CEOs Say Employee Engagement and Retention Are Top Priorities


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Employee experience. Employee engagement. Employee retention. Candidate experience. I’ve written many times about those topics in the past. Your employees should be your top priority, your hottest topic – right now. (Actually, always. Employees should always be more first.)

Chief Executive Group recently polled CEOs in the US about their top priorities in 2024, and 60% of them said that retaining and engaging employees is their top priority because unemployment remains low, and skilled employees are both hard to find and to retain. That number is up slightly from two years ago, when 57% said that was the number-one priority. Unfortunately, retaining and engaging employees remains a top challenge for CEOs, too, as well as recruiting and training employees.

Employee Experience

That challenge doesn’t appear to be anything new. A few years back, in their 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, Deloitte found that 80% of executives rated employee experience as important or very important, but only 22% said their companies excelled at building one.

That’s a big gap and a big problem. Why? What’s going on?

  1. Employee experience is not a priority. Instead, it’s an annual engagement survey, not a leadership approach.
  2. As a result of that (not a priority) or on its own, there is no executive advocate, champion, or owner/ownership of the employee experience (similar to the CCO for customer experience).
  3. Companies have siloed HR departments without an integrated, cohesive, and/or collaborative set of priorities.
  4. They need to update tools and processes to understand and to engage with employees on an ongoing basis. In other words, employee understanding is lacking. (BTW, the same three tools apply as with customer understanding!)
  5. Companies have disparate functions and disciplines (performance, diversity, wellness, workplace design, leadership, etc.) that must work together in the interest of the employee and the employee’s well-being, but often don’t, making the employee experience fragmented and painful.

AI will add a whole other dimension to HR tech, performance management, and more – not to mention having to deal with concerns about job loss, position elimination, upskilling, reskilling, and more. Check out Josh Bersin’s predictions.

This is why it’s important to have an executive who champions the employee experience. Just like your Chief Customer Officer, you need a Chief Employee Officer (or Chief People Officer, Chief Talent and Culture Officer, etc.). HR is busy doing HR things. Crazy enough, those HR things are not “human” things; they’re more about benefits, performance, and wellness.

Employee Engagement

Sadly, employee engagement levels remain lackluster. According to Gallup, only about a third of employees are considered engaged. Behind that…

In 2023, employees in the U.S. continued to feel more detached from their employers, with less clear expectations, lower levels of satisfaction with their organization, and less connection to its mission or purpose, than they did four years ago. They are also less likely to feel someone at work cares about them as a person.

In an article I wrote back in August 2016, I noted that:

Employee engagement is dismally low, hovering around 32%, based on Gallup’s recent survey findings. Look around you; seven out of ten people you see are basically just showing up at work and doing the minimal requirements of the job. Those seven people are likely either complacent, biding their time til the right opportunity comes along, or actively looking for another job.

Employee retention is a challenge!

Yup. Nothing changes if nothing changes. And, truthfully, has anything changed when it comes to employees and their experience? No. I hear my kids talk about their jobs and how miserable they are. I caught myself this morning saying, “Employees don’t leave companies; they leave managers.” And cultures. That is truly the issue at their workplace.


So you want to keep your employees, huh? This should not be a new a-ha moment for leaders this year. It’s sad if it is. I actually thought we made some progress during the pandemic toward a tighter focus on people, but that was short-lived, apparently.

OK, what do you need to do?

Here are just a few suggestions. Remember, people leave cultures and managers/leaders.

  • culture: make sure that your corporate culture is one that was deliberately designed to put people first. And make sure everyone is living it.
  • culture fit: this isn’t just on you, on the company, about hiring the right people (that fit your culture), but it’s also about employees putting themselves in a position/company that aligns with their values and purpose. Ensure that the values are clearly conveyed and explained during the interview process.
  • management promotions: don’t promote an individual contributor to a manager just because it’s the next rung in their growth ladder; not everyone is cut out to be a manager.
  • management training: make sure managers are properly trained to put employees first; make sure they know what it means to be a manager and what that entails. Better yet, ensure they are true servant leaders, not just managers.
  • employee understanding: do the work to understand your employees and their needs, expectations, aspirations, and more. And do something with what you learn!
  • stay interviews: while exit interviews are more like autopsies in nature, stay interviews are more like your wellness visits, focusing on what current employees enjoy about working for the company, as well as on aches and pains and what needs to be fixed. As employees are walking out the door, there is really nothing that a manager can correct immediately to keep them, while employees who stay can be reassured that they are appreciated and can witness their feedback being used to transform the organization and its culture.
  • development and growth opportunities: if you’ve got ambitious employees, not laying out a career development plan – and making sure you execute on it – is going to be detrimental.
  • education and training: ongoing education and training on the latest and greatest trends, challenges, products, methodologies, innovations, and thinking not only in your industry but also relevant to each employee’s individual role; employees who aren’t always learning and being challenged remain stagnant and will end up getting left behind (or leave you behind).
  • recognition: make sure employees know how their work contributes to the overall vision of the business, that their work matters, and that their contributions matter are of utmost importance.
  • leadership: be a leader who cares, is well respected and trusted, communicates clearly and honestly, and encourages and facilitates the development and growth of her employees.

In Closing

The bottom line is that CEOs can talk about top priorities and challenges all they want, but if they don’t put their money where their mouths are, we’ll continue to see these numbers remain stagnant or worse.

Engaged employees stay for what they give (they like their work); disengaged employees stay for what they get (favorable job conditions, growth opportunities, job security). ~ BlessingWhite Inc.’s The State of Employee Engagement 2008

Image courtesy of iStock Unfinished Business promotion

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Annette Franz
Annette Franz is founder and Chief Experience Officer of CX Journey Inc. She is an internationally recognized customer experience thought leader, coach, consultant, and speaker. She has 25+ years of experience in helping companies understand their employees and customers in order to identify what makes for a great experience and what drives retention, satisfaction, and engagement. She's sharing this knowledge and experience in her first book, Customer Understanding: Three Ways to Put the "Customer" in Customer Experience (and at the Heart of Your Business).


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