The Not-So-Surprising Lessons from Top-Down Employee Engagement


Most of us understand the benefits of sincere employee engagement. After all, data is everywhere supporting the importance of making team members feel valued – and we can’t open a leadership-oriented blog post without seeing a dozen thoughts on the subject.

And yet, there remains a disconnect; it’s almost as if CEOs, board members and Directors believe that engagement is a “bottom up” process driven by HR, middle-managers and veteran employees.

The reality is engagement is nothing but a “top down” matter – and the best among us lead by example in this area known to affect morale, productivity, culture and profits.

Recently, I witnessed polar-opposite attitudes to top-down engagement…

Two CEOs were asked by a consultant to show a willingness to be more approachable and less aloof. Specifically, they were asked to walk their sales floor every morning for 30 minutes. The only other instruction was that the Sales Manager was not to act as liaison; this had to be one-on-one, human-to-human contact.

In other words: sincere engagement.

CEO Number 1

From the start, CEO No. 1 – let’s call him Dave – was worried. He wasn’t sure how well-liked he was on the floor. After all, some tough decisions had to be made recently and about 15% of the sales team were let go. But down he went, the elevator carrying him four floors lower than he had stepped foot in months.

Dave opened the door. All he could see forever were cubicles. No faces – only voices coming from behind the Steelcase enclosures. He went straight ahead, past the floor manager’s office – exactly as instructed.

Eyes down for the most part, Dave walked the aisles slowly. Five minutes into his 30-minute mandate, he hadn’t made eye contact or spoken to a single person. He did come close: a young sales rep leapt from his chair to get a deal signed-off, nearly running into Dave as he left his cubicle. Surprised by the presence of his CEO on the floor, the sales rep’s eyes got big, he stood up straighter and threw his chin up in the air like guys do, and said “Hey.” Dave, not remembering the employee’s name, looked back at him, threw his chin up, and said, “Hey.”

And so Dave’s torturous walk continued throughout the week. The occasional “Hey.” Awkward eye-contact. Many “what’s he doing down here?” looks. Only once did he actively engage a team member – and that was when he thought a sales rep was not following company guidelines closely enough and decided corrective action was necessary.

CEO Number 2

Six months later, our second CEO – we’ll call him Bud – walked the exact same floor. Same company. For the most part, the same team members. Same Steelcase cube farm. Yes, Bud was Dave’s replacement.

Given the same challenge, Bud – although small in stature – owned the floor. Working with HR and sales management, he had learned the names and backgrounds of many of the reps long before ever getting in the elevator. He knew who were perceived as superstars, and who underperformed.

For their part, the sales team was suspicious. Sure, they’d met Bud at the all-hands-on-deck meeting when he was introduced. Sure, he said all the right things. Mostly, though, they were a little intimidated; Bud’s reputation as an often-loud, hard-ass type who expected “A” level performance had preceded him.

As Bud entered the Steelcase jungle, he listened. He then did something that surprised himself. Without thinking, he decided not to “walk the floor.” Instead, he went into the break room and sat with his coffee and Blackberry.

Soon, a member of the sales team came in the smallish room furnished with just two tables wrapped by plastic chairs. Surprised, the sales rep stopped in his tracks.

“Oh, hi” he said, not knowing what else to say.

“Hello!” Bud said back. “Time for a refill?”

“Yeah” said the sales guy, not so eloquently. Understandable, since the new CEO was sitting unexpectedly in what had been, until that moment, the sanctuary of the sales team.

“Let me buy this one”, Bud said. He got up, got the coffee, and – while pointing at the chair next to the one he’d just vacated – said, “Have a seat; how do you take it?”

A casual conversation ensued; first about the traffic, then about family and eventually about work.

Over the next few minutes, Bud repeated this process with everyone who entered the break area. Underperformers and superstars alike joined him for coffee and conversation. Before he knew it, he had gone well past his mandated 30 minutes.

The next day, Bud did the same thing. And the next. On Friday, he not only got everyone morning coffee, he had the local shop bring in pizza. He sat, quietly enjoying his pizza, as those two tables in that tiny break room filled with conversation. Real conversation. About stupid stuff – life stuff. Work was barely discussed.

And so this process went for about 3 weeks. By then, Bud knew just about all the 110 sales people pretty well. He’d pass them in the halls; join them in the elevator. No longer perceived as a threat, he’d sit in on meetings without saying much. And, of course, he’d pour the coffee.

Then a miraculous thing happened. Sales team members started doing something they had hardly ever done.

They pushed the “UP” button on the elevator.

They deliberately went up four floors… to talk to Bud. No middle-managers. No HR representative. No liaisons or filters – just engagement. Employee engagement. From the top-down. Soon, everyone could feel a different attitude. Trust developed. Best practices were shared. Personal agendas were quashed.

No, it wasn’t some Pollyanna version of perfect. Bud was still a results-driven boss – even an autocrat at times who frequently got frustrated enough to drop an out-loud, red-faced F-bomb.

There was no doubt, however, that a new culture had developed. Demanding, yes… but authentic. Sales went up, dramatically. So did customer retention, unsolicited testimonials, employee referrals – and the bottom line.

The moral of this very real (and very long) story?

A single person, especially in a top-level position, can change an entire culture. And it takes just a matter of weeks, one conversation at a time.

Another important note: what Bud did was different for another reason. Rather than dictating some corporate policy change announced in some memo that parenthetically said “Our culture has changed: we will focus on engagement, starting now!” – he set out to become a role model. He deliberately set the non-hierarchal, transparent example.

He was engaging. And enabled engagement to just happen.


Bud reminds us of another of our favorite CEOs, Peter Aceto of ING Direct Canada. You’ll love his post on getting out of your office.

Image credit: gvn / 123RF Stock Photo

Mark Babbitt is a speaker, author and blogger who serves as CEO and Founder of YouTern, a social community for college students, recent graduates and young professionals that Mashable calls a "Top 5 Online Community for Starting Your Career." He is also President of Switch and Shift and CMO and co-founder of Mark is the father of five and a grandfather; he and the woman who tolerates him (barely) call Seattle, Washington home.

  • Mark,

    What a powerful post! You and I have discussed some of the turnarounds you’ve been involved in over your career, and I have to wonder if Bud isn’t a guy I know named Mark….

    I love the fact that Bud replaced Dave. I’ve met both of these types, and many who fall in between. I’ll bet Dave had a terrific pedigree and was a master-jockey of the spreadsheet. Unfortunately, folks like that are often promoted to leadership, which is nothing about spreadsheets and everything about people.

    One of my friends in Naples was president of a very large company we all know by name; he was #2 in his org, rising from a tiny little business along with his CEO as the company grew. Now he leads in the nonprofit realm, where you can’t order folks around because most are volunteers, and they’ll just leave you for another good cause. He’s a natural at that, just as he was at business, because he is so good with people – he honestly likes people, and respects them, and yes, expects an awful lot of them… and no one wants to let him down, so I’ve seen the things he can accomplish without issuing a single edict.

    He told me how his replacement, when he retired, just wasn’t clicking – he was really sharp with numbers, and his mind was incredibly strategic: that’s why they’d hired him to lead. But he had no people skills at all. My friend was brought in once a week to coach him. This went on for about a year before my friend moved from New York to my little town.

    I asked my friend, “How did it go?” His look said it all: he doesn’t suffer fools.

    “Well,” he said, “I also worked with his right hand guy, who… let’s just say has a lot more potential as a leader. Those coaching sessions went well.”

    Enough said? Barely. This is a conversation that must be had again and again with leaders as they select other leaders, be it the board selecting a new CEO or a VP selecting a frontline manager. People skills first. Spreadsheets a distant second (if that!).

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