How CEOs can engage with everyone and why they should

CEO engages employee

If you’re a CEO, I believe you can and should engage with everyone in your company on a regular basis. By ‘everyone’ I mean literally everyone if your company has less than a hundred employees, and a random sample of employees if you have more. In the latter case the sampling should ignore management levels, business units, education, and any other stratification one might be tempted to employ. 

Many CEOs prefer to interact only with their reports, CxOs and the board. With the occasional exception of ‘town halls’ and the like, which are quite impersonal anyway, they never truly engage with the majority of their employees. 

The reason for this self limitation can be rooted in fear. For example, say you have a sneaking suspicion that either the purpose or strategy of the company isn’t clear, or it has not been understood by everyone – or even that the strategy just isn’t right. That would be painful to realize and thus a subconscious avoidance of broad, honest communication can result.

It might also simply be a belief that such engagement is not the optimal use of one’s precious CEO time. 

Whatever the case, the reluctance to engage with everyone is bad for business and harmful to the quality of life – yours and that of your employee’s. 

Why you should engage with everyone

The first reason why you should engage with everyone is strategy. Both to get it right, and to execute it right – whether it’s a maturing or brand new strategy, the same principles apply.

The second reason is to improve the quality of life for you and your employees. We spend a lot of our limited time on this planet at work so we absolutely want the best possible quality for that part of our life. All of us need to understand and feel that our work has a meaningful purpose. Without engagement, you can’t be sure that the purpose set forth for the company is the best it could be. And the people who must achieve that purpose can only do so effectively if they fully understand and believe in the meaningfulness of that purpose.

Create engagement through honesty and empathy

No matter how good your strategy looks on paper – or in powerpoint – it’s useless unless everyone understands it, believes in it, knows their role in it and understands how to execute their part of it.

By default, many ‘front line’ employees assume that the CEO doesn’t care about them and is not interested in their opinion. It’s up to you to change that. When you, the CEO, go to an employee and say: “I’d like to talk and hear your opinion on a few things”, that may very well be a positively shocking experience. 

By engaging with individuals you will make them understand that you do care and you are truly interested in their opinion. In turn, they foundation is laid for them to become engaged, and for your strategy to come alive. 

Create a culture of openness and innovation

This way of engaging with people is leading by example. You’re showing, rather than telling, that you believe in openness and innovation. Later, you will of course remember to get back to people to thank them if their contribution had an impact, such as adding an important piece to your strategy. You will make sure that everyone feels heard and involved in the purpose of the company.

In a world of accelerating change creating an open and innovative culture is of critical importance – and you’ll certainly move the needle in that direction by engaging with everyone.

Does the strategy make sense?

If any one person that you talk to doesn’t understand your explanation of your brilliant strategy, it might not be so brilliant after all. In such cases, don’t run away – explore and dig deeper. Is there some incoherence in the strategy? Does it not make sense in practical terms? Or is it your own ability to explain (the) strategy that needs work? Perhaps you hadn’t thought about how the strategy translates to the work of the particular employee you’re talking to.

In all cases, such feedback is invaluable if you apply it to refine your strategy and purpose. 

Get new ideas and inspiration

What better way to feed your strategic thinking than talking to a large number of subject matter experts that are all different from you and from each other? There are streams of inspiration just waiting to be tapped. You probably want  to make it clear that you are responsible for deciding the vision and strategy of the company – but soliciting ideas and feedback is a great way of carrying out that responsibility. 

This is one reason why it’s important that you don’t select who you engage. Keep it completely random to maximize diversity and thereby value. 

Your open door is not enough

Like many CEOs, you might say that you ‘have an open door policy – anyone can just walk in and share an idea.’ But think about this from the POV of a ‘random’ employee: it takes a lot of courage to walk through that CEO door. Most introverts, for example, are unlikely to ever knock on your door, no matter how open it is.

Instead, you have to go through their door. That door might not be open and it is best to respect that even (or especially) as a CEO and ask for permission to enter.

Here’s a little checklist to summarize the above.

Note that a similar approach can be applied for subjects other than strategy and purpose – I’m just focusing on these as they are the most impactful.

I believe that CEOs should also engage with randomly selected customers, non-customers, and lost customers. That is also crucially important for getting your strategy and purpose right and executing it optimally – but it’s a subject for another time. 

Until then, ask yourself: how great would it be to be the CEO of a company with a clear, meaningful purpose and strategy that every employee understands and believes in? 

So in the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Engage!

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