Leaders, Do You Have a Pulse?

By: David Astorino and Kristen Gilson

The higher up you go within hierarchical organizational structures, the more powerful the roles become, with the CEO being the most powerful. Our research and experience show that leaders cast long shadows over their organizations. In this way, every single behavior matters when it comes to the engagement of employees many levels below them.

Based on an analysis of responses from executives who completed RHR’s Senior Team Effectiveness Survey and who represent the top leadership teams in over 100 organizations, we found two areas that serve as key drivers of engagement: (1) the extent to which leaders are connected to the pulse of the organization and (2) the norms shaped by leaders at the top.

1. Staying grounded matters

Top-performing senior teams with the most impact on employee engagement stay grounded in reality and connected to the pulse of their organizations. As consultants who work at the top of the organization, we have run across more than one top team in their own version of an “ivory tower” and disconnected from their organizations’ reality. 

A poignant example of this is the top team of a large financial services company that filled the employee intranet (the firm’s primary communication tool) with “get to know the top team” tidbits such as “guess whose baby picture this is?” and other inconsequential information while the company was going through tumultuous organizational changes (delayering, acquisitions, etc.). The disconnect of the top team was profound. 

On the other hand, senior leaders and the CEO can demonstrate their willingness to understand the reality by systematically taking the organizational pulse through various means. One great method that a technology client utilized was an exercise called “get the ugly out.” Before the top team would commit to the annual operating plan, they would have sessions around the company where people would dress in costumes (an interesting psychological technique to loosen everyone up and suspend the normal trepidation) and use Post-it notes to write down all the things that would get in the way of achieving the annual plan’s objectives, essentially “getting the ugly out.” The CEO and team members would actively facilitate these sessions, grouping themes into priority areas to address. While the exercise may seem unconventional, in the end, the CEO and team had a better understanding of potential hurdles while simultaneously demonstrating their willingness to step down from that “ivory tower.”

2. Norms shape the team and the culture below

Another area that impacts employee engagement is the way the leader establishes and enforces the norms at the top. Norms can be defined as the behaviors we choose to demonstrate to each other that have the most profound influence on our team performance. The norms demonstrated by high-functioning senior teams shape culture and engagement in noticeably impactful ways. The top team norms that we found to have the most impact on employee engagement produced the following emotional states:

  • Feeling heard and recognized
  • Optimism as characterized by learning, getting feedback, and developing new skills
  • Pride in the team, its mission, purpose, and focus

It is critically important for the leader to define team norms and hold team members (including themselves) accountable, yet occasionally, some senior leaders can underestimate the power of norms for both the health of the team and the organization below them. In one large pharmaceutical client, the CEO was hesitant to uphold norms out of fear of alienating a team member who held sway over key board members. However, that team member was behaving badly, shutting out another team member on crucial decisions. The behavior was so extreme that entire functions below these two leaders would not communicate horizontally, but funneled everything up their chain of command to their boss so their boss would have more information at his disposal than his peer. The organization coined the term “Information Olympics” to characterize the insanity of the behavior that permeated the culture. Needless to say, the unhealthy norms at the top led to dysfunctional behaviors levels below and severely impacted employee engagement.

As the talent market continues to heat up, employee engagement remains a top priority for leadership. Staying grounded in reality and upholding team norms are two less obvious behaviors that CEOs and senior executives can focus on to fortify their efforts at creating healthy, sustainable organizations…sustainable organizations where all employees are able to thrive.   

Determining which direction to take your company in is one thing; knowing how to get there is another. To learn how RHR can help your senior teams establish a clear direction and align behavior around it while enhancing your team’s ability to work together to achieve their organizational goals and create impact on the bottom line, contact Orla Leonard, Practice Leader, Senior Team Effectiveness.

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