Back in my corporate days, I reported to a CEO of a technology consulting company who had a severe case of IBS. No, not that IBS. Invisible boss syndrome.
He dwelled in the "safety" of his office for what seemed like 80 percent of the time. It was safe there because turnover had reached an astounding 60 percent (I know, I was the one who tracked exit interview data).
One of my early meetings with him to discuss the turnover issue and develop a positive work culture centered around making his role more visible--literally--to his people, in an attempt to strengthen his image and reputation, and to improve the cardiac-level employee-engagement numbers with his own reports.
It fell on deaf ears. Fear drove his leadership style and he wanted no part in being that exposed, rather than seeing it as an opportunity to courageously build bridges and connect with his employees.
4 ways to connect with your employees
Since then, I've advised and coached many executives open to the idea of being more transparent and authentic in order to increase their influence and gain a loyal following of committed workers.
Below, you'll find some of the same ideas I proposed to my former CEO in that awkward meeting years ago. They aren't earth-shattering concepts but will help build trust across reporting levels, improving morale through shared decision making, and open up lines of communication across all channels.
1. Executive "lunch and learns."
As high-level leaders, to truly connect with employees requires being visible to them. One great way of doing that and increase their knowledge at the same time is to provide a monthly "lunch and learn" and talk about something that will add meaning to their jobs.
High-level leaders can also pick staff at random--two or three employees cross-functionally who have a birthday during a specific month--to have a special lunch with them.
These meetings, once implemented into the cultural fabric of the organization, help high-level leaders personally know their employees, discover their employees' goals, and find out what their employees are working toward.
Another option is to have an open forum for anyone available on a first-come, first-served basis. You can limit it to the first 10 RSVPs and reserve a more intimate setting to accommodate this informal event, rather than a stuffy conference room.
Some possible topics for these luncheons may include: Financials, new opportunities for work/professional development and leading-edge technology to make work faster and easier, new client updates, and an open Q&A.
2. Make your rounds daily.
Rounding must be conducted by senior leadership and not delegated to others. I say this because some will resist the approach.
This is particularly effective when leaders are looking for opportunities to connect with staff and to identify and eliminate work obstacles.
Rounding must include all departments and be done once per day. Additionally, the leader doing the rounding picks a different staff meeting to attend for increased visibility and engagement.
3. A well-defined open-door policy.
An open door policy is meant for safely encouraging workers to come to their managers with questions, concerns, and new ideas. The premise of such a policy is to promote transparency and a faster communication path that leads to results.
The problem starts when leaders or employees misuse its intended purpose. For example, if a high-level leader is rarely available or highly distracted during an interaction with an employee or team, you can bet that leader will be tagged as uninterested and uncaring.
If team members rely too much on their leaders, they won't learn to problem-solve on their own, which could affect productivity and create entitled workers.
And it goes without saying, if leaders don't set specific "open door" hours, productivity will suffer on both ends.
To receive the full benefit of an open door policy, high-level leaders must do two critical things:
- Set boundaries. The last thing you want is for employees to interpret your availability as free license to vent at will, or as "therapy time." Yes, you want to be accessible for meaningful and even informal discussions and to keep a finger on the pulse of what's happening with team members. Just make sure there are clear parameters in place, that employees have the right expectations for an open door, and that things are kept professional and work-related.
- Coach employees to come prepared. Employees should come ready to answer three questions before they walk in the door of a high-level leader's office: 1) What is my specific problem in the present moment (not in the past)? 2) Does my current problem affect just me, or does it affect other team members or departments? 3) What are two or three possible solutions to this problem?
An open door policy is especially important as a company grows and begins to distance itself with its many layers. Being open sets the tone for employees to feel like they're all "in the journey together," which increases morale and lets employees know that they're part of the team.
4. Make human connections your top priority.
In Dan Schawbel's breakthrough new best-selling book, Back to Human, he argues that as technology becomes more pervasive in our lives, interpersonal skills will increasingly become even more critical for success.
Contrary to the illusion that today's workers are "highly connected" to one another, Schawbel's book shows that most people actually feel isolated from their colleagues, and the main cause of social isolation is technology itself.
In an exclusive global study of more than 2,000 managers and employees, Schawbel found that what people at work crave the most is a sense of authentic human connection with others.
When asked to share some advice for how leaders can foster more human connections, one of Schawbel's recommendations is easier said than done but right on the mark: Get to know your teammates on a personal level.
Leaders should have more frequent one-on-one, in-person discussions to truly understand how their teammates define work fulfillment and what brings them meaning and purpose. This relationship-building strategy helps leaders design a positive employee experience that appeals to each employee's sense of what truly matters to them.
Schawbel states, "You can't possibly satisfy their needs unless you discover what they are and how your teammates best learn and excel."