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5 Simple Ways Your CEO Can Increase Engagement

A barista is holding a cup of coffee.

​Engagement is personal. Business and HR leaders might develop their talent policies and strategies by looking at the workforce as a whole, but engaging employees is accomplished one person at a time. 

"It's refreshing for employees to feel like they're appreciated and thought of by their employer, where they spend most of their waking hours," said Marilena Acevedo, vice president of HR for PetroChoice, a Fort Washington, Pa.-based distribution company with 850 employees working in 32 states. "A small gesture goes a long way." 

HR professionals say these small gestures, which can be as simple as buying coffee or remembering an anniversary, carry special weight when they're made by executives in the C-suite, especially the CEO. And while many company leaders understand that engagement and retention go hand-in-hand, they're not accustomed to thinking about the nuts and bolts of engaging employees, and they probably haven't considered the impact they can make by taking relatively simple actions. 

Here are some examples of how CEOs and HR have worked together to strengthen employee engagement, without having to invest significant amounts of money or time.


Make Things Personal 

Every month, PetroChoice CEO Celeste Mastin sends individual, personally signed anniversary cards to mark the date an employee joined the business. Although the idea came from HR, both Mastin and the company's previous CEO embraced it as a way to increase the "touch" between employees and management. To complement Mastin's effort, Acevedo sends each employee a birthday card, along with a $5 Dunkin' Donuts gift card. 

From HR's point of view, the result has been "pure appreciation," Acevedo said. Employees regularly send e-mails thanking the CEO for the cards and gift cards. 

"One employee e-mailed to say that he doesn't have family, his wife had recently passed away, and our card was the only card he received for his birthday," Acevedo recalled. "Small gestures like this build employee loyalty."


Pay Attention to Face Time  

At Likeable Media, a 50-person digital marketing agency in New York, CEO Carrie Kerpen demonstrates that engagement is a priority by regularly taking employees for coffee "as a way to get them out of the office and learn about the organization," according to Director of Talent and Culture Brian Murray. 

"These conversations have been invaluable for learning about the challenges we have and are often the first step in addressing them," Murray said. 

Kerpen wants to invest in her team and wants the team to feel invested in her, Murray explained. Recently, she began inviting small groups of employees, from all levels of the company, to parties at her home. The informal conversations that take place over dinner, Murray said, have given Kerpen deeper insight into the business and helped her understand what needs to be done to continue its forward momentum. 

"This type of approach isn't natural for everyone," Murray acknowledged. "But given the right team, culture and circumstances, it can have a huge impact." 

To maximize CEOs' effectiveness, Murray suggests HR "prep them and explain the weight of their words." At times, he has coached Kerpen on listening "to make sure she hears all that [the employees] say." Kerpen has become adept at noticing when the staff doesn't recognize a point she's making or a long-term goal she's trying to describe. When that happens, "she knows she needs to change her approach," Murray said.


Transparency Goes a Long Way 

Every Friday morning, the 92 employees of Newtown, Pa.-based Blue Rock Construction receive a weekly newsletter containing project updates, welcomes to new workers and notes on work anniversaries, weddings, birthdays, babies, fundraisers and other events that occurred during the week or will take place in the following days.  

The newsletter, "News & Notes," was the brainchild of company president Steve Kettelberger, said HR manager Nicole DeFazio Cataldi. As Blue Rock grew, Cataldi said, Kettelberger decided the company needed a way to "keep everyone in the loop" across its four offices and multiple job sites. "It was important for him that everyone knew what was going on and also to have a way to give kudos [and] welcomes and spread other news," she said. 

Sent only to employees, the first newsletter was distributed in March 2016. Besides allowing everyone to share in milestones and celebrations, "it gives people the opportunity to put faces to the names of new hires and lets employees submit and share news and kudos." For Cataldi, the newsletter's value lies in its being "a weekly reminder that the company cares, and that even as we grow in size, we still keep the small-company feel."


Pleasant Surprises 

Even at larger companies, CEOs can build engagement through simple gestures. 

When Ultimate Software's Scott Scherr goes out for lunch, for example, he often picks up the tab for every table where one of his 4,700 employees is sitting, no matter what their level or whether they're having a business meal.    

"I think it really makes a lasting, positive impact on our people," said the Weston, Fla.-based company's chief people officer, Vivian Maza. Ultimate's employees often comment on how likely Scherr is to stop in the hallway to chat about both personal and business matters, she added. "It makes an impression, and it makes a difference."


How to Get Your CEO On Board 

As Murray noted, close and personal encounters with rank-and-file workers aren't every CEO's cup of tea. In those cases, HR professionals advise against urging executives to stretch beyond their comfort zone. "It has to be natural. I think if it's forced, people will see right through that," Maza said. When convincing the CEO to become more personally involved in engagement efforts, she said, "think of what makes sense as a company or for your CEO as a person." 

"Bring your CEO lots of ideas," Acevedo said. "Some will make sense, some may not, and some may need to get tweaked. But doing something, regardless of how small, goes a long way with employees." 

Acevedo uses her $5 gift card as an example. "It's not a big financial investment for the company, but it's a huge investment in building our employee relationships," she said. "Our previous CEO would send out $50 Target gift cards at Christmas. Although this was nice and much appreciated by employees, we still receive more positive response from the birthday cards." 

Such touches also help build your employer brand when the company's recruiting. "A lack of communication" is one of the most frequent answers Cataldi gets when she asks candidates why they're looking for a new job. "I want to work for someone who cares" is another. Blue Rock's in-house newsletter "is a simple way to keep people in the loop and provide public kudos weekly," she said. "The time that goes into the creation of this each week is paid for tenfold by the benefits to employee morale."


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