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What is an engagement CEO?

The author's study of engagement CEOs shows these executives develop certain organizational values and characteristics.

4 min read


Engagement CEO


According to Gallup, only 13% of the world’s workers are engaged. How are we getting anything done?

Well, we are doing it in a trance. The numbers around employee engagement are so bad that odds are high many CEOs are also disengaged. People’s rank has absolutely nothing to do with whether they have succumbed to a trance. We witness the trance in executives who lazily cut expenses by laying people off or tell HR to “fix the engagement problem” and walk away.

What do we have to learn from CEOs running magnificent and magnetic cultures? While preparing my new book “The Workplace Engagement Solution,” I studied them. When we explore great cultures such as Southwest Airlines, Google, HBO and Trader Joe’s, we find CEOs that embrace many of the values that represent an “Engagement CEO.” When an executive goes about the business of building a category leader, talent moves to the front of the line in terms of the necessary characteristics within the CEO. Board members and investors would do well to find CEOs with these traits.

If you are considering joining an organization where you want to thrive, it is also smart to evaluate the CEO or business owner.

 An Engagement CEO

  • Takes charge of the culture personally
  • Develops a strong leadership brand as evidenced by their consistent behavior and message
  • Walks the talk, leads by example and leans toward democracy over elitism in any form
  • Expresses continuous, genuine and worthy praise to their employees
  • Constantly seeks ways to keep their talent current and relevant
  • Treats employees as the organization’s greatest asset instead of a potential liability
  • Packages engagement as a profit source rather than an expense
  • Effectively manages and educates all stakeholders in the need for effective people initiatives
  • Moves the vision from short-term financial performance to long-term value, brand strength and reputation
  • Tells themselves and others the truth, especially about change
  • Is resolutely and directly connected to the front line
  • Is transparent and expects transparency throughout their organization
  • Shows respect towards all employees and learns from all of them

Many will treat engagement as a sidebar activity, a perk provided to the employees. However, the purpose of engagement is far more rigorous than simply making employees feel better. Engagement is about being awake, interested, alert, invested and present.

When a CEO goes to HR and demands a “fix the engagement problem,” HR staff are already disengaged by the time they hit the door. HR runs around the organization telling people we are going to “fix the engagement problem.” They look past that individual’s shoulder to the CEO and see business as usual. An employee survey is issued. The feedback only makes management feel more inadequate. We send a select few to leadership retreats. They return enthused only to be greeted by employees with, “So what?”

This cycle is repeated over and over throughout corporate America.

There are no shortcuts to success. We learn nothing of value through the study of dysfunction. Any CEO engaged in category leadership knows this. In the end, the quality of our talent is going to determine if we lead the market or continually run to keep up.

As I studied engagement CEOs, it also became clear they build the following organizational values and characteristics:

  • A fully engaged culture and a superior employer brand.
  • The best possible products and services, or excellence at every turn.
  • The organization makes the world a better place.
  • The organization makes every attempt to fully engaged with every customer.
  • Recognizes there is simply no substitute for human decency, compassion, understanding, and a pursuit for “the high road.”


David Harder is the author of “The Workplace Engagement Solution: Find a Common Mission, Vision, and Purpose with All of Today’s Employees” (Career Press, August 2017) and the founder and president of Inspired Work, a career- and organization-development firm that has helped more than 42,000 people transform their relationships toward work.

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