How to be human and drive innovation: The new mission for execs

C-level executives need to humanize their employee interactions in order to build an open and innovative culture and to stay competitive in attracting top talent.

Image: iStock/Squaredpixels

An early lesson I learned when I reached the CXO level at an organization was how important it was for executives to show their human side to employees. For instance, we donned aprons and served up barbecued chicken to employees at the company picnic, and acted in a musical that we staged for employees at a winter meeting.

Executive humanization isn't taught in MBA courses, but you recognize how important it is when it comes to opening up communications in the company and creating an environment of interpersonal trust. The point was brought home in a Weber Shandwick study (PDF).

The 2012 study was specifically directed toward executives choosing to use social media. Some of the findings include:

  • CEOs who shared elements of their personal lives on social media, like snapshots from ski trips, were 10% more likely to be seen as open, honest, and respectful, and 25% more likely to be seen as friendly and people-oriented.
  • CEOs who didn't share personal tidbits on social media were perceived as 10% more impersonal, condescending, and misleading, 15% more scripted, and 25% more distant.

Executives often walk a fine line when being "humanly open" and equally cognizant of their corporate responsibilities. On the one hand, you want to be open and approachable; on the other hand, you are privy to confidential information that can't be disclosed. The organization also expects you to maintain a certain amount of distance from subordinates.

Nevertheless, a growing number of CXOs are humanizing their interactions with staff -- not just to know people better and on a more personalized basis, but also to advance important corporate cultural goals that most enterprises consider important. One of these goals is the unobstructed flow of communications in a democratic manner that crosses borders of rank as well as department.

"We foster an open culture where anyone who needs to communicate with anyone else on any issue has an open door to that person, beginning with the CEO," said Richard White, CEO of WiseTech Global, an Australian supply chain software company. The goal, according to White, is to promote open communications and innovation without fear and apprehension -- and it works.

An open and innovative culture that is receptive to new ideas is equally important to companies, especially as they compete for top performers. Promoting this type of culture begins with top-level executives, who must demonstrate consistent openness and responsiveness.

Finally, employees want to feel valued, and they want to feel that they are working in an environment of trust.

In his doctoral study of three European companies that introduced lean manufacturing (and an enormous amount of cultural and operational change), Richard Berglund, a social scientist at the Department of Sociology and Work Science at the University of Gothenburg, isolated the importance of mutual trust between managers and their subordinates in affecting these transitions. Trust generates credibility, a necessary ingredient for preventing employee turnover.

Although the Weber Shandwick study touted the importance of communicating a personal side through social media, the importance of getting to know employees personally, and not just over an iPhone, hasn't gone out of style. Great executives understand this approach, and they practice it.

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By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...