Why All Employee Engagement Must Start at the Top


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Today, employee engagement is one of the hottest topics in corporate strategy and workforce management circles. There’s plenty of good reasons for that, and you can even read about many of them on this very website. Lost in the discussions, however, is the fact that there’s quite a bit of stratification in employee engagement efforts that places a huge amount of emphasis on rank-and-file employees, often at the expense of executive-level leaders. In practice, that creates the possibility of building highly engaged workforces – with nobody to lead them.

For any business, that’s a situation that would be nothing short of disastrous. In fact, there are few scenarios that can be more damaging to the overall health of a business than to end up with disengaged leadership teams. The good news is that many of the common approaches to employee engagement are just as applicable to the executive level, and designing a rewards system centered on engagement results can set the stage for organizational success. Here are the reasons that executive engagement is critical for business success, and how companies can go about building it.

A Rudderless Ship

When it comes down to it, the executive leadership of a company can make or break any business initiative you can think of. What many companies don’t consider, of course, is the reality that employee engagement initiatives are included in that statement. That explains why so many organizations leave engagement efforts to their HR department and in some cases to employees many levels below the C-suite. That decision often forms the beginnings of a trend toward overlooking executive engagement. That creates an issue on two fronts. First, executive leadership plays a critical role in driving rank-and-file employee engagement in the first place, and second, executives are just as susceptible to disengagement as any other kind of employee. The major difference is that when executives leave a company, they take with them irreplaceable knowledge and cost up to 213% of their annual salary to replace them – making tactics for executive retention vital.

Starting at the Top

For the above reasons, it should be obvious that any employee engagement initiative should start at the top. There’s an excellent case to be made that engagement is a topic best handled by a company’s CEO since their executive team (and the choices they make) will control the outcome of any efforts further down the organization. The first thing to do is to perform an evaluation of the top-level leadership to make sure that every executive is in it for the long haul. If not, it’s critical to solve the issues that are preventing them from committing, be it salary, benefits, or profit sharing first before moving forward. In some cases, it could even be necessary to replace members of the leadership team, and that should always be done before embarking on any wider employee engagement strategy.

A Two-Way Street

The true key to building engagement among executives is to acknowledge that the process isn’t a one-way affair. Just as those at the executive level will be asked to inspire engagement among those beneath them in the organization, they too must know that the organization will reward their efforts. That is best accomplished via a comprehensive salary and benefits package, but with a twist: it should be tied to some key engagement performance metrics. They include:

● The engagement level of the teams below them
● Their hiring results (e.g., are they hiring top performers, are their choices based on team needs and not personal preferences)
● Their ability to spot employees that require coaching and to provide it
● Their assessment of the teams below them vs. the real-world results
It’s important to establish that leaders at the executive level will be measured by the engagement that they themselves inspire because that will set the tone from the top down, and in turn, keep the leadership engaged as well.

The Stage is Set

Companies that prioritize the engagement of their executive leadership before trying to address that of their broader workforce will be putting themselves in the best position for long-term success. That’s because employees at the executive level are best positioned to drive engagement down through the organization, and they will do that best when the process begins at the top. When it doesn’t, the results will be mixed, as any efforts will lack the proper reinforcement from the very visible leaders of the business, and that’s not something any company can afford – and fortunately, they don’t have to if they make sure to prioritize executive engagement early on and work to keep it high.


  1. Employee engagement must start at the top with smaller, privately held companies. But with larger companies, employee engagement need not start at the top. In fact, its often best if it starts more locally. With Carlson Wagonlit Travel, employee engagement, driven by economic engagement, started at three branches, St. Louis, Rochester and Houston. Their success led to it being modeled throughout the company, as can be seen in this video they created. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RJAEHPOxPQ&t=84s
    Southwest Airlines started with their pilots in Orlando, in what they called Plane Smart Business. Capital One started in back office operations, in what they called CEO, Committed Engaged Owners. These Forbes and Harvard Business Review articles provide more background: https://hbr.org/2018/01/more-than-a-paycheck http://www.forbes.com/sites/fotschcase/2016/05/31/engage-your-employees-in-making-money/


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