You're about to speak to employees at a sales meeting, town hall or internal leadership conference. So you prepare the classic executive presentation:

  • The big picture, encompassing all the important issues affecting your company today
  • An emphasis on facts--about sales, financials, competition and every other strategic topic
  • PowerPoint slides aplenty, with the same detailed content you'd use to present to the board of directors or financial analysts

That approach is fine if you simply want to check off the box that you have, indeed, presented information to employees. But, explains Colin Lange, if your objective is to engage employees in your company's mission, strategy and brand, the typical approach is not going to work.

Lange, who is North America executive director, brand engagement at the leading brand consulting and design firm Landor, works closely with organizations to align their corporate cultures to increase employee engagement.

"Brands are facing unprecedented levels of scrutiny about company culture," says Lange. "That's why it's so important to remember that your company's biggest champions can be--and should be--your employees."

A key element of employee engagement is how leaders . . . well, lead. Lange observes that the most effective leaders today have stepped away from traditional top-down communication. Instead, they're forging connections with employees by following these three strategies:

1. Shaping practices and rituals. "Human beings build culture not by talking about culture, but by what they do every day," explains Lange. "A new employee learns how the organization really operates by observing hundreds of behaviors--how people act in meetings, what you do if you see a problem, what the organization does to recognize successes."

So leaders need to understand how these practices either support the desired culture or get in its way. "For example, the CEO may talk about how the organization values innovation--but in practice, all decisions are made at the top by just a few people. So employees find it impossible to be innovative," Lange says.

"Once you understand the way people really behave, you can begin to address behaviors that are supporting the culture you seek--and change those practices that are preventing you from achieving your goals."

2. Sharing meaningful stories. Facts don't persuade or engage. That's why every leader should use verbal communication to paint pictures and create an emotional connection with employees. When I talk to employees about what they need from leaders, they never say, "More financial PowerPoint slides, please!" But employees would like to hear leaders' personal perspectives. And employees remember when leaders tell stories of how they've dealt with challenges, solved problems and learned new things.

3. Walking the talk. As a leader, you have tremendous visibility to employees; people are actually watching what you do to see if it reinforces what you say. "That's why effective leaders have tremendous self-awareness," says Lange. "They know that by doing one thing and not another, it communicates volumes. And great leaders are careful not to overpromise; they'd rather show the way instead of speaking too soon or saying too much.

To truly engage employees, leaders need confidence, Lange says. "Employees are looking to leaders to share direction and demonstrate what everyone needs to do to help the organization succeed."