Article 2 in a six-part series on the best practices of San Diego’s Most Admired CEOs (as identified by the San Diego Business Journal; San Diego companies, like the rest of American corporations move at a fast pace and 3 of the CEOs interviewed have since moved on to other companies)
Clock-watchers, “9-to-5ers,” slackers and loafers are just a few words leaders may use to describe the 71% of American workers who are unhappy at work (according to recent Gallup research). These employees are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work, which translates to reduced productivity and retention.
Why should CEOs and their leaders care about this “unhappiness” statistic? Because over the past decade, business and psychological researchers—including Gallup—have identified a strong relationship between employees’ workplace engagement and their company’s overall performance. Research consistently demonstrates that organizations with engaged employees experience positive business performance, while workplaces with actively disengaged employees experience lower productivity, decreased customer service and more turnover of high performers. Does it mean you need to create a bouncy workplace with free meals, game rooms and loosened policies? Gallup CEO Jim Clifton says no.
“Leaders will buy miserable employees latte machines for their offices, give them free lunch and sodas, or even worse—just let them all work at home, hailing an ‘enlightened’ policy of telecommuting. Hell, some of these practices might even earn your company a business magazine’s Great Place to Work award,” Clifton said. “The problem is, employee engagement in America isn’t budging.”
Should CEOs write off these disengaged people as bad hires or take note and wonder if their leadership may have anything to do with the slumped shoulders, minimum participation and average customer service? The Gallup research suggests many ways to increase engagement, including clarity of job expectation, career advancement opportunities, regular feedback, perceptions of the values of the organization and effective internal communications. I can share from my experience with clients that engagement can only start to happen when the senior leadership team makes a conscious effort to develop its identity and voice as leaders. Only after this takes place can the team lead the organization in a positive direction.
There are four actions San Diego’s Most Admired CEOs take that they believe help inspire their employees. Their actions are aligned with what I have helped clients achieve as well as the steps that are associated with increasing engagement.
Decide What You Stand For
I start my work with new clients by speaking with some employees and most times, the companies with disengaged employees tend to not have a strong leadership team or vision. If your employees can’t answer the question, “Who is the company and what does it stand for?” you have a challenge and an opportunity.
The CEOs I interviewed have a strong belief that vision is synonymous with leadership; if they don’t clearly articulate the vision and how the company can achieve it, they’re not doing their jobs properly. They have varied yet consistent opinions about the importance of using passion and vision to create engaged teams.
- Tim Caulfield, former CEO of American Internet Services: “We must help people see the big picture, the vision and where we are headed. It is important to help folks understand what’s really important versus what’s noise. On any given day, we’re all very busy. It’s very easy to get hung up in things that can suck up a lot of time and may not necessarily be part of the big picture.”
- Greg Koch, Stone Brewing Company: “There are a lot of people who could lead without passion. I know a lot of business leaders and I’ve learned that one major leadership approach is focused on being a great leader and what you are leading doesn’t matter as much as how you are leading. To me, our mission, our goals and our philosophies are the guiding force. If I was asked to lead a widget company, I have no idea how I would perform.”
- Joanne Pastula, Junior Achievement: “I see leadership as having a vision, ability to lay out the road ahead, focus and have passion and enthusiasm for what you are doing.”
- Gary Rayner, former CEO of LifeProof: “Values bring the mission to the front and integrity. People are looking for a mission, a cause and if you give them a good cause to become involved with, they’ll put their hearts and souls into it. We’ve saved lives with our product.”
- Larry Anderson former CEO of Tri-City Hospital: “As the spokesperson for our organization, it is my responsibility to lay out a vision that is exciting and yet achievable. I believe we have done that. Then, as the ‘cheerleader,’ we are responsible in leading the organization toward that vision. I exhort my staff to strive for excellence in everything they do. From day-to-day discussions with their direct reports to rounding on patients and staffs, I try to set the standard of excellence. I don’t ask my staff to do anything I would not do. I set the pace of the organization and make sure no one is asked to work harder or longer than me.”
