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Redefining the role of CEO – culture, engagement, opportunity

Known for her energetic, storytelling approach to employee engagement, Catrin Lewis is Subject Specialist for Employee Engagement and Internal Communications in our Growth Team. She gives her take on what it means to be an effective CEO.

C, E, O – chief executive officer. Well, not anymore. I’m redefining your role. I’m now calling CEOs culture, engagement, opportunity. Because, over the past 10 years, these are the three key attributes of the most successful CEOs I’ve worked with. Far from being the non-essential, ‘fluffy’ work that some believe it to be, building your business on these three pillars will fuel innovation, growth and business success. Here’s how you can lead on all three fronts.

Culture – CEOs hold the key

Culture can’t be a grassroots project as it won’t take effect unless everyone, from the top down, is bought in. As CEO, you’re responsible for nurturing – not dictating – culture. For guiding and steering your business away from or through any disruptions and towards success. 

Live and love your culture and your workforce will become engaged and inspired. They’ll feel empowered to implement your directions, to grow your business’ way of working and make truly incredible moves on your company’s behalf. 

To do this, you need to be seen. With a hectic schedule, it’s easy to become disconnected from your employees. So changing your behaviours, even in small ways, can be really helpful. For example:

  • Sit at an accessible desk to immerse yourself with your employees.
  • Walk around the office when you arrive – say good morning, ask people how their day’s going and what they’re working on.
  • If you can’t do a physical check-in, set up a group chat for each location and jump in to acknowledge projects. Asking HR to let you know about new starters or birthdays is a great way to show you’re interested in your people, not just their work. 
  • Recognise one employee every day in line with your cultural values.
  • Subtly position yourself and other leaders as more human. For example, replace corporate photos with ones taken at home. Or use a point of difference to connect, like including your dog in your photo or mentioning it in your comms. 
  • Make all your corporate communications personal. Never use a collective welcome like ‘hi guys’. Instead, make your greetings in emails include individuals’ first names so all your communications are one-on-one.

Alongside smaller, regular demonstrations of your company culture, bigger gestures can be important too. At Reward Gateway, one of our values is ‘we are human’. We ran a campaign aligned to this value where we asked employees to share their mental health challenges. Initially, our CEO didn’t understand the business benefit. But once he saw how our employees opened up he understood the connection to our ‘we are human’ value. 

As a result, he wrote a really honest blog sharing his own struggles which demonstrated that even the people we put on pedestals are human. By removing the bulletproof pretence that we’re all okay all of the time, he connected more closely with our employees.

In terms of business outcome, this was the best campaign we’ve ever run. It gave us detailed personal stories and much more insight than our average, tick-boxy mental health survey. It also led to the introduction of one of our strongest benefits – one-on-one well being coaching for all our employees. This was a high-investment benefit but totally worth it because employees really value it resulting in excellent levels of employee engagement. Our monthly reporting shows our employees consistently score it 9.6/10 in terms of value and 34% of participants opt-in for repeat sessions.

Engagement – create the conditions for innovation and growth

In my mind, employee engagement is about creating a business where people care deeply about what’s happening.

For your business to be truly successful, you don’t want a passive workforce. Innovation and growth only happen if you have employees who are able to speak up and challenge you. Who are comfortable enough to make you feel uncomfortable. 

At Reward Gateway we’ve created a culture of engagement using our 10-element employee Engagement Bridge Model. It’s focused on making people a better version of themselves each day. And it’s given as much importance as other, more typical business goals because it’s one of our five strategic priorities. By giving employee engagement the same level of visibility and significance as our other strategic objectives, we’ve made it a major priority. 

One of our five strategic goals is to continue to foster and grow our people-centred, values-based culture focused on innovation, collaboration, employee wellbeing and professional development. 

With engagement up in lights, does this mean that it’s the CEO’s responsibility? I don’t think so. And it doesn’t sit solely with HR either. While people teams can manage and implement initiatives, without co-sponsorship employees will doubt their own participation. 

Which is why the CEO must be the guardian of engagement, demonstrating and nurturing it in others. 

When employees know the company and its leaders see them as essential to the success of the business, great things happen. But only if the right support, recognition and opportunities are in place. Which is where positive business psychology comes into play.

Opportunity – elevate confidence and capability 

When the athlete Roger Bannister ran solo, he couldn’t break the four-minute mile. But as soon as he had his team around him with his pacesetters pushing him on, he achieved his goal. I think that story is also applicable to business teams because individuals respond very well with the right level of support.

You can help your employees develop a growth mindset by getting them to recognise their strengths and linking this to their potential. It’s very easy to focus on opportunities like winning new business. But the sales team can’t work effectively unless the rest of the company is delivering too. So you need to celebrate every opportunity.

To make this happen at Reward Gateway, I have a catch up with our CEO every Friday. I check in to see what’s been happening in the business and to identify successes. This ensures we recognise those people who have done something amazing. 


Picture of Catrin Lewis

Catrin Lewis

Catrin Lewis is Tenzing’s Employee Engagement and Internal Comms Specialist. She runs our network and monthly meet-up for portfolio HR leaders and has advised many of our businesses on internal communications strategy, workplace design and employee engagement. She is a published author, regular conference speaker, and Head of Global Engagement & Comms at the HR Tech business, Reward Gateway, which she has seen through three periods of PE ownership.
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