People + Strategy Journal

Fall 2022

Operationalizing Precision Engagement

A one-size-fits-all approach no longer works with employees. Precision engagement occurs when leaders make a genuine effort to learn about each team member's unique passions, circumstances and needs.

By Dara Richardson-Heron, M.D.

Early on in my training as a physician, we were taught to treat every patient the same, using the same set of diagnostic criteria. The idea of health equity in the 1980s and '90s was generally about making sure that you treated patients equally, irrespective of their race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. At the time, this teaching approach was intended to be a good thing, to help guard against discrimination. However, as I've become much more focused on health equity later in my career, the shortcomings and potential dangers of utilizing a "one size fits all," standardized approach to patient care have become much more evident.

Today, there's a real recognition that, for many reasons, you shouldn't treat every patient the same because everyone doesn't have the same biology. Even people of the same race, nationality or gender with the same medical diagnosis may present with different symptoms. People often respond differently to medications, and very importantly, you must consider the social drivers of health (e.g., where you live, your education, job, ability to access food, transportation and many other factors) when taking care of patients. We now know that treating all patients in the same way may lead to poorer health outcomes and increased health inequities. To decrease health inequities, we must look at a holistic set of circumstances and treat each patient as a unique individual in order to achieve the best outcome, a practice known as precision medicine.Screen Shot 2022-09-20 at 110721 AM.png

There are obvious parallels in the world of work. The most successful leaders know that they cannot look at their workforce as a monolith because it's not. They know that different team members have different skills, passions, interests, motivations, life circumstances and ways of working. While everyone understands intuitively that all people aren't the same, leaders—in medicine and other fields—often do not take the time for what I call precision engagement. 

Precision engagement happens when an authentic leader with a clearly articulated vision and the ability to inspire others makes a genuine effort to learn about each of their team member's unique and individual passions, circumstances, needs and interests as they work in partnership to develop an action plan. 

Precision Engagement in Action

The best example I can share is a personal one, which comes from a time in 2012 when I was recruited to serve as Chief Executive Officer of the National YWCA USA. One of my first major responsibilities was to transform the organization, changing the governance structure from regional to national. Every member of my new leadership team was aware that their role was either going to be eliminated or changed dramatically under the new organizational structure. I was open and transparent about what I had been recruited to do. I also made clear that I was going to partner with my team, both individually and collectively, and solicit their input to co-create the blueprint for our success. After discussing the overview of my initial vision and asking for their insights, I met with each team member to give them an opportunity to get to know me better and for me to learn more about them and hear how they saw themselves in the new organizational structure, and how and where they could add the most value. 

I used that information to draft an organizational chart and map out with my team the roles and responsibilities that were required by the new organizational structure. I then slotted individuals into the roles that I felt best aligned with the skills, interests and passions they had each shared with me. 

As just one specific example of precision engagement, an individual on my team who had been previously leading one of the regions, shared during our 1:1 interview that she had been a librarian early in her career and that she really loved that type of work. Fortuitously, we needed to develop an intranet for the nationwide organization, where we could keep and share best practices, governance, leadership and information about the transformation. We needed a repository for the entire organization, which was then over 200 local associations across the nation. We needed a library of sorts. I realized this employee would be ideal for the position of Director, Resources and Metrics responsible for creating our intranet. This was a match made in heaven—truly a win-win for everyone! 

Scaling Precision Engagement

So, the question becomes, how do you operationalize precision engagement at scale given that it is not an exact science? How do you train leaders to actualize precision engagement without a roadmap or a clear set of standard rules? How can you best operationalize this customized approach given that it is sometimes at odds with the processes organizations put in place to create fairness and standardization?

I am a firm believer that having a baseline set of standards and consequences for unethical, illegal behavior or insubordination is crucial for any organization. But applying a standards-based approach across all the human elements necessary for precision engagement is not something, in my opinion, that will lead to full operationalization of the concept. By definition, it requires a personalized approach.

Recent world events have caused us all to take a fresh look at ethics, morals, humanity, fairness and equity in just about every aspect of our lives. And even though there has been a narrative around standardization and equity in the past, the reality is that most standards developed in the workplace and even in our world at-large have rarely ever been equitably applied. 

What I do know, however, is that precision engagement starts with hiring leaders who have a clear set of ethics, morals, values and judgment—leaders who understand that one of their primary roles as leaders is to engage and develop other leaders and treat everyone with fairness and equity. Once you clear those hurdles, the best leaders know that they must play to their team's strengths, abilities and passions. 

Operationalizing precision engagement at scale boils down to the following: 

  • Being very transparent and authentic in who you are as a leader.
  • Personally connecting with your team.
  • Establishing yourself as a credible source.
  • Understanding and taking the time to get to know members of your team, including their passions and interests—even beyond work.
  • Co-creating an action plan that leverages your team's talents and interests and best aligns with organizational strategy and impact.

To better understand what makes my team members tick, I'll ask a series of questions until I get the information I need, because that's how I was trained as a physician, to be an expert diagnostician. Questions like: 

  • What drives you? 
  • What motivates you? 
  • What doesn't motivate you?
  • What are you passionate about? Why?
  • What type of leader do you admire most? Least?
  • What would your ideal position, role and responsibilities include?
  • What type of work were you doing during a time in your career when you felt like you were in your "zone"?

A high-functioning HR organization can use such questions to also help leaders with their own self-awareness, a skill that they can apply to better understand their team members, as well. Just as with personalized medicine, the point is not to tell the leader (or the patient) how to answer the questions, but rather to ask the right questions and listen hard for nuances in the answers.

For precision engagement to be optimally effective, it must also be multi-directional. That's why leaders, once having developed this muscle, must make sure that they are not utilizing precision engagement only with their direct reports. They must be intentional about coaching and encouraging their entire team to leverage this force multiplier in their interactions at every level of the organization. 

When you utilize precision engagement and connect with an individual or team at a level where you are showing authentic interest, inspiring and empowering them, the team feels respected and valued. They will be much more excited about the work, more creative and you will achieve much more impact. This may sound obvious, but unfortunately, many leaders don't utilize this approach. I've had the opportunity to lead organizations in the healthcare, corporate, non-profit and government sectors and I've used precision engagement whenever I've moved into a new leadership role. The return on investment is always enormous.    

Dara Richardson-Heron, M.D., is the former Chief Patient Officer of Pfizer. She also led the YWCA for five years as CEO.