Employee Engagement? In a Business, It Needs to Start at the Very Top

A fish rots from the head down, as the saying goes.

While the word rot sounds offensive, let’s just say it starts from the top.

This week, I was having a conversation when someone mentioned to me that their new CEO of her company was in town. She was slated to be in the New York office for a couple of days.

This CEO met with the senior staff, and as they gave her a tour of the building, she passed numerous employees. In that passing she acknowledged no one — no eye contact, no nod of the head, and basically no “how are you?”

Ignored by the new CEO

All the employees, I was told, looked up from their desk as she went by. A few were a few feet away, but they might as well have been two blocks away. The newly minted CEO just walked straight ahead being escorted by another executive on her tour. No effort at all to engage anyone that she passed.

All this from a company that has had numerous layoffs, mounds of uncertainty and from industry reports strategically compromised.

Let’s imagine for a minute that this CEO during her two-day stay would have met with the entire team to introduce herself for a little Q&A? How about if during the tour, she stopped by some people’s desk to introduce herself? How about planning a little party on the “rooftop deck” for a get together one afternoon? In other words, how about a little “schmoozing?”

Blowing a golden opportunity

To have a perfect storm of an opportunity and to blow it is just sad.

Employee engagement is a key to turning this thing around. Every opportunity that any senior executive gets to interact with their employees is a golden opportunity to begin the transformation.

Every metric shows that the world’s top-performing organizations realize that employee engagement is a force that drives performance outcomes. More importantly, in the best organizations engagement is more than a human resources initiative — it is a strategic foundation for the way the organization does business. That means that it has to start at the the top.

Sending out a signal

Senior executives must realize that everyone is watching all the time. If you say one thing and do another, you are sending a signal. If you talk engagement and then you ignore an employee in the elevator, you send a signal. If you pass someone in the hallway and you can’t come up out of the fog to say a pleasantry, you send a signal.

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HR is told (if they are told at all) that it is their problem. Communications packages up the communiqué to get the internal messages out. Executives are concentrating on the numbers and the next quarter in meeting those numbers. Finance is figuring out ways to cut costs, which may mean more reduction in the employee count. Every silo has their own issues, but what about the larger organization which every department makes up?

The C-Suite, in a lot of cases, displays a “rose-tinted” view of engagement that is not shared by the lower level employees. Those on top may feel that their organization is on track. They may also feel that engagement is something they will get to next — once we get something else back on track. They may also feel that, ” I don’t own that initiative; I don’t have the time.”

But to paraphrase The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone, “it can’t wait, that is the key.” A focus on engagement has to start from the top. As much time should be spent on engagement as is spent on the other pressing issues that are being discussed.

3 keys to executive engagement

Here are the key steps for executive level engagement:

  • Devote more attention to engagement in executive meetings as well as board meetings. It has to be on the agenda. It is a business imperative.
  • Confront it. It is as contagious as the worse disease. The same way that colds are transmitted, disengagement spreads just as fast.
  • Engagement at all levels. This is the key. Everyone must not only talk the talk but walk the walk as well. Think trickle-down theory; the engagement level must trickle down to all levels of the organization.

If we are to turn this organizational illness around that is diagnosed as “engagement,” the prescription has to come down from the doctor in the house. That means the CEO and their team.

Yes, you can tell a great deal about a company by the way they treat their employees. That’s what engagement is all about.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.