Why managers are at the heart of this consultancy’s engagement strategy

As HR leaders head into 2024, employee engagement will likely remain a vexing challenge; recent research from Gartner found that less than one-third of employees report being engaged in their work. One leading supply chain consultancy is looking to drive retention—and has already seen significant success in doing so—by giving more ownership for and accountability on engagement to one population: managers.

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Bristlecone—which provides AI-powered transformation services for the digital supply chain—recently rolled out HiNgage, an engagement model that, in part, functions as a “manager report card,” where employees and managers work together to pinpoint and confront obstacles to engagement. It’s work that has allowed Bristlecone—which employs 2,600 people in India, about 150 in the U.S. and another 100 around the globe—to cut attrition numbers by more than half in recent years, says Lisa Lesko, chief people officer at Bristlecone.

Lesko, who joined Bristlecone in 2020, has also held HR and talent leadership roles at software company LotLinx, Revlon, Frontier Communications, Avon, Nokia, IBM and more. She recently shared with HRE how Bristlecone is looking to deepen its employee engagement work in 2024 and how other employers can follow suit.

HRE: How has Bristlecone’s approach to employee engagement evolved in recent years, particularly driven by the pandemic?

Lisa LeskoLesko: When I joined the organization three years ago, it was in the midst of COVID so I was hired basically sight unseen, via video. But coming in at that time, the real challenge was, how do we connect with employees? How do we engage them? It became very important for us to figure out how to build this culture where people feel accepted.

Most of our employees are based in four sites in India and then we have a lot of our leadership team here in the U.S. and we have pockets of people globally—so, it was a big challenge. It was really important for us to figure out how to be visible, using video to connect and engage with people—but also to find out what was on their minds. India, especially, went through a really hard time with COVID. We really needed to let them know we understood what they were going through and to let them be heard. We said, “We want to hear what’s on your mind—and the actions we can take to help.” And that’s been well-received by employees.

HRE: What was the impetus for HiNgage?

Lesko: Coming out of the Great Resignation, our attrition rose to 27%—the highest we had ever seen at Bristlecone. We really had to dig deeper and find out why people were leaving. We knew the market had started to boom and there were more opportunities, but we knew there was something deeper we needed to fix.

So, we started talking with employees and found out there was an issue with the connection employees had with their managers. It was harder for them, being remote, to get access to their managers. So, to help better prepare managers, we implemented HiNgage, which is a program that continues to serve as a robust framework to facilitate ongoing, meaningful conversations between managers and employees. We had managers take more ownership of engagement [to find out] what was on each employee’s mind.

Engagement is not a one-size-fits-all exercise. [Managers] have to understand what’s going on with each employee and then we have them assess them using something called the RAG Model—red, amber, green to help assess their risk [for leaving].

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If someone is in the red, managers then commit to specific actions, and that really helped managers learn that being a manager is not just about driving results—it’s also about needing to understand what’s motivating, engaging employees and putting an action plan in place.

HRE: What has the impact been like?

Lesko: When we implemented this, attrition was at 27%, and in the first quarter, it came down to the low 20s and it’s continued to plummet; today, we’re at 12.6%. We’ve also seen engagement spike up. Our ENP has gone up as well as our Glassdoor ratings; they had hovered at 3.7 and now we’re at 4.1. So, we’ve seen some really exciting results, and the goal is really to keep engagement high, attrition low and to help people feel good about being part of the organization.

HRE: What’s ahead for employee engagement in 2024 for Bristlecone?

Lesko: We want to take all of this a step further, looking at our employee value proposition. We talked to people across the organization—employees, managers, leaders—about why they love Bristlecone and what makes them want to come to work each day and we’ve come up with our employee value proposition that we’re in the process of rolling out and branding. We’re going to start seeding it within the organization and embed it into everything we do—policies, processes, programs. This is the voice of the employee, what they said is important to them.

One of the biggest things that came out of COVID is [employees’ focus on] work/life balance—especially in India and especially with women. We’ve seen our competitors and our peers call people back to the office but we stayed firm: We put together a hybrid work model and, until we find any loss of productivity or results, I don’t see a reason to change that or rock the boat. And [hybrid] has also helped keep our attrition down.

HRE: Given Bristlecone’s use of AI, how is the company turning to the tech to power its own people strategy?

Lesko: AI is very important for us. We have an AI and analytics division, we have a modern engineering platform solution, and, as we go to market on all of our solutions, we widely share what we do for our customers and how we help them with digital transformation within our own company. Most recently, in partnership with my talent development team and our AI and analytics capability area, we’re focusing on building internal capability around generative AI. This is the next wave of the future and we want to build our people’s core expertise because that is going to be beneficial to our clients too.

We’re having all of our developers, no matter where they are in business, go through this program on generative AI, learn everything about ChatGPT and all the areas we’re finding a lot of demand for. We’re building our internal expertise in these areas and we’re also looking at the capabilities we’re bringing into the workforce.

HRE: Any HR resolutions for 2024?

Lesko: I want to keep engagement high and attrition low, so everything we’re going to be doing is centered around that. When I joined three years ago, we put a people strategy in place, aligned with the CEO, and we’re still using that today, but some of the priorities will change. One of those is culture; we want to ensure people remain heard, have different channels available to them, feel comfortable reaching out to us. We also want to further develop leadership to role model our culture.

We’re also focused on building our digital and other functional capabilities but also honing in on key organizational capabilities that we need to continue to grow as a business—change management, agility. It’s important to know your talent because that’s critical to success, so we’re continuing to do an annual talent review to help us understand where our people are, who are the high-potentials and what we can do for them.

We want to especially keep focusing on managers, making sure they have the capabilities they need to be effective and to listen to what’s on the minds of employees every step of the way.

HRE: Outside of work, what are you passionate about?

Lesko: I’ve spent a lot more time with CSR activities and do quite a bit of activity in India, where most of our employees are. Especially in the services business we’re in, it’s very male-dominated, so we want to get in there early and work with women who are not even in college yet to support them, educate them, empower them and make them feel comfortable that they have a support network.

We do a lot with organizations in India to promote women in the workplace, especially those who might not have opportunities or resources available to them. We have a smaller presence in the U.S., but our next focus is going to be on doing more of this work in the U.S.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].