we get every day, you’d think the last thing anyone wants is more communication. But in most organizations employees tend to feel like they are being kept in the dark when it comes to what senior management is thinking.

To make sure that doesn’t happen here, Ian Martin has created a Playbook that details the Why, How, and What of the company. Tim also releases a monthly ‘visibility pack’ that summarizes the regular meeting of the senior leadership team. New strategies, key updates, detailed financial results and things going well and things that need changing are all shared.

It is also expected that every manager in the company has a discussion about the visibility pack with their team. When senior management regularly communicates the important stuff, and also provide a forum for discussion, gossip is minimized and people stay aligned, motivated and focused.

2. Engaging people in the strategy

Paul Hawken once said “Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them.”

Which muppet are you?

Which muppet are you?

In our recent Peer Forum, participants weren’t just sitting there listening – they were brainstorming and planning new ideas to be implemented in the next 90 days. By the end of the meeting, everyone had been divided into workgroups and had very real to-do lists. We’ve also had a lot of fun ‘gamifying’ some activities, and found that even a small competitive element can dramatically increase engagement.

3. Making it fun

Put a group of people in a boardroom for a day-long meeting and most will come out drained and grumpy. That’s why Peer Forum is held in the open atrium of the Ian Martin headquarters. There’s a lot of natural light, collaborative round tables and no closed doors.ChaosvsOrder

A unique workshop format also keeps people interested. Our first Peer Forum was modelled after Dragon’s Den and had teams competing to pitch the best ideas. Our recent Peer Forum kicked off by identifying our individual Muppet personalities, and grouped people based on who were “Pirates” (Chaos) and ‘Navy” (Order). To add to the fun, we built Lego centerpieces for our group tables, and the facilitators got into costume to lead the session. And of course, the day ended over some beers and pub grub.

Did we get as much accomplished as we would have in a regimented meeting behind the closed doors of a boardroom? Probably not. We accomplished a lot more.

4. Forcing cross functional collaboration

Ian Martin is spread across 17 different branches, 5 different brands, and many back office departments keeping the lights on. With a dispersed structure like this, it’s easy to fall into the trap of siloed operation.

That’s why Peer Forum is about mixing everyone up and working in teams made up of different locations and job functions. Not only is there a value in learning what each other are up to, but each problem is tackled from many different points of view.

5. Appreciating everyone’s unique roles & contribution

In group settings often the loudest or most senior people garner the most attention and influence. Ian Martin certainly has its fair share of “pirates” with strong opinions that always get heard. By using an external facilitator, and including voting and small group exercises, we were able to surface more opinions, and let the best ideas (not voices) rise to the top.

The ‘which Muppet are you?’ exercise at the start of the meeting also helped reinforce the principle that each person brings a unique and valuable perspective, and that every personality type has it’s positive and negative elements.

6. Tackling the Innovator’s Dilemma… Together

Management thinker Clayton Christensen is famous for the finding that every longstanding business goes through an ‘S’ curve of growth and then tapering off, which is when the next growth engine needs to appear (or else!). He describes this as the ‘innovator’s dilemma’, as successful companies get too attached to their existing business model and customers’ current needs, and subsequently fail to adopt new approaches that will meet customers’ future needs.

Ian Martin, and pretty much the entire recruiting industry, is facing this dilemma. At the most recent Peer Forum we used the analogy of Pirates vs Navy to push the message that right now the Pirates need to “stop sitting on their hands” and raid the status quo to come up with new ideas that push the limits of how we can better serve customers.

Getting “all hands on deck” by engaging all your middle managers in the ‘Innovator’s Solution’ is critical if you’re going to find your next growth engine. And special rules for pirates also need to be enforced, like making lots of small bets, and valuing failure, lateral thinking and measured experiments.

7. Putting a premium on learning

A former boss of mine often quoted Agha Hasan Abedi in that “the conventional definition of management is getting work done through people, but real management is developing people through work.”

People are at their best when they are in a state of ‘flow’ – when the challenge of the work and skills required are equally high. Strong middle managers want to learn new things and improve themselves, and initiatives like the Peer Forum can not only contribute to strategy and tactical execution, they can also be great training vehicles.

In our last session, our brand manager educated the group on key branding concepts that we not only were asked to understand, but also apply to the exercises we did together. Every activity the teams are asked to do have this double goal – move the business forward, and contribute to the growth of the individuals. When you do this, engagement peaks, and your progress has a chance to be exponential.peerforum2013groupshot

So those are the seven ways I’ve seen the Ian Martin Group increase engagement, collaboration and strategic progress by engaging middle management. Did I miss anything? I’d love to hear what you think!