CEOs who communicate with staff are favored, experts say, but achieving balance is a challenge

Young Couple Using Ocean Medallion
CEOs that spend time with staff are preferred.

Sometimes CEOs seem like shadowy figures, while others stop into cubicles for quick chats. It’s a matter of personal style, but which is the right approach?

A CEO who is seen as aloof may be respected, but the distance can be unwelcome and that can set a tone in the office. The gregarious CEO is likely to be viewed as warm, but just how much familiarity is too much?

“This is a slippery slope,” said Gilda Carle, who holds a Ph.D. in educational leadership. “They must set up and adhere to boundaries so staff doesn’t miscalculate CEOs’ cordial communication as a path towards manipulation. But of course, communication should be two-way while upholding boundaries.”

But others feel it definitely should be a two-way street.

It is essential for a CEO to have face time with employees of all levels, said Steve Honig of The Honig Company. “This one-on-one contact gives employees a sense that they matter and as a result they have more of a vested interest in the success of the company.”

The problem that can arise from a CEO's communication with non-direct-report employees is that it can oftentimes usurp the power and effectiveness of middle management, Honig said. “CEOs need to be careful to not have conversations with employees about issues that are best discussed between the employee and his or her direct supervisor. This can result in mixed messages, disjointed management and unnecessary internal conflict.”

Be like employees—to a degree

Be as socially relevant as your employees are, said Carla O’Dell, Ph.D., CEO of APQC, a nonprofit benchmarking and best practices research firm. “Blog about what's on your mind; send questions and answers through Slack or email. Let them feel like they have the inside scoop: Post or email them a copy of (nonconfidential) updates you send to the board. And, of course, never forget that actions always speak louder than words.”

Heidi Pozzo of Pozzo Consulting believes there can and should be more communication from CEOs:

  • Every day, walk around some part of the organization and talk to the people. Ask them how things are going, then listen. Ask what the company can do to better support the person, then listen. Touch on a couple of key goals.
  • Each quarter, hold a town hall to discuss the organization’s goals and progress reaching them. Celebrate successes and talk about areas where additional attention is needed.
  • Hold skip level conversations. These conversations can focus on general or specific topics. The point is to have a conversation with people at different levels so information is not filtered.

Openness as opposed to aloofness seems to be a strong sentiment. It comes down to how that approach is taken and how it is handled.