Lessons from the CEO Talent Summit: 3 Ways to Boost Employee Engagement

1. Identify—and Explain—a Purpose Your Employees Can Get Behind. It makes sense that employees, regardless of demographics and across all industries, tend to perform better when they feel they’re doing something meaningful. Today’s younger workers take that a step further, often prioritizing employers with purposes they can feel good about rallying around.

For Dr. Ilham Kadri, president of Diversey Care Division of Sealed Air, the power of purpose represented both a challenge and an opportunity, A global leader in food safety and security, facility hygiene and product protection, the company employs workers around the globe whose primary responsibility is cleaning, Kadri told CEOs at Chief Executive’s Talent Summit last week, noting that engagement was dismal when she came into the CEO role. “Nobody ever dreams about growing up to become a cleaner,” she acknowledged.

Kadri addressed the engagement issue head on by asking employees to think about what they really provide to its customers. “Are we cleaning your hospital or are we saving lives by reducing the risk of infection?” she asks. “Are we cleaning restaurant kitchens or are we helping them keep people healthy by preventing food poisoning? Little by little, we started reimagining the business we serve.” Coupled with other initiatives, the conversation helped Kadri boost engagement from 50 percent to 76 percent over the ensuing three years, according to the company’s internal surveys.

“Are we cleaning restaurant kitchens or are we helping them keep people healthy by preventing food poisoning? Little by little, we started reimagining the business we serve.”

2. Forge Paths Toward Greater Flexibility. Increasingly, employees want more control of when, where and how they work—and companies offering such flexibility find it easier to hire and retain top talent. That proved to be the case for Watt Global Media, reported Greg Watt, CEO of the $12 million company, which adopted a results-only work environment that entirely eliminated the need for any of its employees to come into the office—ever. “It’s about equal parts autonomy and accountability,” he explained. “It comes from the concept that work is not where you go, it’s what you do.”

Watt says that “treating people like adults” by performance goal-setting and providing ongoing feedback that “manages the work not the people” has led to greater productivity, as well as improvements in recruitment and retention. “Our top line has gone up every year since we implemented it, and our operating margins are the best we’ve ever had in the history of the company,” he said.

While Watt Global’s approach might not work for every company, there are ways to bring elements of flexibility into virtually any work environment. For example, Carolyn Tastad, group president North America at P&G, recounted how one of the company’s offices opted to replace the ubiquitous “Casual Friday” with a “Dress for Your Day” initiative that gives employees the freedom to adjust their workwear depending on what they have on their workday docket. “People want to be able to be their authentic selves at work,” she explains. “Dress for your day means you may come in business attire on a day when you have meetings or in casual wear if you’re working on a project and need to be creative that day.”

3. Bridge the Generational Divide. Bringing younger workers into the fold is widely viewed as essential for companies looking to leverage the capabilities of the digital age. Yet the influx of Millennials eager to bring their skills to the table easily alienate more seasoned employees steeped in essential industry knowledge. This was the case at Sodexo, a global food services and facilities management company with 500,000 employees around the world.

“We are not a tech company, but we need to be able to bring in people who are very tech oriented to compete at a time when our business model is under attack by startups,” noted Sylvia Metayer, Sodexo’s CEO of corporate services worldwide. “At the same time, we have a generation that is retiring and that generation has knowledge of a different type.” To bring the generations together, Sodexo launched an intergenerational mentoring program that brings people from different generations, different levels and different teams together in a learning forum.

Tastad, too, employs mentoring to encourage P&G’s multigenerational workforce to collaborate, and to bring experienced workers up to speed on new technologies. “We do reverse mentoring, matching new people coming in with skill sets they’ve developed organically with those within who have a deep knowledge base,” she says. “Unleashing the best of both is something we try to be intentional about.”

From communication to flexibility to partnerships, these three companies have figured out that the employee strategies of yesterday no longer work, and have come up with innovative new ways to find and keep the best staff. Use their ideas in your firm and you may see positive results.

Jennifer Pellet :As editor-at-large at Chief Executive magazine, Jennifer Pellet writes feature stories and CEO roundtable coverage and also edits various sections of the publication.