· 2 min read · Features

Chief Executives: Get to know your staff


One of my clients was recently asked to participate in the Channel 4 programme, Undercover Boss, but had to decline because, despite being a company of over 400 people, every single employee knows and can recognise the CEO and his senior team, thus making the programme unlikely to be a success.

It strikes me that although it makes for great TV, and I am sure companies including Best Western Hotels, Harry Ramsdens and the Jockey Club all found it beneficial for their employee relations (not to mention their public opinion), surely going in 'undercover' is leaving it all a bit late?

Wouldn't it be great, although a little idealistic, if there was no need for this programme?

How different would your business be if you knew every one of your people - or at the very least, they knew you and the senior team? What impact would it have if they could spend time with you and make comments you would hear?

No matter how large your company, there should always be time to find out what the people at the sharp end are thinking and this can be where organisations not only engage their employees but gain some great ideas to improve business too.

It is not enough anymore to simply show a DVD from 1998 of the CEO telling new employees how glad he or she is you came to work for the company. You really need to get under the skin of how your people are feeling and what they are thinking, make it seem to them like you care about each and every one.

I know this is harder to practise than preach, especially in a large company, but there have been some amazing success stories over the years. The greatest example is the tale of Archie Norman when he was chief executive at Asda.

Norman is credited with taking the store back into profitability, but he also understood the power of 'people opinion'. He would turn up at individual stores without any fanfare and walk around, talking to colleagues and customers, asking questions such as 'what is the best thing about working here?' and 'what is the worst?'. He would then grab a coffee with the store manager and write up his notes in the car before moving on to the next store.

Norman's staff suggestion scheme set new standards in the industry - according to The Grocer, 45% of ideas were genuinely new and progressed further, while as many as 10% were implemented. You can bet all of Asda's workers knew exactly who Archie Norman was and anything that the Undercover Boss could have achieved was being done anyway.

It is no longer acceptable for senior managers not simply to lock themselves away in their offices: they must be very visible to their people in order to gain the trust and respect of the workforce. I have seen first-hand how one of our clients, Robert Cook, CEO of hotel groups Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, makes a point of talking to people by name and is genuinely interested in them and their thoughts.

Simple exercises such as 'back to the floor', where senior people spend time in departments which are not their own and at the front-line, can make all the difference. Not only will your top team be visible to your people, but it can also be extremely useful to open their eyes to specific challenges.

Try to create an open communication culture where people are comfortable to submit their ideas or feedback. But make sure there is an organised way to submit ideas and that everyone is aware of how their suggestions will be processed and decisions made. It is also a great opportunity to clock up those engagement points by rewarding - and it doesn't have to be expensive - people for ideas that do take off.

Even if you think you don't have time to implement people suggestions or 'back to the floor', you could start a 'lunch with the CEO' initiative. If you are a small company, have lunch every quarter with an employee, and if you're bigger, then ask your managers for nominations or have lunch with four of five people at a time - I promise it will be worth it and you'll have some great ideas to take away.

Jo Harley is a director at talent management consultancy Learnpurple