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10 Unique Ways Leaders Bond With Employees

Writing a letter to your parents, brewing beer together, playing Cards Against Humanity: these CEOs have cracked the code on engagement.

At startups, it’s easy for leadership to connect with employees–they often just need to shout out to someone two desks down. But when companies grow beyond a few dozen employees, staying connected becomes a challenge.

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Brad Rencher, senior vice president and general manager of Adobe’s Marketing Cloud, was struggling to find an effective way to communicate with the employees he oversees, and traditional methods weren’t working.

“There are too many emails and conference calls, and while these tools play a role in getting things done, they don’t resonate with all of a company’s objectives,” he says. “We wanted to find a way to get everyone aligned and enlisted in the company vision.”

So Rencher created Bradchat, a weekly vblog modeled after the web series Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis, where Rencher shares strategies and information, and interviews other Adobe leaders.

“It’s fun, informative, and irreverent, and it gives employees a sense of our personalities; those things don’t come across in the written word,” he says.

Employees can leave comments within the video, participate in online forums, or contact Rencher directly via email, and all three have greatly improved engagement. “My email traffic jumped dramatically, and we’re getting thoughtful questions on the content within Bradchat,” he says. “I feel like I am connecting personally, and it gives me an opportunity to really embrace what it means to embody Adobe values.”

Bradchat is just one example of innovative ways leaders at large companies connect with employees. Here’s how nine other executives have improved engagement within their workplace:

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1. Start A Book Club

Mark Dankberg, CEO of the broadband services and technology company ViaSat, started Mark D’s Book Club, where employees can read books on business, strategy, leadership, and innovation. The idea was started as a way for the company’s global team to learn the same business concepts and language, think strategically together, and exchange ideas.

“It has become a way for the ViaSat employees to better know how we think, how we view the world, and how we make decisions,” says Dankberg. “And it helps each employee be more prepared in shaping their own career development.”

2. Reach Out To Their Families

When Indra Nooyi was named CEO of PepsiCo in 2006, she discovered the sense of pride her parents had at her accomplishment when they began inviting people over to meet her when she would visit.

“It dawned on me that all of my executives who worked for me are also doing a damn good job, but I’d never told their parents what a great job their parents had done for them. I’d never done that,” she told Fortune magazine in 2014. So Nooyi wrote them letters. “I said, ‘Therefore, I’m writing to thank you for the gift of your son, who is doing this at PepsiCo, and what a wonderful job this person is doing.’”

Nooyi says she was surprised when parents wrote back, and the gesture created emotion and loyalty.

3. Go On A Motorcycle Tour

Harry Herington, CEO of information service provider NIC Inc., increases employee engagement by visiting NIC branches across the company via motorcycle. He calls his initiative “Ask the CEO,” and the idea was born to foster open communication within the company in the aftermath of the 2001 Enron scandal.

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“How do you get someone to trust you? You look them in the eye,” says Herington, who hosts a dinner during his visit where the employees can ask him business and nonbusiness questions.

4. Knock Down Office Walls

Meg Whitman sent a message to Hewlett-Packard employees when she became CEO in 2011, and immediately got rid of the executive suite of offices. Leaders were relocated to cubicles throughout the office.

Kegan Schouwenburg, CEO of SOLS, the New York City-based startup that creates 3-D-printed orthotic insoles, doesn’t believe in the C-suite either. She maintains a connection with her employees by sitting with them.

“A CEO has to serve the team, and it’s important to me to be present and not isolate myself,” she says. “Sitting alongside my colleagues allows unfettered exchange of ideas and collaboration, and preserves the culture we’ve worked so hard to cultivate.”

5. Give Everyone Your Cell Phone Number

Charles Phillips, CEO of the software company Infor, calls his management approach “flat,” and he provides his cell phone number to all Infor employees, encouraging them to call or text when they wish.

This informal style of engaging employees not only inspires more direct interaction among the entire workforce, but helps to break down traditional notions of hierarchy.

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6. Talk About Dreams Over Cocktails

Mark Josephson, CEO of Bitly, connects with his employees on a daily basis by sitting at the tables and desks throughout the company office, but it’s his Cocktails & Dreams meetings where he finds some of the best engagement. Every week, someone is nominated to be a bartender and everyone in the company grabs a drink together. The casual setting gives Josephson a chance to update the staff on the current happenings, goals, and wins.

“We meet weekly to share updates and progress as a company. We celebrate wins and acknowledge losses. It’s ultimately a great way to recap the week and set the stage for the following week,” he says.

7. Plan The Week Together

Alexia Bregman, cofounder and CEO of the natural energy drink company Vuka, looks for innovative ways to connect with employees, and one thing she and her cofounder/husband Darian Bregman did was to implement WOMP, which stands for What’s On My Plate.

Each employee meets weekly with Bregman to create a to-do list. “We don’t really mind where or when these are completed, but when we meet the following week, we look at that list again and see how each individual employee is doing,” Bregman says. “It’s a great way of giving employees autonomy while still staying on top of what they’re doing without micromanaging.”

8. Start A Company Microbrewery

While some CEOs grab a beer with their staff, Andrew Fingerman of PhotoShelter brews it. Each month, he purchases supplies and team members stay in the office after hours to “move the beer along.”

There’s a huge benefit to making beer together, Fingerman says: “Because group members range across teams and seniority, inevitably we talk about work challenges and ideas,” he says. “We also get to know each other as friends. It brings us closer together, and some very innovative ideas have emerged.”

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9. Hold Family Dinners

Cohesive teams are like Italian families, says Brent Smart, CEO of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi New York. Each month, he selects 20 employees across all departments for a “family dinner” followed by drinks and karaoke. The casual setting helps staff members get to know Smart as well as each other on a more personal basis.

“An Italian family dinner is a metaphor for the type of culture we need at Saatchi to be a great creative agency,” says Smart. “Everyone around one big table, different disciplines and talent surrounding a business problem, lots of debate, opinions, and passion.”

10. Play Games

Nihal Parthasarathi, CEO and cofounder of CourseHorse, a New York-based company that connects people with classes in their area, wanted to create a team environment, and he decided games were the fastest way to bonding.

Every week, the team gathers in Washington Square Park or Central Park to play lawn and board games, such as bocce, KanJam, Cards Against Humanity, and Settlers of Catan.

“I’ve discovered the best way to connect personally with employees is through gameplay,” says Parthasarathi. “It creates a fun environment and levels the playing field so we can just connect as people.”

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