It’s Not Just the Manager Who’s Responsible for Employee Motivation; it’s Also the CEO

Over the past 15 years, a bromide about motivating employees has taken hold. “People join companies,” goes the saying, “but they leave managers.”

Shortly after Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman published the 1999 bestseller First, Break All the Rules, Fortune published an interview with the two authors headlined, “It’s the Manager, Stupid.”

“What makes a company a great place to work?” asked the article. “Good managers” was the answer. The piece noted that none of the questions in the research behind the book “address issues like pay, benefits, perks, or what employees think of the CEO.” The singular focus was on the immediate supervisor and workgroup-level differences.

“People take their cues from the CEO. And those cues extend to matters of culture and the implicit bargain with employees as much as they do anything else.”

The “employee engagement” push has largely continued along these lines for a decade-and-a-half. Need to improve “engagement?” Do a survey, train the managers, give them a scorecard showing the responses of their team, then hold them accountable for improving the results. Profile the best of them. If needed, fire the worst of them. However, the consultants who took the results to the CEO and his or her team almost never put the same pressure on the senior executives as they recommended putting on the front-line supervisors.

The joining-companies/leaving-managers mantra made sense, because it’s often true. A bad manager will, indeed, drive someone out of an otherwise attractive organization. A person’s manager is the central player in his or her intensity at work. Research bore it out then as it does now.

But a great manager is what a statistician would call “necessary, but not sufficient” for high levels of employee commitment. Particularly in these days of higher chief executive visibility and job-related social media sites such as Glassdoor, where “approves of CEO” is a standard question, ignoring the senior executive’s role in maintaining worker commitment is a material omission. Among those who strongly disagree they trust the leadership of their employer, 71 percent wish they were working somewhere else. Among those who most trust the leadership of the company, a mere 8 percent wish they were elsewhere. Similar patterns appear for communication of the company mission, executive transparency, compensation strategy, and other aspects for which the CEO is ultimately responsible.

The commitment and intensity of managers are contagious; they correlate with the motivation of their teams. But that contagiousness is not restricted to the front lines. Even where “It’s the manager” holds true, to get a complete picture one still needs to look to that manager’s manager, and the manager above them, and so forth right up the chain of command.

The environment in which those first-level supervisors work to charge up their teams is hugely influenced by the CEO’s strategy on pay, work/life balance, collaboration, fearlessness, transparency, loyalty to employees, and willingness to have a little fun along the way. The business press makes a much bigger deal of a company getting a new chief executive than it does of other transitions, and for good reason. People take their cues from the CEO. And those cues extend to matters of culture and the implicit bargain with employees as much as they do anything else.

So, yes, it’s the manager. It’s he or she who gets to know the individual employee well and matches the employee’s abilities to the enterprise’s needs. It’s the manager who assigns the work, ensures the recognition, solidifies the team, does the performance appraisals, and schedules the vacations. Managers are absolutely necessary.

But they are not sufficient. What each of those managers does and how much each of their employees responds depends heavily on the vision, dedication, humanity, and hard work of the company’s chief executive. People join companies, but they sometimes leave CEOs.