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6 Things Good CEOs Always Do to Connect With Employees

I proposed this powerful engagement strategy to a former CEO, and he rejected it. His loss, your gain. A CEO I reported to back in my corporate days suffered from a condition I call invisible executive syndrome. He dwelled in the safety and comfort of his office most of the 50-plus hours he put in per week. It was safe because, at the time, turnover had reached an astounding 60 percent. His open-door policy was reserved for his executive team. One of my early meetings with him to discuss culture development centered around making his role more visible--literally--to his people, in an attempt to strengthen his image and reputation, and to improve the cardiac-level employee-engagement numbers with his own reports. He wanted no part in it, naturally, because he saw this as being exposed, rather than as a courageous manner to build bridges and connect with his employees as valued stakeholders. Since that time, I've moved on to found my own company, which allows me to speak on the very leadership principles I tried to foster in that previous company's executive team. And the lesson remains: Authenticity is a leadership strength that will win over your followers. Today, while going through some old files, I ran into the six-part engagement strategy I proposed to my former CEO in that meeting years ago. I'm now sharing it with anyone in a leadership role--whether you're a middle manager, owner, or executive--as a plan for increasing transparency across reporting levels, improving morale through shared decision making, and opening up lines of communication across all channels.

1. Executive roundtable meetings or luncheons. Examples of this can include monthly "lunch and learns" or picking staff at random to have lunch with the president or another executive. Executives can choose two or three staff members who have a birthday during that month to attend a special lunch with them. These meetings, once implemented into the cultural fabric of the organization, help leaders personally know their employees and discover their employees' goals. They can find out what their employees are working toward. Are they trying to pay off debt or do they have a child they need to put through college? Helping define their purpose and become a driving force to help them succeed is a huge engagement booster. Another option is to have an open forum for anyone available on a first-come, first-served basis. You can limit it to the first 10 RSVPs and reserve a more intimate setting to accommodate this informal event, rather than a stuffy conference room. Here are some possible topics for these luncheons:

  • Financials.

  • Updates on company transitions.

  • New opportunities for work/professional development and leading-edge technology to make work faster and easier.

  • New client updates.

  • Q&A (open forum).

2. All-hands-on-deck employee forums. This scenario is similar to the one above but available to the whole company. The CEO presents the agenda, gives updates, and then answers questions in a town hall setting. The executive team sets the date and time and plans the event. Google still does this for all its employees to this day. At weekly TGIF all-hands meetings, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin host the entire company (in person and by video) for updates from the prior week, including product demonstrations, welcoming of new hires, and most important, 30 minutes of fielding questions from anyone in the company, on any topic. The Q&A is the part that matters most.

3. Daily executive rounding. Rounding must be conducted by senior leadership and not delegated to others. I say this because some will resist the approach. This is particularly effective when leaders are looking for opportunities to connect with staff and to identify and eliminate work obstacles. Rounding must include all departments and be done once per day. Additionally, the leader doing the rounding picks a different staff meeting to attend for increased visibility and engagement.

4. Open-door policy. A good example of someone using this communication strategy for engaging employees is Credit Karma founder and CEO Kenneth Lin. He operates with an open-door policy, which he calls a "keystone for good company communication." This is important as your company grows and begins to distance itself with its many layers. "I want new employees to feel like this is a mission we're all in together. An open-door policy sets the tone for this. Whenever I'm in my office and available, I encourage anyone to come by and share their thoughts about how they feel Credit Karma is doing," says Lin. The strategy helps loop him in to what Credit Karma employees are talking about, which increases morale and lets employees know that he's a part of the team.

5. Employee council structure The goal is to promote and develop a culture of shared decision making that provides an organized approach to addressing matters important to the growth of your company. The council structure is interdisciplinary in nature and works across departments to accomplish organizational goals. One good example is implementing an employee-engagement council. Choose 10 people (or fewer or more, depending on the size of your company) to evaluate and prioritize employee-engagement initiatives, improve the work culture, and even revise company policies. This council's "deliverable" is a list of specific engagement recommendations for leadership. Make sure your councils are generationally, operationally, and culturally diverse, including top performers, people who've been with the company for years, and relatively new hires who've shown high potential.

6. Record your meetings and share them with employees. Bridgewater Associates, the world's largest hedge fund, records every meeting and makes it available to all employees. The approach has several angles to it: 1) It's a communication vehicle; 2) it's a learning tool that illustrates how decisions are made, and how the most senior people are learning and growing; and 3) it encourages more precise thinking and communication that reduces politicking.

Bridgewater founder and CEO Ray Dalio says, "My most important principle is that getting at the truth, whatever it may be, is essential for getting better. We get at truth through radical transparency and putting aside our ego barriers in order to explore our mistakes and personal weaknesses so that we can improve."

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