C-Suite: The Secret to Employee Engagement

Here's a recent statistic from the Edelman Trust Barometer that blew me away and should serve as a wakeup call to organizations everywhere.

63% of employees don't trust their CEOs, claiming their company leaders are somewhat or not at all credible.

That's huge, especially when combined with what HBR reported about C-suite's self-awareness skills: only 10-15% of these leaders fit their study's criteria of being truly self-aware.

Meanwhile, HR leaders are searching for additional ways to increase employee engagement and first and second tiered management is implementing training with front line employees, achieving small successes overall. Given the statistic shared around CEO trust and the engagement initiatives HR leaders are intending to drive, what is missing from the solution?

It's C-suite engagement. Aon's 2018 Global Engagement Trends identifies the top 5 engagement opportunities for North America, and 2 out of 5 involve Senior Leadership and EVP levels, as both have flatlined year over year. From my perspective, there is great opportunity here for change. Let's explore further.

The current reality is that C-suite often engages differently than the rest of the organization. In turn, this leads to assumptions about their willingness to engage in cultural initiatives. And so, the direct conversations that need to be happening with them are not happening.

Storytelling can spin to a negative, and it's a curse of human nature. If we want to create real change in our organizations, false stories need to be called out, including the belief that C-suite isn't and doesn't want to be involved in training or education.

That's not to say that there isn't any truth to what people observe about C-suite and how they may or may not interact with the rest of the organization. What we often hear in the leadership training industry is that C-suite lacks participation in training and struggles to see things differently. Noted. But a bigger issue arises when the conversations needed to increase levels of awareness (including self-awareness) and involvement among top leadership are missing.

If employees don't trust their company leaders or believe them to be credible, that's a real problem. If you want to change this reality, HR leaders who are driving these initiatives need to get real with themselves, shift their context, and invite C-suite to the table.

Trust in Leadership and its Direct Tie to Engagement

A story that resonates with me all the way down to my tippy toes comes from Randstad Canada, a Fierce client, and illustrates exactly how involving C-suite can significantly impact engagement. They took the rolling out of Fierce programs to C-suite before rolling out to the next levels of leadership. This initial rollout led to an increase of 14% in employee engagement scores throughout the entire company, where a 2-3% variance is considered significant. That's incredible to say the least! The Randstad approach can be replicated in any organization that's ready to produce results.

When a company culture isn't built on a solid foundation of trust and transparency, it shows. Initiatives stall, employees are disengaged, and absenteeism is high. If employees don't trust the people around them, they won't execute. They may do what it takes to keep their job and look good, but they won't go the extra mile.

When it comes to increasing engagement, it's all about the development of emotional capital, and it starts at the top. If you want to build emotional capital, C-suite needs to interact with everyone in the company across all levels.

Anyone who feels like they need to put on a "face" is inclined to shut down and not freely share what they're truly thinking and feeling. For example, if a CEO is excited about a strategy that they believe will take the company into the 22nd century, and yet the rest of the company feels differently, human nature will often lead us to placate our true feelings instead of communicating them. That is, if we don't trust the person we disagree with.

And the cost? We lose everything from our own personal authenticity to engagement and productivity potential. This is why taking a top-down approach with C-suite and getting them involved is effective and more likely to produce results. Employees need to feel comfortable expressing their concerns from the bottom all the way up. When employees gain trust in C-suite, their direct leaders, and their teams, engagement and productivity rise.

Not to mention, leaders need to be modeling the behavior they want to see. Studies have revealed a correlation between C-suite behavior and the model behavior they wanted exhibited. If you want the people around you to say "hello" and engage, you need to model this behavior as a leader in the company. Interactions need to be genuine. People can spot inauthenticity from miles away. 

Having the Conversation with C-Suite

Depending on the dynamic and current mode of operation within your organization, having the conversation with C-suite about their involvement in initiatives could be easy to have, or it could prove challenging. Regardless, it's a conversation that needs to happen if you want to see an increase in engagement. It's time to come out from behind yourself, into the conversation, and make it real.

Here are a few important tips that will help set you up for a successful conversation:

1. Set your intentions beforehand. You know C-suite involvement has the potential to transform a culture and increase engagement. If this is what you want to communicate, set your intention for the level of participation you're wanting to see. Do you want to create more opportunities for interaction through company social events? Are you wanting them to undergo training and need their buy-in to move it forward? Keep in mind the results you want to produce, and be ready to answer questions they may have about time, budgeting, logistics, etc. The devil is in the details, and they matter!

For the betterment of your organization, assess the potential impact of your CEO attending Fierce's Team Conversation Program, and then leading cross-departmental collaborative think tanks using the Beach Ball model from this program.

2. Talk dollars + Benchmarks. In many organizations, C-suite is involved in conversations around engagement and productivity. It's important when you go to the table to secure they become a part of the direct solution and gently remind them of annual turnover in percentage compared to your industry benchmarks. Nearly every CEO can understand the cost of a turnover when there is a dollar amount attached to it. If your company is losing $2.75M each year due to turnover, be sure to include the dollar amount in the conversation rather than just the conceptual cost. Present profit and loss numbers, all internal and external measures you can gather, with external statistics and support to convey both the organization's goals around engagement and the potential gains of more C-suite involvement.

3. Communicate a clear what and next steps. Clearly state there is an issue with engagement and present the solution you believe it requires. For example, where does your organization currently stack up? What's working and where are there deficits? What evidence do you have to show how your proposed solution can make a difference? Measuring the impact of behaviors among your workforce and on your culture is incredibly important, so you'll need to communicate how you plan to gauge success. For example, if you intend for C-suite to undergo training, make sure assessments are deployed prior to a workshop, immediately after a workshop, and then again after thirty days of living the new behaviors that have proven successful. This will validate your solution and identify ongoing gaps, as the "keep trying" piece is needed for any organization wanting to maintain a growth mindset.

How leadership interacts and engages with the rest of the company is influencing your levels of employee engagement. It impacts everything from productivity to personal integrity. Addressing the problem head-on involves a conversation that you and your organization can't afford to miss.

For more on employee engagement and building a case for training, download our whitepaper The Financial Rewards of Employee Engagement: Better Relationships Bring Results.

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