Leadership and Employee Engagement


How to connect with 10,000 employees (more or less)

Leaders often ask me what the most “highly engaged” organizations do differently that engages their employees. While there are a number of key drivers of engagement that highly engaged organizations tend to do well, I have come to observe one consistent difference. That difference is how ‘connected’ senior leadership is to their employees. Many organizations whose employees are less engaged have relatively poor perceptions of their senior leadership. These are large organizations, where c-suite executives, deputy ministers, and assistant deputy ministers lead tens of thousands of employees. Employees rarely come into contact with the senior leadership, yet rate them poorly nonetheless. What is really going on here?

When I probe the issue in survey comments and focus group deep dives, I hear the same thing over and over again. It goes something like:

  • “They don’t have a clue! They sit up there and make all these decisions and have no idea what goes on in the field/on the ground/on the floor etc.”
  • “We never see them – they never come down ”

When I look at our top performing large organizations in terms of engagement, we don’t tend to hear these issues. In fact, we hear precisely the opposite: “She’s very approachable.” “She says hi and sits down just to chat once in a while”. “I get the feeling she listens to people”.

In fact, I often find myself recommending that leaders become more visible to their employees. “Management by walking around” should give employees the sense that leaders are in tune with what’s going on “in the trenches”. However, what I now realize is that leadership visibility only scratches the surface. Leaders in the highly engaged organizations are able to make employees feel connected to them, whereas this feeling of connectedness to leadership is what is lacking in most organizations which struggle with employee engagement. And besides, “management by walking around” is so 1980s.

How then do you as leaders and managers of large and dispersed groups of employees get them to feel connected?

For the answer, I turn to what has worked for me as an employee over the years (no, not management by walking around anymore), and more importantly, what leaders in the most highly engaged large organizations are doing to stay connected to their employees.

  1. Be approachable and accessible.

Some leaders give out the cell phone numbers (yes, to all 10,000 or so employees). Others take time each week to personally respond to e-mail (in a broadcast so everyone sees). While you may be thinking that these people are ‘nuts’ and would never get anything done, the truth of the matter is that relatively few employees take advantage of this accessibility, but they realize that they have that opportunity. They know the door is open, but very few of them actually go in.

  1. Use Social Media with your employees

Social media takes communicating with employees to a higher level. If your organization doesn’t have an internal social media collaboration platform (e.g. Yammer), I highly recommend it. In my experience, it is an extremely powerful way to bring an organization closer together to exchange relevant information. In my own experience, the most common discussion topics revolved around people in one corner of the globe requesting (and receiving) information and experience about projects and products.

As a leader, you can easily join in conversations, and “connect”.

More and more of these leaders are also using video and blogs to send periodic (most often monthly) messages to employees. While they do talk about the business, they also do so in a way that reveals their individuality and personality. Some leaders feel that video does this best. My favorite is one leader from my past, Eric Salama, Chairman and CEO of Kantar, who would talk about his various visits to our offices around the world, what impressed him most about the people and places, and how his beloved Arsenal Football Club was doing that week.

  1. Be Playful (if that suits you) – e.g. Richard Branson

I’m a faithful follower of Richard Branson on LinkedIn. If you want to see being playful personified, but in an intelligent and dignified manner, I highly recommend following him. Other organizations such as WestJet and Southwest Airlines have a playful aspect to their culture. Why? Leadership shares their sense of humor and it permeates the organization. Most importantly, they don’t take themselves too seriously and are able to laugh at themselves. This has the impact of “humanizing” leaders: you’re showing people you’re “just like them”.

In fact, the next two suggestions also have the same effect, using slightly different approaches.

  1. Be vulnerable – show employees how situations (work or not) affect you personally

In your communications (in person, or virtually), talk about how situations (work or otherwise) have had a personal and/or emotional impact on you: whatever is happening in your organization at the moment. As I write this, the terrible tragic fire rages on in Fort McMurray, AB. How is your organization responding? More importantly, what is your connection to that tragedy and how is it affecting you? Opening up in that way, even through an e-mail, blog or text, will bring you closer to your employees because you’re connecting on the same level.

  1. Break bread together

While the art of the three-hour lunch is (almost) dead and gone in North America, this isn’t exactly what I’m talking about. The art of “breaking bread” together brings people together like nothing else. Grab a coffee with employees by the vending machine. Have impromptu lunches with people in the cafeteria. One of my favorite leadership initiatives comes from a Bay Street CEO, who takes it to the next level by volunteering with his employees to prepare meals in a soup kitchen once or twice a year. There’s nothing that breaks through the barriers of hierarchy like chopping onions side-by-side!

  1. Most of all, be genuine. Be yourself.

Being playful and/or vulnerable is something that comes naturally to many of those leading highly engaged organizations. It works because it is genuine. It is who they are. None of these suggestions will work if they are not genuine. Just like an engaged employee, you need to do these things because you want to, not because you feel you have to. It can feel uncomfortable. But it can’t be forced. People will read right through you.

Besides, these are things you are probably comfortable doing in smaller groups. Just think of your 10,000 employees as family, and you’ll be fine.

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