After a recent breakfast meeting with a conference organizer, I told him I'd be in touch the following week.

He told me not to bother, and that he would refer me to one of his colleagues. I thought his transparency was a brilliant way to avoid inbox clutter.

After I joked with him about how he had mastered the business brush-off, he replied that he wouldn't be available that next week--or the three weeks after that.

He explained that his company's policy requires everyone to take a month off every year. He told me they are not merely encouraged or advised to do this, but implored and contractually obligated to go and disappear for four (consecutive) weeks and nurture their bliss, or simply be a wife or husband or father or mother.

Now, this is obviously not something that a startup or solo entrepreneur would have the scale to attempt, but it does represent a way of thinking that, in startup phase, could possibly be achieved with, say, mandatory Happy Day Off, where employees are offered a dedicated day off to patronize a museum or go on a picnic.

I asked dozens of CEOs and startup founders how as leaders they instill a culture of employee happiness and satisfaction, to create a workplace where people actually want to spend their time and make their talent available.

1. Listening. The act of listening showed up on many CEO responses. "Too many managers spend too much time listening only to their inner voice," said Crowdtap CEO Sean Foster. "A simple question like 'What do you think?' can give you an important perspective and build trust with your team."

Bill Johnson, CEO of Citi Retail Services, took "listening" one step further when he replied "really listening."

"You can learn as much from what people tell you as what they don't," he said. "And truly listening is a sign of respect and appreciation."

Andy Crestodina, principal of Chicago-based Web design firm Orbit Media, offered some real-world examples of how listening is best done.

"People listen to those who listen to them first. So, as a manager, you have to be an active listener," he said, recommending the following behaviors:

  • Open your body language
  • Eliminate distractions
  • Take notes
  • Repeat back what you heard

"The habit of active listening builds trust," said Crestodina. "Once trust is in place, you have the opportunity to make change. You get what you give, and if you don’t give someone your full attention, they’ll never give you theirs."

2. Constant Coaching. "You should never take execution for granted, or think that your goals for the company are universally understood," said Stephen Baker, CEO of Attivio. "Constant coaching enables you to improve on key initiatives and execution and ensures that cross-functional delivery is cohesive and in line with your vision."

Baker points out that, as CEO, you are exposed to the best practices of other companies. "Challenging your team to consider other models that work well and to adapt or implement them is a key responsibility, and part of the coaching mentality," he said.

3. Self-Discipline. Focus was a recurring theme among the responses. Many CEOs and founders said that their level of self-discipline was the key indicator of whether they thought they could succeed as entrepreneurs. "Great managers remain focused on the task at hand--whether it's the business as a whole, staff, or a specific project," said Hari Ravichandran, founder and CEO of Endurance International Group. "Managing a business is tough. Effective managers must be able to concentrate on high priorities without letting outside issues and background noise affect performance and outcomes."

4. Egoless Self-Correcting. Mike Cagney, CEO and co-founder of financial services startup SoFi, said “egoless self-correcting” more as an entrepreneur and CEO than a manager. He added, "Dogma is deadly in fast moving industries."

5. Empathy. This is often a jargon term, but Piers Fawkes, founder of PSFK, gave it much needed elaboration. "Being able to anticipate the needs, wants, worries, and emotions of the people and partners around you [is important]. You might not always be able to satisfy them--but you can always be first to talk openly about them and therefore be seen as a valued, intuitive collaborator."

6. Knowledge. Steve Taback, president of TEM Associates, said that knowing the personal goals of each individual on his team is the key to achieving a collection of self-actualized individuals. But you can't stop there; you then need to do "everything possible to support and help facilitate the accomplishment of those goals."