When you're the CEO of a rapidly growing company, it's not uncommon to find yourself losing touch with your employees.
The easy intimacy of those early startup days fades away as headcount increases. Smart new hires allow the CEO to delegate functional areas but also put distance between the top leader and those doing much of the real work.
Staying connected with employees is actually one of the top priorities for me and my entire executive team. I think that's played a central role in sustaining my company's unique culture, helping us retain great talent even as we move fast and undergo constant change.
I've always espoused a leadership style grounded in humility and being approachable, but I think it's becoming even more important in today's workplace. Communication tools, social media, and mobile devices help boost productivity but make real-time, face-to-face conversations less common.
Leaders can temper that disconnected feeling and help 21st century employees find humanity in the workplace.
Here are three strategies that have been effective for me:
1. Establish personal connections
Great leaders establish great networks.
When I became CEO at Udemy, I made it a priority to learn every employee's name. I created my own directory with everyone's photo and made sure it was updated every week as new folks came in the door. I studied it daily and practiced at every opportunity.
Today, we've got about 270 employees, and our company directory is online. It's even easier for me to stay up to date and avoid the dreaded awkwardness of running into someone and not being able to greet them properly.
Learning everyone's name is a simple gesture that goes a long way. Addressing people by name at company all-hands or when passing in the hall makes people feel valued and makes me more approachable.
I want to send a message that every employee here can be open with me and speak directly about whatever's on their mind. No one's going to feel comfortable with me if they don't think I even know who they are.
2. Maintain an equal footing
When people rise to leadership positions, they need to make a stronger effort to understand what's going on with their teams.
People may become hesitant to voice dissent or broach sensitive issues directly to the CEO. You end up in a situation where you only hear about things after they've become very big problems.
I've got another strategy to mitigate that as well.
Early in my career, I worked in an office with a desk on the route to the lunchroom. I saw the same execs pass by every day. Occasionally I'd get a smile if our eyes met by mistake, but otherwise I was invisible. I didn't want that same dynamic taking root at Udemy.
We have an open office layout, and I sit right in the thick of it. I do rotations so I'm embedded with different teams, and any time someone has a need or a question, they can come right up to me and ask.
I eat in our communal kitchen and encourage everyone else to sit with people on other teams during lunch. It's these moments of free, unstructured time where personal bonds are made. One of my favorite parts of the day is seeing our engineers, marketers, and finance team community managers connecting over a good meal.
3. Be yourself but manage your emotions
Reaching the top of an organization doesn't have to change who you are as a person.
The traits and values you had before becoming CEO are the same ones that brought you success in the first place. Employees can sense authenticity and appreciate knowing that what you see is what you get.
At the same time, you're going to experience ups and downs, and what happens to your company is ultimately your responsibility. It's an emotional ride, no doubt, but that doesn't mean you need to air an unfiltered version of everything you feel.
We've all read about "bad" bosses who yell and make threats when things get rocky. I've never believed in fear as a motivator, and I've never seen panic bring out anyone's best work.
Employees see the CEO as a reflection of the company's overall outlook. They want a leader who can guide them through those the ups and downs. Maintaining a calm demeanor in the face of adversity will help people trust your leadership, so they can go about their business doing great work instead of worrying what mood the boss will be in today.
Such small gestures of respect and humility have a big payoff. As we start 2017, even if you're not a CEO, consider the simple ways you can improve your relationships and bring more humanity into the workplace this year.