Employ Communications Best Practices
The word communication gets tossed around as the cure-all for just about anything that ails a company. While that’s not entirely true, communication is very important, and to truly excel at it, you need a strategy. Our award-winning CEOs know it starts by aligning their leaders, modeling the right behaviors and communicating in a way that matches your people; these areas show up frequently in the culture assessments I conduct with my clients. How can culture be reshaped? The actions below are critical.
Align the Senior Team
“Our leadership team gets together regularly to make sure we are aligned and that we are bringing the company to the next level,” Caulfield said. “We also do regular monthly all-hands meetings and have periodic email communication to share how things are going.”
Walk the Talk
“You have to walk the talk,” said Jim Cable of Peregrine Semiconductor Corporation. “When you get new hires, they have to be indoctrinated a little bit. We recently had a flood of new people and we had a daylong training and me, our CFO and our CTO shared the vision and answered questions to set the tone. We discussed what we think is important, our expectations for new employees, our openness to new ideas and how we don’t think we know it all. We are truly an open door company and people will get on my calendar and talk to me.”
Match the Medium to the Audience
“A lot of people here are inspired by our philosophy and connectivity to the community,” Koch said. “We deliver updates to our 450+ people in the form of a monthly newsletter, bursts of want or should know information, annual company meetings and a lot of internal and external videos.”
Pastula notes that Junior Achievement’s team has weekly mandatory staff meetings, senior leadership meetings and twice-yearly retreats to review progress toward the strategic plan. They also interact regularly with other Junior Achievements around the country so the staff knows their counterparts.
One of the biggest challenges for leaders is to let go of control, and this requires either developing the person to whom you are relinquishing control or hiring someone who has the right skills. Either way, there is a leap leaders have to take to grow companies and themselves to the next level.
- Gary Cady, Torrey Pines Bank: “I give my senior leaders the freedom to do their jobs. Often the most important thing for me is to get out of the way.”
- Larry Anderson former CEO of Tri-City Hospital: “My role as CEO is to provide frequent and constructive feedback on how employees are doing and try to keep them focused on the end result. I participate in their development and guide them, but their success is in their hands.”
Keep Score and Measure Everything
Another major problem discovered through my research is employees lacking a clear direction or measure of success. When employees are uncertain about what they’re supposed to be doing, they lack the focus required to do anything of significant value. A complementary issue is feeling there are no benchmarks, no way to truly measure achievements.
In addition to empowering his team, Caulfield has clear metrics. “I give them the authority and I hold them accountable for it,” he said.
“I’m focused on metrics, I keep score,” said Bob Kelly of San Diego Foundation. “I don’t care which score you’re keeping, but keep score.”
“I believe in recruiting the best possible people for the job, making sure they have all the resources (including training where necessary) to maximize their contribution to the organization, and then holding them accountable for their outcomes,” Anderson said.
Employee Engagement Summary: Four Steps to Inspiring Your Team
These four actions all require your attention and an investment of time. Here are some tips on how you can make each happen in your company:
- Establish a Vision: If you have an existing one that is aligned with your current business strategy, communicate it at your meetings, through your conversations, on your Intranet and via every other medium you can. If you don’t have one or need to revise it, gather your trusted colleagues and gain clarity together.
- Employ Appropriate Communications Tactics: Meet with your senior team and a group of employees and come up with communication vehicles that will match your employee audience. Some employees will love IM (instant messaging) and emails while others may prefer open communication. You cannot over-communicate. Use the tools modern technology offers and get your message out clearly.
- Stop Micromanaging: Delegation is one of the hardest things for entrepreneurs to do. Get a coach, read books or ask colleagues for their support and advice.
- Keep Score: Get help designing a simple performance management system that will make it possible to track employee performance and value-drive behavior. Make sure your managers consistently take the time to give specific feedback on a job well done as well as areas for improvement.
1 Blacksmith, N. & Harter, J. October 28, 2011. Majority of American Workers Not Engaged in Their Jobs. Highly educated and middle-aged employees among the least likely to be engaged. Retrieved 9/9/13 from: http://www.gallup.com/poll/150383/majority-american-workers-not-engaged-jobs.aspx
 How to Tackle U.S. Employees’ Stagnating Engagement. June 11, 2013. Retrieved September 9, 2013 from: