Effective CEOs don't isolate themselves, say executives and experts

Businesspeople having a meeting in office
A CEO that spends time with the troops is seen as more effective. (jacoblund/iStockPhoto 877119128)

It’s hard to be in more than one place at a time, and this is even more vexing for CEOs. They are faced with the challenge of staying hunkered down in their office for most of the time, or walking the building to keep in touch with staff. It’s a tough choice that has its pros and cons.

“My first response was, ‘Why would you even ask this question?’ Of course they should” spend a good amount of time with employees, said Tom Coull, CEO of Penguin Computing. “Mixing with employees helps you stay in tune with what's going on at the company, and that face time is invaluable and something you can’t get through reports alone.”

However, “it’s important to ensure that you are not interfering or micromanaging employees, or even appear to be looking over shoulders,” Coull said. “Instead, it should be clear that your staff understands that you as the CEO are here to help.”

“Both are needed but I lean towards CEOs being out of the office,” said John Crossman, CEO of Crossman & Company. “It is important to be the face of the company and spend time growing the brand and networking.”

Also, by attending conferences and industry events, the CEO can learn about trends, insight and information that will impact the company’s future. Finally, by being out, it empowers the president and other senior staff to lead.

“The greatest CEOs understand the vital importance of developing and investing in the human capital that drives their brands,” said Josh Ross, CEO of Kerauno. “The human being was designed to live in community, and if you’re leading from the enclosed four walls of an office without a direct pulse on the employee and customer experience, you can’t successfully understand or edge on the trends that breed innovation.” 

This is really a matter of striking a balance, said Liz Bywater, Ph.D., president of Bywater Consulting. “CEOs need to protect adequate time to think strategically about the business, look to the future, meet with key partners, and attend to outward communication with customers, investors and the media. That said, they cannot be invisible or inaccessible to staff. They should be reaching out regularly in a number of formal and informal ways.”

Here are a few ways Bywater says CEOs can stay connected with their employees:

  • Town Halls: This is a great way to get a message out to the entire organization, convey a new direction, provide context about developments in the marketplace, and foster optimism in the workplace. 
  • Walking the Halls: This is a more informal approach and should be part of every CEO’s toolkit. CEOs should be visible to employees across the organization on a regular basis, saying hello, asking questions about what’s working well, learning where the real issues lie, and gathering new and innovative ideas from front-line staff.
  • Skip Level meetings: CEOs can tap into the ideas, experiences, and enthusiasm of staff by meeting with people at multiple layers of the organization. “Lunch with the CEO” opportunities or “coffee conversations” can be offered to employees throughout the year.

A balance should be struck between time with staff and time in the office, said Andy Curry, president of Grizzly Marketing. “A CEO will need to spend some time with their staff just to make sure all is going well, but cannot overdo it without risking losing control of other things needing done that only the CEO can do or is responsible for.”

The smaller a company is, “the more the CEO can, and will likely have to, spend with staff,” Curry said. “When the company grows, the CEO will have to delegate more and more of that and carefully work with the staff who work with the staff.”

“Sometimes the demands of the job are such that it’s tempting to close the door and just concentrate on what’s in front of you, but if you do that you miss what’s going on around you,” said Ninan Chacko, CEO of Travel Leaders Group. “Our headquarters is in New York where I sit, but Travel Leaders Group has several other offices with large concentrations of employees. I try to make a point of visiting each office once a quarter and holding employee town hall meetings.”

He also schedules dinners with groups of employees from different departments each time he visits one of the offices. “I always learn something important about the company and my colleagues at those dinners, like who plays guitar, who grew up on a farm and what their dream destination is,” Chacko said. “It’s a great opportunity to hear from people across the organization.”

"While there is certainly a time and place for everything, a CEO is most effective when she is present and visible among the employees,” said Cathy Littlefield, Ed.D., chair of the Business Department at Peirce College. “The CEO needs to be out of her office and among the employees on a regular basis because the value of being present is the breakdown of barriers.”  

When a CEO is present, “she is perceived as approachable and personable,” Littlefield said. “When employees ‘know’ the CEO and the CEO ‘knows’ the employees, there is a greater level of communication, accountability, and pride in one’s work. Many issues can be resolved early on, prior to the escalation of a problem, simply by asking how one’s day is going. The benefit of the CEO being present among the employees is that when she needs to work behind closed doors, it is understood.”

"I think with today’s virtual environment, there is less and less opportunity to spend time with your staff,” said Cricket Lee, CEO of Fitlogic. The ways she handles being there for staff are:

  • Weekly production meetings where employees are all together on a call and everyone knows what the others are working on.
  • An open “phone” policy where they can text or call Lee anytime they need her with no question too stupid to ask.
  • A specific follow-up structure where open issues are communicated constantly. 

"It is a leader's responsibility to be involved, to the extent they can outside of their day-to-day operations as CEO, to provide guidance during times of crisis and growth," said JP Guilbault, CEO of Community Brands. “It is important for a CEO to help their teams identify silos, remove fear of failure and isolation, and create connection, trust, and transparency among their employees. This helps foster personal and professional growth and improves workplace morale as a whole."