Exceptional leaders - The third key pillar of employee engagement

Axel Schiphof

The direction and way in which a company is run are both largely influenced by C-suite. Formulating high-level strategies, ensuring sound financials and the day-to-day management of the company all fall under their remit. Throughout organisations across the globe, the C-suite are essential. Without a properly functioning C-level, businesses will struggle.

Exceptional leaders – The third key pillar of employee engagement

However C-suite aren’t just important for business; they’re also a key component for employees. After all, many of the decisions undertaken by them have a direct influence on employees’ daily tasks. Further, exceptional leaders at C-suite level form one of four key pillars of engagement and are an essential part of what employees are looking for in their work.

Key takeaways

  • Employees are severely lacking confidence in C-suite
  • Top-down communication is not working
  • C-suite aren’t aware of what is happening within organisations and on the work floor

Focus areas

Exceptional leaders inspire confidence, communicate and stay up-to-date with current affairs. The global survey therefore focused on:

  • Employee confidence in C-suite
  • Communication from the top
  • How up-to-date and informed C-suite are

Discover the latest global engagement and commitment insights

The global employee engagement indexIn The Global Employee Engagement Index Volume 3 we discuss regional trends, the scores and, discuss the changes in results from our last global survey for the 17 most important HR themes. The study aims to provide insight that can help businesses to drive employee engagement and commitment, as well as insight into the latest global work trends. 

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Employee confidence in C-suite

Inspiring confidence in employees is important for various reasons. When employees have confidence in C-suite they trust they will be treated fairly and with respect. Employees are then able to channel their energy into their work, instead of into mistrusting C-level and the organisation. A basis level of confidence is also necessary for the growth of mutual trust and respect between employer and employee.

For employee engagement, confidence in C-suite is vital. Effectory previously researched the link between employee engagement and C-suite, and uncovered something compelling. Effectory found that when employees have confidence in C-level, they are nine times more likely to be engaged in work and committed to the organisation.

If C-suite really want high engagement levels, inspiring confidence in employees would be a great place to start.

The current state of affairs

Those at the top are failing to inspire trust and employees are severely lacking confidence in C-suite. Globally, just 14% of employees have complete confidence the leaders of their organisation. Most concerning of all is the fact that global confidence is on the decrease. From the last Global Employee Engagement Index Effectory conducted two years ago, there has been a 4% global decrease in employees that fully trust their C-suite.

There are of course regional differences. C-level in Asia, Europe and Oceania are really struggling. In Oceania 13% of employees fully trust those at the top, whereas in Europe and Asia this number falls to 12% and 11% respectively. Employees in North America, Africa and South America are more positive, with more than one in five employees stating that they have full confidence in leadership.

Challenges leaders are facing

Leaders are struggling to inspire confidence in the longest serving employees. Some of the most negative responses to questions around confidence in C-suite came from employees who have been at the company for more than ten years. Clearly, there is a disconnect between those at the top and those that have been at the company longest.

Positively, leaders are having more luck with new recruits. Employees that have been at the company less than a year displayed the most confidence in C-suite. Along with new recruits, employees with three to five years tenure also responded more positively in the study.
Evidence from the global survey further suggests that the bigger the organisation, the more leaders are struggling to inspire confidence. Employees in organisations bigger than 1000 were overwhelmingly critical when it came to questions around confidence in C-suite. In complete contrast, employees at the smallest organisations (one to ten employees) displayed the most confidence in leadership.

How C-suite can inspire confidence

  • Avoid using overly complex or pompous language. If employees can’t understand or relate to the message communicated, inspiring confidence immediately becomes a challenge.
  • Be honest and transparent with employees; it can take years to repair damaged trust among employees.
  • Allow employees a chance to respond or ask C-suite questions. A two way communication channel is one of the easiest ways to create trust.

Communication from the top

Employees need to know about the going-ons, future plans, financial health, customer satisfaction and strategy developments of the organisation. In summary, they need to know how the company is doing and where it is going. Without it, employees operate in the dark.

Communication from leaders is essential in this. Good communication and information sharing allows employees to see the influence they have on the performance of the organisation. It keeps them up-to-date regarding current affairs and also minimises the potential shock of hearing about developments via a third party.

If employees are to be fully engaged in their work, C-suite needs to communicate the necessary information that allows employees to see the impact of their work. When leaders communicate this it encourages employees and provides a tangible end point to goals. Doing so can make the difference between the last extra push that achieves a company goal, and just missing the target.

The state of current affairs

Over the last two years there has been very little change in how employees feel about C-suite’s communication. The analysis shows employee opinion has not changed much.

Globally, 61% of employees feel C-suite are good communicators and keep employees in the know about major developments. Closely mirroring the global average, 63% of employees in Oceania are positive about communication from C-suite, whilst the levels in Asia and Europe are lower. In contrast more than three in four employees in Africa are positive. Across North America and South America, around two thirds of employees are positive when it comes to communication from C-suite.

Top-down communication

Part of Effectory’s study investigated was devoted to top-down communication. Predominantly, the study investigated how employees view top-down communication and if the communication method is working. The study’s conclusion is that it is not.

Just 12% of employees worldwide think that top-down communication works well. The percentage does rise in Africa and America, although to no more than one in five employees in either region. Across Asia, Europe and Oceania employees are less positive. As little as 9% of employees in Asia, 10% in Europe and 11% in Oceania are positive about top-down communication.

Considering these figures, it may be time for businesses and C-suite to re-consider the continued use of top-down communication.


By far the most positive reaction to communication from C-suite came from employees between the ages of 18 and 24. Clearly C-suite are striking a cord with the youngest employees. Unfortunately the positive perception does not continue with the older employees. Whilst 25-34 years olds varied in their opinions, employees between the ages of 35 and 54 were overwhelmingly negative about communication from C-suite. Finally, the downward trend stops as employees over the age of 55 are back to being relatively positive.

How C-suite can improve communication with employees

  • Use the new possibilities offered by social intranet to talk to employees. Technology today allows C-level to easily and rapidly communicate with employees, as well as ask questions and give responses.
  • Use accessible forms of information. When C-suite do communicate, it is vital that employees are able to access the relevant information they need in accessible forms like the intranet, and not in gigantic management reports.
  • When major announcements are in process remove as much speculation as possible. Announcements such as “we don’t know anything ourselves yet, we expect to have a clearer picture next week” or, “we are currently waiting for an answer from …” are a good way to remove any frustration from impatience and shows C-suite is openly communicating.

Staying up-to-date

Part of being successful at C-level is being able to stay up to date with current affairs in the organisation. If smart decisions are to be made at the top, it is wise to know what is going on at lower levels. Ultimately there’s a higher likelihood that C-suite makes bad decisions if they are operating without knowing what is going on.

From an employee perspective, when leaders are aware of what is going on throughout the organisation it helps narrow the distance between top and bottom. The feeling of inclusion and being taken seriously also positively impacts employee engagement and commitment. Further, when C-level pays attention to staff and listens to what is being said, employees tend to treat the company better and put more effort into their work.

The current state of affairs

Echoing the above case studies, the vast majority of employees do not currently feel that C-suite is up-to-date on current affairs. Globally, only 15% of employees feel that leadership keeps up to date. Between the global regions there is however noticeable gaps. For example in North America, nearly a quarter of employees feel that at C-level they know what is happening in the organisation, whereas just 13% of employees in Asia and Europe feel the same way. In between the extremes, more than one in four employees in Africa and South America stated that C-suite is in the know.

Industry variations

When it comes to industries, a trend appeared in our global survey that suggests that C-suite in more bureaucratic industries are particularly struggling. In particular, employees in healthcare and government bodies responded most critically to questions about C-level knowing what is going on. It appears that the traditional hierarchy and numerous management layers are giving employees the impression that those at the top are not informed or up to speed.

In contrast, C-level in the two interlinked industries construction and engineering are staying up to-date. Additionally, in the more digital minded industries of media and finance employees feel that C-suite is on the ball and knowledgeable about current affairs. Whether or not the impact of technology has influenced this is not known, however C-suite within the two industries are leading the way when it comes to staying up-to-date.

How C-suite can stay up-to-date

  • Invest time in going through the results of your employee survey (both the numerical results and the comments). The important part is paying close attention to what employees are saying and showing that you take their input seriously by opening a dialogue with them.
  • Consider organisation wide social initiatives where employees are free to discuss their work, successes, and concerns with C-suite. Successful examples that we have seen include: a monthly lunch with the CEO, as well as small scale seasonal events.
  • Allow employees the opportunity to shadow someone from C-level for the day. Not only is this a way to create two way learning, it is also an efficient way for C-suite to keep up-to-date with the goings on in the organisation.
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