It's no secret that the most important asset most companies have is their people. Whether a business is predicated on providing fabulous service, pursuing rigorous production goals or maintaining an innovation edge, it’s often employees who, at the end of the day, determine whether it will thrive. That simple fact is borne out by the emphasis that Chief Executive’s CEO of the Year Selection Committee places on a leader’s ability to foster engagement among his or her employees. “The higher your employee engagement the better performance you will achieve in every aspect of the business,” notes Bill Nuti, CEO of NCR and a longstanding member of the Selection Committee. “From how you create personal loyalty to how you deliver great solutions to your customers, be it innovation, process or technology, the real key to attaining all of that [comes from achieving a] higher level of discretionary effort. People will make extraordinary efforts if they want to—not because they have to.” The most effective CEOs find ways to nurture engagement by rallying employees around a common purpose, making that purpose feel attainable, motivating the extra effort that requires and modeling the behavior they seek. Reflecting on CEO of the Year award recipients, Nuti cites two leaders who demonstrated an extraordinary ability to drive employee engagement: Ford Motor’s Alan Mulally (2011): After taking the helm of the troubled automaker, Mulally worked quickly to align employees behind defined goals and encourage honest assessments of progress. “His ability to engage employees allowed the company to navigate a very difficult transformation more seamlessly that otherwise would have been possible,” says Nuti. “As a result, he was able to significantly improve the performance of the company—the innovation that came out of the design team was phenomenal and they were more productive, more efficient and achieved higher quality due to that higher engagement.” Walt Disney’s Bob Iger (2014): Tasked with restoring a tarnished brand to greatness, Iger told Chief Executive that his biggest challenge was fixing the culture of “a company that did not believe in itself.” “Bob Iger really understands how employee engagement makes a difference,” says Nuti, who praised the Disney CEO’s success at energizing “cast members” to become external ambassadors of engagement. “In fact, Disney even teaches other companies how to drive a higher level of customer intimacy.”
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Long lauded for the deeply instilled processes that enabled it to build household-name brands, P&G has struggled to continue that winning streak over the past decade. Under CEO David Taylor, who was charged with addressing that issue when he took the helm in 2015, the company is looking to reignite the innovation engine by accessing ideas from frontline employees who engage directly with consumers of the household products it sells. “It’s the folks who are in homes weekly in the markets we serve—in Japan or China, India or Indonesia, or here in the U.S.—who probably have the best insight in how to delight the consumer,” said Taylor. As an example, he cited a small P&G research group in Japan that came up with a new marketing concept while visiting homes to watch consumers use the company’s cleaning products. Observing several consumers lament the fact that there was no way to clean upholstery as they sprayed the company’s Febreze air freshening product on couches and chairs spawned the concept for an “I Wish I Could Wash” ad campaign. “The U.S. ad showed someone putting a couch on top of a car and taking it through the car wash,” recounted Taylor. “The category went from declining 3 percent to growing almost 10 percent and we particularly prospered. That whole idea came from junior people in homes observing customers interacting with the brand. It would not have come up in our Cincinnati headquarters.”