The 4 Things Great Bosses Do

Resolve to be the boss your employees love. Focus on these simple behaviours and grow your business

Written by Deborah Aarts

A three-hour daily commute is the kind of thing that makes a person reassess her employment situation. Tracy Clark was no exception. That’s why, in 1999, the young and energetic data-entry clerk from Lac du Bonnet, Man., quit a job she loved at Winnipeg equipment financier National Leasing. Tired of the slog, she took a job closer to home—and quickly regretted it.

The atmosphere at Clark’s new gig was cold and impersonal, a stark contrast to the family vibe she’d loved at National. She missed feeling as though she were part of a team and that her work had purpose. So, a year after leaving National, she popped in to her old employer to say hello to some former colleagues—and to see whether it was as good a place to work as she remembered.

As Clark walked down a hallway, a group of businessmen—bankers, or maybe lawyers, she thought—approached from the opposite direction. Among them was National president and CEO Nick Logan. What happened next floored her.

Logan stopped, excused himself from his guests and shook her hand. He asked about her baseball team and life in Lac du Bonnet, and said how much the company missed her. Then he carried on.

“I’ll never forget it,” Clark recalls. “I had been a junior employee, and I hadn’t worked there in a year. But he remembered me, and took the time to greet me personally. It absolutely solidified my decision to come back.”

That was almost 13 years ago, and Clark—who’s now happily serving as National’s accounting manager—still considers her CEO’s personal touch a major contributor to her job satisfaction.

Clark is just one employee, but she’s one employee who feels motivated to do good work, talks up her employer at every opportunity and never has “one foot out the door”—the hallmarks of employee engagement. So, imagine the benefits that can accrue when a CEO’s personal touch touches all.

Read about the employee engagement tactics of Canada’s Smartest Employers

As it happens, thousands of people just like Clark work for the companies on the 2013 list of the 50 Best Small and Medium Employers in Canada (BSME), including 33rd-ranked National Leasing. Produced by the Queen’s Centre for Business Venturing and Aon Hewitt in partnership with PROFIT, the BSME ranking is based on the results of detailed surveys of employees, executives and HR managers that measure employee engagement at participating organizations.

Many factors play a role in employee engagement; among them are the fairness of compensation, the quality of performance feedback and whether the rank and file feel heard by upper management. But the data show that, more often than not, companies with high-performing workforces have CEOs who lead the employee engagement charge. Adopt their mindset and employ their practices, and you too could be the boss everyone loves.

“It’s a matter of fact that high engagement correlates very strongly with improved corporate results,” confirms Einar Westerlund, who spearheads the BSME program as director of project development for the Queen’s Centre for Business Venturing. Yet, given HR’s reputation as a “soft” discipline, many CEOs— busy enough with sales and strategy—happily delegate the job.

They do themselves a disservice: employees of BSME firms perceive their leaders twice as positively as those in less engaged firms. “We see very big swings in engagement solely based on staff confidence in those at the top level,” says Westerlund.

According to David Zinger, a Winnipeg based employee-engagement consultant, CEOs play a vital role in driving engagement because their enthusiasm for staff well-being—or lack thereof—is so visible. “The CEO sets the tone,” he says. “Staff will follow that lead.”

What makes BSME CEOs so good in winning the hearts and minds of their employees are not words but actions; specifically, these four blindingly simple behaviours that any boss can model right away.

1. Get out of the corner office

Business analyst Kathy Chenglath joined iQmetrix (No. 24) in 2008, when the Vancouver-based software developer acquired the Winnipeg firm she worked for. Intracompany fraternization wasn’t the norm at her old employer, so Chenglath was nervous when she learned she’d be in a foursome with iQmetrix CEO Chris Krywulak at a company golf tournament soon after the merger, before all the deal’s practical implications had been determined.

Chenglath needn’t have worried. Krywulak proved to be personable and approachable. He asked his new charge plenty of questions about her and her work, and reassured her about her future with iQmetrix. There was no awkwardness at all, says Chenglath; in fact, the round was fun. She left the tournament feeling that her new boss—headquartered halfway across the country—was always within reach. “It was pretty clear that this is an organization in which executives are just like us employees,” she says. “They don’t make it feel top-down.”

That’s exactly the atmosphere Krywulak wanted to foster when he founded iQmetrix in 1999; his goal was to make himself as accessible as possible. In his experience, employees feel more confident—and, as a result, more driven—when they can interact comfortably with the boss. “It’s hard for someone to feel intrinsically motivated in a top-down environment,” he explains.

Fostering this type of approachability is something of a subtle art. If you’re too gung-ho, you’ll come across as disingenuous or, worse, meddlesome. But if you wait for employees to come to you, you risk overlooking the many who always will be too shy to bug the boss, no matter how friendly you are.

That’s why it’s important to create highly visible opportunities for employees to interact with you—and make sure everyone understands that you’re available. “Most CEOs are very quick to recite the old cliché of €˜My door is always open,'” explains Westerlund. “But when there’s not a clear invitation to come in, that open door is only imagined.”

It’s hard to demonstrate a commitment to employee well-being from within your office. That’s why Zinger advises executives to err on the side of the visible: “There aren’t many companies where people say, €˜I see the CEO too much.'”

People rarely say “I see the CEO too much”

Front-line interactions are central to the work of Alan Norris, CEO of Calgary-based developer Brookfield Residential Properties Alberta LP (No. 28). “It’s critical for everyone, not just my direct reports, to know they have access to me,” he says. “I want to give that direct line of sight.”

That results in a lot of “management by walking around.” Norris often will stroll across his office to deliver a message instead of emailing. It’s a simple act, but it allows him to engage one-on-one with people he would have no meaningful contact with otherwise.

Sound like a time-waster? Employee feedback pegs the practice as a major motivator. Besides, Norris bristles at the notion that his forthcoming approach compromises his personal productivity: “When you’re a CEO, your work should be 90% interpersonal.”

Ryan Moon, a Brookfield veteran of more than a decade, has shared many one-on-one interactions with Norris, during which the pair have discussed everything from the competition to the organization’s direction.

“He’s open like that with everyone,” says Moon, a sales manager. “It creates a culture that spreads right down through the organization.” That culture is one in which employees feel valued, inspired and well-informed—the dividends of a CEO’s effort to spend more time in the lunchroom and less in the corner office.

2. Make your goals their goals

In 2011, Sherry MacDonald unveiled to employees an aggressive and ambitious three-year plan for her organization, Toronto-based RESP administrator CST Consultants Inc. (No. 32). It represented an upheaval, and she knew staff might be apprehensive. So, she made sure that the plan explained the role of every person in the company—no matter how junior—in executing the plan, tying the significance of their day-to-day work to reaching the target. She delivered the message herself when possible, and trained her direct reports to do the same. “It’s about reinforcing to everyone why they were coming to work each day,” MacDonald says. “I was relentless in this, no matter who I was talking to.”

This is one of the most effective levers a CEO has in driving engagement, according to Aurora, Ont.-based leadership consultant Bill Hogg. “People get excited when they feel they’re genuinely a part of something and making a contribution,” he says. “If they’re thinking of completing their tasks and not their purpose within the organization, you’re not going to have an engaged work environment.”

When a CEO personally shares how an individual or group affects corporate goals, it lends gravitas to duties that might otherwise seem meaningless. And it gives clarity to information that might otherwise be misinterpreted—if not overlooked entirely—when buried in an email or posted on a bulletin board.

Finally, it serves as motivation for front-line employees. Take telephone service specialist Laura Taylor, a 10-year veteran of CST. “It’s great that we get information that comes from Sherry herself,” says Taylor, “because it shows us that she’s engaged in what we do.” Taylor says knowing her boss respects her contributions makes her feel important and empowered.

3. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open

You can learn a lot about the health of your business simply by listening to your staff’s ideas, concerns and general perceptions. Giving employees a chance to weigh in not only tells them their opinion counts, it can prompt them to brainstorm and think beyond their day-to-day tasks.

