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How senior leaders can connect with front-line workers

When I worked at Marriott, stories of Bill Marriott visiting hotels during his travels became legendary. He wouldn’t just check in for a night or two while visiting key clients and attending to high-level business concerns, he would walk the back of the house and the front of the house and talk to staff members at all levels along the way.

Through one-on-one conversations and small-group chats, he created real, personal connections with many of the nearly 200,000 people who made his business run and gathered valuable information about their work and the hotels in the process.

Of course, Bill Marriott also spent plenty of time with his big customers and clients, but he still found unique ways to stay connected with his employees — and not just the ones in management. And that’s part of what made him a great leader.

Why senior leaders must find unique ways to stay connected

One of the leading drivers of employee engagement is workers’ relationships with their immediate managers, but developing good relationships with upper management can boost engagement even further. When senior leaders rule from above and communicate only indirectly, they don’t really connect with employees. To make a true, effective connection, they need to be authentic and accessible and communicate their visions directly.

Embracing distributed leadership

Bill Marriott’s hotel visits were valuable to him and his employees, but with such a large company he couldn’t realistically make a direct connection with each and every person on staff. Even at much smaller companies than Marriott, if everyone’s waiting for the CEO to say something, they could be waiting awhile. That’s why it’s valuable for all senior leaders to find unique ways to stay connected.

When I was working at Scripps, we met this need through leadership roadshows. The CEO didn’t try to go out and meet with all 2,000 employees; instead, we would send other senior leaders out to do coffee chats throughout the company. The goal was to create a culture of distributed leadership, to make all senior leaders ambassadors who were accessible to employees and made them feel like they could always speak up to share ideas and ask questions.

5 tips for finding unique ways to stay connected with your employees

At Scripps, I used to have family meetings with everyone on the team in attendance. People at all levels came and everyone was welcome to say what what was on their minds. The goal was to refocus our attention on what mattered and move past what didn’t.

That tactic worked well for us, but there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for senior leaders who want to create a personal connection with employees at all levels. It’s important for senior leadership teams, CEOs and other individual leaders to find their own unique ways that work for them and their people. Here’s how you can get started.

  • Create a safe space for sharing. Smart leaders take the attitude that feedback — both positive and negative — is a gift, and they are open to receiving it. To get honest feedback, you must demonstrate that you won’t take what employees say and use it against them. You need to set the rules for engagement and let them know they can say anything as long as they do so in a respectful way.
  • Meet employees where they are. One company I worked for decided to connect executives with employees through a holiday open house on the executive floor. It seemed nice to have executives host, but it was a terrible idea because most employees were already intimidated by the idea of coming up to that floor. The party felt like an obligation and created the worry that someone would be keeping score, noting who showed up and who didn’t. Employees would have been more comfortable and more engaged if the executives had come to them in a more open, less intimidating environment.
  • Be flexible about the forum. I’m an introvert and prefer engaging with small groups over speaking to large ones, but I also know it’s important to be flexible and offer a variety of ways for employees to connect with me. Trying different forums can also help you find what works best for you and the people you’re leading.
  • Make room for impromptu encounters. I’ve discovered unscheduled, unscripted chats can be more informative than scheduled coffee chats or other more official forums. You have to learn to sense when it’s a good time to engage in a real conversation.
  • Ask good questions. Learn to ask questions that elicit information about what employees are doing, how they’re doing it and what they need to be able to do it better. As a leader, it’s your job to create an environment where people feel they can contribute, grow and be recognized for their contributions. If you aren’t asking good questions and staying in touch, you can’t do any of those things.

Chris Powell is the CEO of BlackbookHR, a software company on a mission to create more engaged and connected workplaces and communities. He previously served as executive vice president of human resources for Scripps Networks Interactive (HGTV, DIY, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel, et al.), as vice president of human resources for the global financial services company ING, and in various corporate HR roles at Marriott International.

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