CEOs - Come Out of Your Ivory Towers and Meet Your Employees

“The most valuable asset in our company is our employees!”


How nice it is when executives say this in company town hall meetings, or send it out via email to all staff. It makes employees feel valued and important—as if they contribute something of importance to the company… kind of.


Certainly, I have heard executives say this. They passionately thank their employees, via email, webinar, or recorded video, for the way they dig in and work hard, achieving (maybe overachieving) company objectives and driving the company to record profits. It’s great to hear how well employees are doing from executives who really seem to care about them.


And then this happens…


I worked in a company where layoffs were carried out. A few days later communications from the CEO highlighted that, in spite of a slight lull in revenue achievement, the company was headed for a strong and profitable year. Imagine—you are an employee who is part of a tight team of workers. Layoffs are announced, and some of your co-workers, who have become friends, are let go. When this happens, it hits people hard. Of course, those without a job are now having to find a new path and somehow pay bills in the interim. Those who are still working are left with survivor guilt and are genuinely concerned about their former colleagues. They're also concerned about their own futures with the company. How would you receive this message?


In this example, I’m certain the CEO thought he was doing the right thing by presenting a rosy picture. He sought to reassure remaining employees their jobs were fine. However, the speech came across as callous and money-grabbing. The message received was the company was making plenty of money. Why, then, were layoffs necessary?


A little consideration and forethought would have led to much better results for that speech. Had the CEO (or his speech writer) put themselves in the shoes of employees, the message could have been one more of needing to make difficult decisions in order to work through challenging times. It could have presented a feeling of caring for those who were let go and reassuring those who remained behind. Instead of switching topics quickly to the strong sales pipeline and the profitability of the company, it could have paid homage to the work of the people who were gone and shown a positive path ahead. Finally, it would have demonstrated great care and concern for employees had the CEO been present to answer questions, instead of ending the communication quickly and distancing himself further from employees.


A 2017 study carried out by APPrise Mobile stated that almost one quarter of US employees, in medium to large companies, did not know the name of their CEO and had no idea what they looked like. When I read this I wasn’t all that surprised. After all, there are a great many companies that do little or no on-boarding of new employees. They don’t talk about the history or structure of the organization, so why would employees know about the senior leadership? Executives are generally removed from the day-to-day workplace. Their strategic work is the stuff of closed boardroom conversations, and company mission and vision statements are left for posters on the wall. The closest most employees come to seeing their executive team is viewing pictures on the company intranet.


The CEO referenced earlier was very removed from the staff. He’d come into town, walk into the building, and head straight to an office where he’d close the door. Rarely would he talk to staff, and they felt it. When I asked about this, I was told the CEO was an introvert and didn’t feel comfortable speaking to people out in the open. I get it. It’s hard for introverts to put themselves out there. However, I wonder how one gets to the CEO position without knowing how to talk to people. To me, this sounded like an excuse and like the people who worked in the company he led were definitely not its most valuable asset.

The C-Suite is often removed from employees. The overwhelming majority of employees don’t work in the same location as their CEO, and people in executive roles tend to rely on less personal forms of communication (email) rather than making an effort to meet face-to-face.


It could be said the reason so few people know what their CEO looks like is because their company is so large. I admit, global companies certainly face this as an obstacle. However, I’d be willing to bet Southwest employees know what CEO Gary Kelly looks like:

"It's cliche, but it really does feel like a family at Southwest. We are proud of our (now not so) little airline and what we stand for. I have had fantastic leaders who care about me as a person — not just my work. Our senior-most leaders think of employees first with every decision they make. I feel fortunate every day to work for this company." — a communications lead for corporate communications in Dallas


If you look at Glassdoor’s list of the most popular CEOs of 2018, you will see the common thread among these leaders is how they support and appreciate employees. Consider this comment about one of the top rated CEOs, Michael Mahoney, of Boston Scientific:


"The CEO is refreshing and one of us. He doesn't keep to the ivory tower, but instead is approachable and visible. He has a vision and for the past five plus years it has worked." — A Boston Scientific senior operations manager in Maple Grove, Minnesota


Too often, the CEO is more of a figurehead responsible for setting strategy and standards for the organization. An organization is much more than revenue targets and standards—it’s made up of people who need to understand the purpose for which they’re working. Business leaders who prioritize communication and employee engagement, and who personally seek relationships with their employees, will be rewarded with all kinds of financial and operational business gains, including increased employee engagement, retention, productivity, and revenue.


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