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Festo GB goes in for the skill

18 June 2010

FP Express spent a day on Festo Training & Consulting's management training course (Don't Just Feed Me Chicken) and discovered why MD Gary Wyles places such importance in skills

I wasn't exactly sure what to expect when I arrived at the Hawk Conservancy Trust in Andover for a Festo management awareness workshop on a warm, clear Spring morning. Festo MD Gary Wyles had offered to get me on the course so I could observe the importance with which Festo regards skills - and how it puts its principles into practice.

Everytime I've met Gary, he emphasises how crucial skills and management training are to Festo GB - and to the company as a whole. In fact, Gary says this keen interest in the wellbeing of his employees stems from a like-minded attitude from German headquarters in Esslingen.

During my last visit to Festo headquarters, Gary had spoken passionately about the way employees are trained and treated. He was at pains to stress that the wellbeing of staff is paramount to the success of the business. I was introduced to several Festo employees who had been with the company for many years (unusual in this day and age) or who were happy working for Festo, and relaxed in pointing this out.

Just in case I had any lingering doubts, Gary offered me a place on the course. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. 'Don't Just Feed Me Chicken' is organised by Festo and hosted by the Hawk Conservancy Trust. It was conducted by Mark Hemming, a specialist consultant at Festo, and attended by members of the National Skills Academy two other training organisations and other Festo employees.

``Much has been publicised recently regarding 'employee engagement' and its impact on the productivity of organisations,'' Festo says in its preview to 'Don't Just Feed Me Chicken'. ``Surveys indicate the situation is even more challenging in the UK than in some other economies with which the UK must compete. Further reports and research show direct managers have the largest single influence on employee engagement. This workshop will explore the links between leadership and engagement.''

It was clear from the start Mark would be running a tight ship, which was crucial, considering how much material he'd be addressing in one day. Nonetheless, the course never felt rushed although a lot of ground was covered between 9am-5pm.

The objectives of the course were raising awareness of reported levels of 'disengagement' in the workplace; bringing attention to the importance and relevance of 'engagement' in the workplace; 'engaging' participants in a valuable learning experience that cannot be replicated in the 'classroom'; providing participants with information and tools to measure and enable employee 'engagement'; and to leave the course with more questions than you have answers to.

The first order of business was the introductions, which was a unique experience in itself. We were divided into groups of twos and threes, then had a few minutes to find out about our colleagues at our tables so we could introduce them to the rest of the group. This novel form of interaction set the tone for the rest of the day - this truly was 'out of the box' thinking.

After a morning session in which Mark pointed out different types of employees in an organisation (many of us are disengaged from our tasks at work and some are actively disengaged, even to the point of being saboteurs), he unveiled an interesting graph showing how the UK lags behind the US, Chile and Israel with regard to employee engagement.

The lesson here was simple: if managers were more aware of the importance of workplace engagement, they could concentrate on improving employees' productivity and thus increase overall productivity.

So how best to illustrate this on a theoretical-practical course? Well, by using birds of prey, of course. The Hawk Conservancy Trust hadn't been chosen as host and venue without good reason. ``The Conservancy acts as a case study for part of the workshop enabling participants to explore the impact of employee engagement on their business,'' the preview points out.

``As a charitable trust in the area of wildlife conservation, they're even more dependent on having fully engaged employees than most commercial organisations.''

The task that would then take up much of the day followed. We were introduced to four of the handlers at the conservancy - and with each handler came a bird of prey. We were then each given eight anonymous profiles of employees at the Conservancy and, after spending some time with the people and the birds, were required to match them up with their profiles.

It sounded easy - far easier than it in fact turned out to be because each profile sounded like it belonged to a human, and therein lay the key to the task. Who knew that a bird had a 'tendency to sulk' or that it was 'aloof and arrogant'?

Over the next few hours, we discovered exactly why the birds had human-like personality profiles: they each had their own personalities. Take one eagle, for instance, which formed a strong bond with its handler.

When the handler turned to other tasks and had to pass on the eagle's handling to somebody else, the bird was understandably quite put out and took a while to get used to its new handler. So far, so birdlike. The most surprising thing happened next: when the original handler returned to take care of his former charge, he was met with cold anger. The bird was sulking. It felt abandoned and snubbed - and it took the handler four years to regain its trust.

This theory was expanded on as we spent time with the birds, and were each permitted to handle and feed them. As the falcon, hawk, eagle and owl were put through their paces, the handlers spoke about themselves and their birds, emphasising how well (or not) they worked as a team and pointing out individual traits. It gradually became clear that, yes, we were looking at eight very different personalities. Things were getting interesting.

The experience served as an analogy to demonstrate that irrespective of whether the employees have ‘arms‘ or ‘wings‘ the participants needed to recognise any ‘personality‘ needs to be understood and managed as an individual in order to ensure employee engagement levels are high.

There is simply too much information on the day to be fully absorbed - but I found myself thinking back to the course and using everyday incidents to relate to it for some time afterwards. One aspect as such was its ability to plant seeds in your mind which germinate only later. A thought that occurred to me was just how clever the use of birds is in this analogy because they have no hidden agenda. If the birds aren‘t handled according to their personality they become disengaged and simply refuse to co-operate; they don’t pretend to co-operate as a human might.

This highlights the challenge facing managers as employees often hide their disengagement because they feel a need to comply. Managers need to understand compliance isn‘t the same as engagement.

So were the objectives of 'Don't Just Feed Me Chicken' met? In my case, yes. And it turns out that in Festo's case a hawk in the hand is certainly worth more than two in the bush.

Festo Training & Consulting runs `Don’t Just Feed Me Chicken‘ throughout summer for clients wishing to learn more about employee engagement.

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