While many CEOs treat staff communication as monologues, more enlightened bosses know that dialogue is far more effective. That’s why many BSME leaders have learned to spend most of the time with their mouths shut and ears open. “These CEOs get in front of staff with tons of questions about what the company can do better,” says Westerlund. “And they probably only spend 20% of their time in these interactions talking. The other 80% is listening.”

How can you get your employees to talk? It helps first to understand what makes them tick. Take Pinchin Environmental Ltd. (No. 49), a Mississauga, Ont.-based consultancy specializing in environmental and health and safety assessments. Its staff of almost 300 is composed overwhelmingly of technically minded individuals; they tend to see things scientifically, not emotionally. President Don Pinchin knows that if he wants to get staff talking, he has to speak their language. “Asking them about an engagement strategy or a management style will leave them cold,” he says. “But if I ask them about their ideas for the latest analysis technique, they’ll get very excited. That’s how I engage them to share what’s on their mind.”

Venue matters, too. Many CEOs think their staff-outreach duties are complete after addressing the masses from a podium at an all-staff meeting. While large gatherings—physical or virtual—can be effective ways to disseminate information, they are a lousy way to gain insight into what’s eating your employees. According to Zinger, few are comfortable enough to speak candidly about their concerns or share a budding idea in so public a venue.

If you’re looking for honest feedback, you’re more likely to get it where employees feel most comfortable. At Brookfield, Norris holds periodic meetings with his construction and sales teams, not in a hotel ballroom but on jobsites over pizza. “I get the best questions that way—very direct and blunt,” says Norris. “And I don’t shirk away from the answers. I think they appreciate that.”

The feedback loop shouldn’t be only for complaints, either. It also can be an excellent way to drum up new ideas. This past year, Brookfield challenged employees at all levels to share their business-improvement suggestions. Staff then had a chance to discuss their proposals with executive managers, either in one-on-one or small group meetings. “It’s not just some company policy saying there are opportunities to speak to those at the top,” explains Geoff Bobiy, a land acquisition manager who has worked at Brookfield for almost seven years. “There are formal channels through which to do so.”

4. Say thank you—and mean it

In an episode of TV’s Mad Men, the aloof ad agency boss Don Draper butts heads with protégé copywriter Peggy Olsen, who’s angry that her contributions to an award-winning ad campaign haven’t been acknowledged. “You never say thank you,” she says, choking back tears. “That’s what the money is for!” Draper barks in retort.

Mad Men is set in the 1960s, when employee engagement would be a concept as foreign as the smoke-free workplace or casual Fridays. So, it’s no surprise that the no-nonsense Draper can’t fathom that his employees could want more than just a paycheque. Although few bosses today are so unenlightened, many underestimate the role that even tiny expressions of gratitude can play in keeping their charges charged.

Is it a simple matter of sending thank you emails once a quarter? Not exactly. According to Westerlund, showing gratitude for specific, individual achievements—especially to unsung heroes near the bottom of the org chart—is most effective. “When the CEO acknowledges a particular contribution of an employee on the front lines,” says Westerlund, “there’s a huge payoff.”

That assertion holds true for National Leasing’s Logan, who holds a one-on-one appreciation lunch with each new employee after their first few months on the job. He starts simply by thanking each for joining the firm. He then talks to them about their specific goals and reiterates the importance of their contributions. When rookies inevitably comment on how unusual they find it to have such an intimate audience with the CEO, he shares the following credo: “€˜You working for National is the most important part of my day. I have to talk to you so you know you understand our strategic plan, and that you bear responsibility in our success—or our failure.'”

Logan considers his personal efforts to win the hearts and minds of his employees not a burden but a personal goal. Good employees, he reasons, are the most valuable asset of all; why would he entrust their engagement to someone else? “All we have is people to make us better than our competitors,” he explains. “Keeping them engaged is my job. When it comes down to it, it really is my only priority.”

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com