Lonely at the top: how a CEO drives employee engagement

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s Continental Airlines was ranked bottom of nearly every category used to measure airline performance. The company went through 10 CEOs in a decade, had to ask for bankruptcy protection twice and, at it’s lowest point, made losses of over $600m per year.

When Gordon Bethune took over as CEO in 1994, the situation looked hopeless. But he quickly realised that the origin of the problem was (mainly) down to one major failing: a complete and fundamental lack of employee engagement. In fact, employees were mistreated and mistrusted. The employees themselves were embarrassed to work at Continental. There was no pride and certainly no pleasure in going to work.

This lack of pride and enjoyment inevitably led to slow turnarounds at airports, lack of cleanliness of the planes, delays and most importantly of all total customer dissatisfaction. People didn’t fly Continental for their pleasure. The result: a hugely unprofitable airline.

Bethune, implemented the basics of employee engagement. He instilled pride, explained that the cleanliness of the planes wasn’t just important for the customer, but for the staff themselves. They had to work in the planes. He started giving the staff bonuses every month the business made a profit (sending a separate cheque at the end of the month to make sure they knew it!). And he got stuck in. He could often be found loading luggage with ground staff or getting feedback directly from cabin crew.

The result? The year Bethune took over the company made $250m profit. It was soon at the top of all the rankings and the stock price rose from $2 per share to $50 per share, it was voted ‘best place to work’ for 6 consecutive years and in his last year (2004), Fortune magazine voted Continental Airlines No. 1 Most Admired Global Airline (which it has won many times since then).

So, what can we learn from Bethune’s activities? How can we translate these into a digital comms language? Here are some ideas on how you as a CEO can use your digital channels to cultivate employee engagement, instil pride and get your team behind you:

CEO Participation – the biggest lesson we can surely take from this success story is the importance for the CEO to ‘get stuck in’. It is not just about getting senior management and/or CEO ‘buy-in’ for the Intranet (or social collaboration platform). It is all about actual participation. You need to be using the same systems that your staff are using. If you use it, the rest of the organisation will follow suit (and you will gain a better understanding of any limitations and/or benefits).

CEO blog – a great way of getting the team behind you is by communicating to them. And one of the most effective ways (time/cost) of doing that is through a blog. Although slightly more time consuming than participation, CEO blogs are hugely powerful instruments that enable you to address potentially sensitive issues, cultivate enthusiasm for new projects, and communicate the management’s vision and the company’s performance.

CEO Q&A – another very effective idea, and very easy to implement for the more social platforms, is the creation of a version of ‘prime minister question time’ or internal CEO Q&A session. Run as regularly as it suits the business, this will allow staff from all levels of the organisation to ask questions and for you to address them. Yes, this means you will sometimes face difficult issues, but the reality is they are better addressed than left to fester.

Video & webcasting – it doesn’t replace the importance of face-to-face presentations, but in organisations that are geographically dispersed or simply too large to get everyone in one room, video and webcasting is the perfect way for employees to get a closer to the CEO. Webcasting, in particular, is a great way to draw people to the Intranet at the same time, with a common sense of purpose and allow you to address the whole organisation as one. Rich content is also becoming more and more important to Intranets, so consider a quarterly corporate update video, and a video for new starters welcoming them on-board (simple but extremely effective).

KPIs – the lack of importance given to communicating company performance internally always amazes me. Companies are quite willing to spend fortunes on end of year reports and IR sections (which are clearly also important), but don’t seem to understand the importance of communicating this information internally. A company performance section should be a standard for your Intranet if you want to gain real employee engagement. Simple: to cultivate pride, tell them how you are doing when you are doing well. If the company is doing badly, discussing performance figures can help rally the troops.

Conclusion:

Essentially, all the above are digital examples of how you can achieve two things: ‘getting stuck in’ and open communication. Open communication builds trust and pride. Getting stuck in shows awareness, interest and understanding.

These are the pillars on which employee engagement is built.