I Invited My Employees to 'Ask Me Anything.' Here's What I Learned.

After a tumultuous year, listening to your team has never been more important.

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Even when things seem to be going well, CEOs cannot shy away from authentically engaging with their employees. With this past year of nonstop crises, economic uncertainty and social injustices, this engagement has become a game changer. These many uncertainties have wreaked havoc on employees’ lives.

As the CEO of Cengage, my team and I realized early on that it was more important than ever to create a consistent opportunity for conversation and collaboration. To address this, we increased the cadence of our monthly town hall sessions (called “First Fridays”) to weekly, hour-long, all-company Zooms. On a weekly basis, we discuss the important trends impacting our business, customers and employees  the good, the bad and the ugly. Some weeks, we will highlight stories from the front lines  where our sales and support teams who engage directly with our customers share lessons and learnings from those experiences.

Other sessions are dedicated to employees’ concerns  no topic is off limits. These “Ask Me Anything” style sessions regularly garner the highest attendance and most engagement from employees via live questions posted by employees to Slack. I believe these conversations are so well attended because employees know these conversations will be free of censorship and editorialization. And every week, I personally stand at the center of the dialogue as the standard bearer of the culture we are in a perpetual process of perfecting. 

It's important that this is seen as a two-way street. It enhances productivity for employees by providing clarity and open dialogue, and it enlightens me and my leadership team in equal measure. I have learned a lot from the tough questions and open dialogue over the past 55 “First Friday” sessions. Here are a few of my key takeaways. 

Employee-feedback loops must be as close to real-time as possible

Organizational feedback can come in many forms, from commissioning anonymous surveys to reviewing online reviews from employees past and present. While these channels provide extremely valuable and candid insight on the employee experience, the results can take a long time to assess and address. This results in a delayed reaction to issues that employees have been facing for months on end, leading to a decrease in morale that could drive turnover. Simply put, if CEOs wait for customer research or the annual employee-engagement survey to consider change, it puts them way behind the curve.

“First Fridays” have mitigated this issue and created a near real-time feedback loop. By providing space for employees to proactively address the challenges facing them on a weekly basis, we’re able to give employees a sense of relief that their concerns are being heard while making better informed decisions. It’s also an opportunity to provide context  building and articulating a framework for people to think about the information they have. Customizing the message to an employee’s frame of reference is one of the most important jobs of a CEO. Often the continued dialogue on Slack and other channels after the 45-minute “First Friday” broadcast provides valuable clues to where the opportunities for improvement are.

Related: Employee Experience Matters More Than Ever. Here's How to Elevate It.

Actively watch for trend “bubbles of concern”

It is very rare that a particular issue only impacts one individual, or even one team. Our weekly sessions display “the wisdom of the crowd” through questions and comments posted to Slack. We often see similar topics presented in slightly different ways receive the most “upvotes” on Slack. This helps us identify  and prioritize  trend bubbles of concern.

These common concerns do not only signal issues bubbling up for employees on the ground level, but they also reinforce (or change) the concerns that the executive team is actively focused on solving. In other words, it serves as an early warning system and regular check on priorities. It is better to face those questions head on. A recent example of this at Cengage included concerns around the return to the office: Many of our 4,500 employees preferred to continue working remotely. This was an ongoing debate among the leadership team as well, and we faced the debate head-on. Instead of dictating a new way of working from the top-down, our collaborative model has guided us towards a new approach, where we are delegating future-of-work decisions to clearly identified teams, and those decisions will likely be based on employee function and location. Working is not one size fits all. Different teams produce different outputs  so why should their workstyles not differ? We are embracing experimentation.

Related: 5 Ways to Be a Leader Your Employees Will Respect

Seize the opportunity to create benchmarks and track towards radical transparency

As with any internal, culture-shifting initiative, measurement is key to understanding success. However, measuring a seemingly intangible principle like transparency can be difficult. I recommend leaders think about success more qualitatively. Ask yourself if employees are proposing baseline questions or if they feel comfortable really digging in deep to push conversations beyond traditional boundaries. Judging the candor of their questions will help create benchmarks for how your company evolves over time.

As the CEO, I have a general sense of the topics that cause employees frustration or confusion  and they are varied, such as concerns about customer trends, understanding what our earnings “mean” or professional development and opportunities for career advancement. Are employees openly verbalizing these concerns, or are they self-censoring? Our “First Friday” sessions have not only served as a sounding board for these issues, but they have also allowed us to understand where we stand in creating a fully transparent culture.

Leading a radically transparent company requires recognizing that the role of the CEO has changed. With the availability of information out there, the CEO is no longer the only one who can make a well-informed decision. Instead, the CEO should act as “listener-in-chief”  recognizing that employees can offer the best reflection of what customers need and want. The business benefits are clear: Radical transparency helps establish a supportive company culture, boosts employee morale and engagement, and reduces attrition, all of which have long-term positive impacts on productivity and the bottom line. Candid communication can proactively solve problems before you are forced to play catch-up.

Related: How Transparency in Business Leads to Customer Growth and Loyalty

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