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CEO and senior managers are critical to employee satisfaction

By Kim Harrison,

Consultant, Author and Principal of

Trust in the CEO and senior managers is critical to employee satisfaction. However, few CEOs and senior managers make the effort to create trust and job satisfaction. Findings from Australian surveys by Rodney Gray, among 65,000 employees in a range of organizations, were devastating:

  • 10% of employees surveyed agreed that senior executives were aware of their concerns.

  • 15% agreed that head office communicated effectively.

  • 19% agreed that senior executives were visible.

  • 19% agreed senior executives sought their views and listened to them.

  • 21% agreed that they were informed of corporate plans and direction.

  • 23% agreed executives communicated well.

It’s the same elsewhere. In the USA, Watson Wyatt surveys conducted every two years consistently show that only around 50% of employees have trust and confidence in their senior management.

What do employees want? The CEO has a symbolic communication role. They want him (it's usually a male), to communicate the big picture, especially future plans and goals. They want to hear from the CEO about results, progress, achievements, downsizing and other big picture issues including the impact on their jobs – the self interest or “What’s in it for me?” factor. The CEO's visibility is critical; the extent will vary according the size of the organization.

Staff may also want to hear from divisional heads and other general managers relevant to them. In large organizations the divisional heads are like mini-CEOs. They are responsible for translating the CEO's message to their staff for them to understand the context.

Why is the CEO so important? The CEO has the most influence over the entire organization and its culture and can usually make things happen. Although the immediate supervisor or manager is the key person for day-to-day communication, the CEO is the decision maker at the top of the organizational structure.

Too many CEOs act as managers, not leaders. They concentrate on technical things – planning, organizing, controlling and solving problems. Leaders should be role models, trendsetters, visionaries and voices for change.

Workers of today want:

  • participation in workplace decisions

  • better sharing of both good and bad news

  • managers who are sensitive and responsive

  • more of a partnership with managers than the old 'command and control' approach

  • freedom to balance life and work – less stress

  • the opportunity to work in self-managing teams

  • a chance to share in ownership

The CEO needs to:

  • communicate how the pressure of external events has forced the need for change

  • communicate their personal vision

  • report progress towards organizational goals

  • be proactive by focusing on the future

  • set the example by modeling desired behaviors and hence values

  • visit, seek out views, listen and talk with staff

  • manage communication as an ongoing process

The CEO should communicate with employees by:

  • discussing issues with frontline supervisors and managers

  • holding small-group discussions and genuinely listening to staff

  • holding 'roadshows' with 'no holds barred' questions

  • using broadcast emails and voicemails on a regular basis and as required by circumstances

  • explaining face-to-face while using print communication to confirm details

  • using external media to also reach employees

Measuring the CEO's communication effectiveness:

  • test supervisor and manager understanding of issues

  • employee surveys, measuring CEO directly or upward appraisal on communication

  • telephone follow-up to staff about CEO presentations

  • email feedback response systems to assess the extent to which issues are understood and accepted by employees

As a PR staffer, you can play a key role in improving employee perceptions of your leaders through the interactions you arrange between employees and management. For instance, you can write articles with the by-line of the CEO and other senior managers, you can increase the number of employees who meet the CEO and senior management during site visits, 'road shows' and staff meetings. More than 70% of employees say these meetings provide the information they need or find useful for their job, according to Gray’s surveys.

PR staff can also translate corporate strategy into day-to-day terms for employees and explain decisions to them. It is important to avoid the common mistake of over-promising through being over-optimistic about corporate plans. Significant corporate information should be shared quickly before the rumor mill starts working.

With 'road shows' and staff meetings it is important to find out ahead about hot local issues from local PR and HR staff. Topics of discussion should focus on what the employees say they want to hear from senior management. Information should be presented for 25% of the allocated time while the rest of the time should be used for two-way dialogue.


About the Author

Kim Harrison is a recognized authority in the public relations field. His website,, provides a wealth of informative articles and resources on public relations techniques and management.


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