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By David Harder on January, 23, 2018

Why Must the CEO be the First to Engage?

If 87% of the world’s talent is disengaged, the probability of CEOs also being disengaged is pretty high.


For years, my company has produced engagement with intact teams. We’ve produced great results regardless of the overall engagement level throughout an organization. When I was asked by the business publisher Career Press to write The Workplace Engagement Solution. When we included the word solution, I asked for more time to write the book! Research, interviews with key business figures, and common-sense led to the architecture that produces a very real solution to the biggest problem that employers face today, a global disengagement that hovers around 87%.


Why are these horrible numbers so persistent? Here are a few insights:

  • Many organizations continue to treat talent development as an elitist investment reserved for the high potentials and senior executives.
  • This dynamic has produced a consulting industry that continually characterizes management as inadequate in dealing with the problem. Hence, we pour money into the top tier.
  • Employees will not engage if we do not teach them how to change. The investment in teaching all employees to change and engage is strikingly worthwhile. However, the only sustainable way to do this is through mentoring rather than depending endless relationships with consultants.
  • Without a democratic approach to engagement, breakdowns will undermine all efforts.


With a purely democratic solution, the global disengagement problem can only be solved if everyone from the entry-level worker to the CEO/owner is dealing directly with his or her own engagement.


Engaged CEOs lead their cultures. The very word “engagement” implies connectedness and transparency. As I have already pointed out, the failure of most engagement programs begins when the CEO turns the initiative over to someone else. Make no mistake about it, engagement includes an emotional component and many CEOs are uncomfortable with the feelings generated by the human side of the business. Others are so absorbed in dealing with market and shareholder expectations that they believe they cannot add culture concerns to their crowded plates. Nothing could be more wrongheaded.


Unfortunately, well over 80% of engagement initiatives are doomed from the start. Here’s what happens. The CEO visits human resources and tells them to, “fix the engagement problem.” By the time the CEO hits the door, he or she is disengaged. The human resources department messages the rest of the organization that an engagement initiative has begun. The employees look past human resources to the CEO and witness business as usual. An employee survey is released. The results make the managers feel more inadequate than ever. Leaders are sent to a retreat center returning enthused while the employees think, “So what?” All too often, the chief human resources officer is held responsible for the engagement failure and is shown the door. I work with a wide variety of human resource executives with career development and routinely tell them that if the CEO isn’t leading the culture, “keep your bags packed.”


The CEOs of category leaders know that engagement is core to meeting business targets. They lead the culture. Their involvement with the culture is transparent and consistent.


The journey for employees to move from disengagement to full engagement requires commitment, courage, and, in quite often, discomfort. Here is an example why this is true. How many employees, “fly under the radar?” They believe that drawing attention to themselves will hurt them. And, if we build the skills that create connectedness, we better include the skills of how to manage attention. Unfortunately, when we do not draw attention to ourselves, we starve. Helping all workers become visible and transparent is a major step towards connectedness, the essence of engagement. That journey is a plump job for mentors.


This challenge becomes even clearer when we accept that engagement and personal change is challenging for all of us. The journey from disengagement to engagement requires deep personal change and some new life skills. Unfortunately, too many of us still fear the predictable discomfort of personal change and avoid it at all costs. We do not even understand that we are working against our own best interests. We lack the insight because we simply don’t know what we don’t know.


Engaged CEOs are visible. They visit the frontlines. They practice transparency. They never ask employees to do anything they wouldn’t do themselves. They recognize that talent is the number one driver of category leadership.


One of my favorite engaged CEOs is Adam Miller of Cornerstone on Demand. His office has four walls of glass and it is next to the lobby. They are the category leader in online learning. They have the lowest turnover compared to other big tech companies. Adam lives and breaths engagement.


Joe Coulombe created a category leader simply because there isn’t another grocery store remotely comparable. At Trader Joe’s every CEO since Joe visits the stores regularly and listens to the employees. They have a culture personified with the fact that whoever opens the doors first, they clean the bathroom, even if it is general manager. The average tenure of Trader cashiers is eighteen years.


It is so basic. If the CEO wants every employee to look customers in the eye and connect, it is time to look their employees in the eye and connect. If we want our employees to stay ahead of change and take ownership of their lives, we must do the same and do it in the light.


Years ago, we were asked by Disney to design a new leadership program. We created highly informed and personalized 360s. Then, we told the executives to go conduct the interviews. This instruction was met with shock and I responded, “Why would you want a leader in this company without the emotional intelligence to conduct a truthful conversation?” The outcome was transformative.


Whatever we want from our talent, stand in the light with them. Live it, breath it, personify engagement. Your mentors will depend on you as a role model to replicate what it means to connect with their colleagues, their customers, and especially, their lives.


Brought to you by David Harder, President – Inspired Work, Inc.


(C) Copyright, 2018, Inspired Work, Inc. – (All Rights Reserved)


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