Five Ways for CEOs to enhance Staff Engagement

Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) is starting to impact how staff at all levels of the organization behave and interact with each other. In particular, we are starting to see progressive CEOs and their senior executive teams looking to ESN to sidestep the traditional top down communication cascades and engage directly with ‘shop floor’ level staff, to build staff engagement overall.

We first reported on this trend more than 18 months ago when we interviewed former Telstra CEO David Thodey, the head of Australia’s largest telecommunications company. Thodey stated that his driving enthusiasm for ESN was the way it enabled him to have authentic conversations with staff at all levels. He also suggested that the ESN enabled the organization to change the way it perceived senior management i.e. being more responsive and accessible. Carrie Basham-Young recently reported on how the important conversations are happening around, rather than through, the middlemen. Her observations from many organizational collaboration audits is that “real work is getting done through informal social networks — the relationships between employees that weave a web of friendships, trust, alliances, social power and ultimately, information exchange”.

If the senior executive wants to engage with staff, they will need to earn the trust of staff to the extent that they are welcomed into both their informal, as well as formal, networks.

How Does the CEO’s Job Change with ESN?

For many CEOs, opening up the conversational channels to ‘all staff’ may seem good in theory, to gain authentic feedback from staff at all levels. But this will undoubtedly come at a cost of having to deal with the tsunami of requests and responses from anywhere and everywhere. Isn’t this what internal communications and the line management are meant to do? Facilitate top-down communications? Well, perhaps not any more.

The traditional role of internal communications was to manage top down, one-way, communication i.e. managing CEO broadcasts. And the measure of ‘engagement’ they used is how many staff viewed the broadcast. But this measure is a passive measure and not really a measure of engagement. Once these broadcasts move to the ESN, the role of internal communications should be moving from managing broadcasts, to facilitating conversations.

David Thodey’s tactic for managing his inevitable interaction overload on the ESN was to use his Internal Communications staff to identify ‘conversations that he may be interested in joining’. This is a subtle, albeit important, point. The ESN should not be a tool for the CEO to simply reach more staff or even to set an expectation of direct one-on-one CEO interactions. It is a tool to enable the executive to both instigate conversations, or join conversations that are occurring on the ESN. Unlike an email, an ESN reply is seen by all staff in the conversation, and not just the individual it is directed at.

Once this transition is made from the Broadcasting model, the measure for success should move from a passive views/reads, to the more active conversational measure of replies, likes and mentions.

How should the CEO instigate and participate in important ESN conversations?

We have now observed a number of CEOs who were able to ‘fire up’ their ESN by posting an open question to staff, soliciting opinions on barriers they face in doing their jobs well; or ideas for how a particular strategic issue might be addressed. The first time this is done, it signals a change in perception of senior management. Here they are showing some vulnerability, and that perhaps they didn’t have all the answers. Even better, they are asking us what we think! The result is typically a flood of responses. However, CEOs would appreciate the danger of over-use of this tactic, which could result in a loss of confidence in the executive over time.

So how should the CEO and senior executive sustain engagement with staff on the ESN? Most organizations using an ESN have established an open group for the CEO and senior executive to engage with ‘all staff’. We have taken the opportunity to analyze the SWOOP data from one such group over a 12-month period with the following results:


We then undertook the following correlation analysis on the above measures:

In the first column we can see that there is a high correlation (more than 80%) between CEO Replies and Staff responses of all types (Replies, Likes and Mentions); in comparison to reactions to CEO Likes (correlations less than 54%). What’s more, it also appears that as more staff join in the conversation, it influences even more staff to join in, as we can see by even higher correlations between the different staff response types (correlations between staff interaction types more than 86%). In fact, we found that over 20% of staff responses were directed at staff other than the CEO.

CEO Take-away: 5 Steps to Greater Staff Engagement

As a CEO or Senior Executive wanting to build staff engagement levels we recommend:

  1. Looking beyond passive ‘read’ statistics to true ‘engagement’ measures reflecting active participation in conversations. Mature ESN organizations like Telstra, Westpac, Virgin Trains, NBN and many more have already made this transition.
  2. Looking at the degree to which you, and the senior executive, are generating broader and deeper conversations amongst staff; and less about direct interactions with the executive suite. Brian Hartzer, Westpac Bank’s CEO, now monitors daily how his senior executives are interacting with their teams on their ESN.
  3. Creating energetic on-line conversations through soliciting responses to complex, challenging and strategy aligned questions. Bill Morrow, the CEO of NBN, the company responsible for Australia’s Broadband Network, generated more than 1,000 responses to his open question on their ESN, mirroring David Thodey, who experienced a similar response at Telstra over two years ago.
  4. Using your internal communications staff to highlight staff conversations that you should be interested in participating in. This tactic, identified by Thodey, has been operationalized by Virgin Trains in the UK, not just for the CEO, but all leaders. A leader in our 2017 Yammer Benchmarking study, Virgin Trains has won a string of employee engagement and technology use awards.
  5. Aiming to maximize written replies, in preference to simple likes. Written replies are seen by not only the recipient, but all others in the conversation, attracting other staff into the conversation. It is the best way for executives to broaden and deepen the conversation, and therefore overall staff engagement.

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