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The ‘ivory tower’ leader: How can HR help them engage?


Ivory tower When it comes to successful leadership and engaging employees, it is important to get the basics right first, say Bettina Pickering and Janet Windeatt.

Senior leaders are good at what they do – that’s how they got to where they are today. Over the years, they have honed their particular leadership style and have become comfortable communicating to and ‘engaging’ employees in a certain way.

In numerous cases, however, that preferred engagement style is more of an institutional one; without directly engaging the wider employee base, they rely heavily on one-way communication using PowerPoint, email or a small group of direct reports.

Employees nowadays respond far better to, and indeed expect, interactive engagement. Staff respect leaders who engage directly with them instead of hiding behind line or other managers, communicating from a perceived ‘ivory tower’. Most ivory tower leaders tend to only deal with relatively small groups of people on a regular basis – their peers, their immediate direct reports and potentially customers/suppliers.

Improving senior leader engagement skills

1. Build the case for change

2. Help the leader recognise where they are

3. Work with them to create a roadmap for change

4. Provide ongoing support and encouragement

5. Recognise success and behaviours

The ivory tower leader often leaves the wider staff engagement to their direct reports, HR or communications function. This leads to employees not fully bought into desired business or behavioural change; resulting in time delays, lower quality of work and additional investment in further stakeholder management and engagement activities.

An overhaul of how leaders engage with employees can reap dividends. In an employee-driven market, where talent is at a premium, the emotional link to the senior management team becomes increasingly important.

There has been significant and robust research that highlights the crucial link between employee engagement and business success. Managers who ignore this, who continue to deploy old styles, will find their organisation’s talent will be voting with their feet as they move to employers with a modernised approach to involving and engaging their people.

Leaders must therefore be able to flex their employee engagement style and become comfortable engaging with staff on a more personal and emotional level. Yet, as we all know, changing our style sounds easier said than done; often leaders who are used to applying one communication style may not readily see the need to change to another.

How can HR help their senior management teams to improve their employee engagement style?

Prove your business case

Firstly, to get the leader in question to listen, HR needs to build the case for change by proving the link between successful employee engagement and the bottom line. Numerous studies can provide supporting evidence, for example from CIPD and Gallup.

Raise self-awareness

Not all leaders have adequate self-awareness when it comes to the effectiveness of their traditional engagement style. Plus, they do not always receive honest and direct feedback on how they could improve their style. HR can add enormous value in helping leaders recognise where they are, based on evidence from employee surveys, 360s and other tools that shed light on engagement styles.

Moving from ivory tower to interaction

Moving to an interactive, personal and multidirectional engagement style can feel daunting and uncomfortable. It is easy to say: “Go and engage with your employees” but for those not used to it, this instruction will not mean much. HR can therefore help the individual to understand and identify what engagement can mean for them in practice. For example, while not everyone is suited to hold interactive conferences Tony Robbins’ style, team meetings or smaller workshops may help ease the transition.

A step-by-step development roadmap that includes practical examples, tailored development and coaching as well as practice sessions and development reviews is crucial.

Less PowerPoint, more ‘unpacking’

Ongoing support and encouragement are especially important where senior people find it challenging to include emotions and a more personal touch into their everyday employee engagement activities. For example, they will need help in giving up the traditional ‘tell’ presentations to move to a more interactive style where the communicator ‘unpacks’ business language and invites employees to participate in a dialogue about the business challenges and possible solutions.

Catch people doing it right

Senior people often lack positive feedback. Few people comment positively when a leader has done something well, for fear that they may be seen as being sycophantic. Think back, when did you last tell your CEO that they delivered a good piece of employee engagement? Without regular feedback, it is very hard for someone to successfully change their style and keep at it. In our experience, senior leaders warmly welcome honest and insightful feedback. So be courageous – tell your senior leaders when they are doing it well.

Don’t forget to measure the results

As with any development programme, setting a baseline and measuring the results are just good practice. Make sure your employee survey includes questions that can help track improvements. This will help to get other leaders on board and ensure that HR is able to offer this type of support to up-and-coming leaders. If successful, the day of the ‘ivory tower’ leader will soon be history.

Bettina Pickering and Janet Windeatt are from PA Consulting Group.

6 Responses

  1. Road Map
    I agree – what is often the problem is that there is a good deal of theory, but leaders are left wondering what practically to do to increase engagement as the route to and root of higher business performance.

    This is where the real need for innovation and creativity needs to occur.

  2. Demolishing the ivory tower, and how to go about it
    If your leaders operate in the ivory tower, then it’s likely that you’ll need to provide a data-rational case for them to change their preferred behaviours. There is a great article by Marhall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan called “LEADERSHIP IS A CONTACT SPORT” which I would recommend (go to

    Goldsmith has published a best seller on helping executives make the changes they need to make, and the book was released in the UK last month. It’s titled “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: how successful people become more successful”

    You can hear a 12 minute synopsis of the book and the approaches that are used at

    360-degree feedback is an element in the process, and Goldsmith proposes an excellent “FeedForward” approach to continue the development work, along with a later 360 to evaluate the success of changes made by the leader.

    Harvey Bennett, MD, 360 is us Ltd

  3. Little and often for the best effect
    I have just been introduced to the work of Prof Kim Cameron of Michigan University and what he calls Personal Management Interviews where managers ( at any level) spend one to one time with their direct reports on a regular basis. Crucially this is separate from the normal appraisal system. It sounds like common sense to me and indeed I was spurred to call a former manager of my own to tell share this with him as he had instinctively created that relationship for us when I was working with him!

    Prof Cameron’s research appears to show that this will actually save time- as I expect much of the resistance to this would be around time being scarce.

    I agree with the other comments – being out and about in any way should have the benefit of hearing what else is going on in the lives of team members. Whilst persuading those in their “ivory towers” might be a big challenge I expect that focusing on the middle managers on their way up and how they interact with their own team now might be a very wise investment.

  4. Shifting the conversations
    Your point about the need for senior leaders to speak directly with (rather than to) other employees is an important one; although, however well they are able to engage in meaningful, sense-making conversations with staff at large, most of their day-to-day interactions will unavoidably be with their own peers, direct reports and others in their immediate networks. Even at best, direct ‘contact time’ of the type you describe will necessarily account for only a very small proportion of the total time that employees are at work and in off-the-job contact with others in their own formal and informal networks.

    So, yes, senior leaders can gain significant benefit from participating regularly and purposefully – so far as they can – in the everyday conversational life of their organisations. Simply taking the time out to do this can bring its own rewards – almost irrespective of content.

    At the same time, it is important to recognise that it is not so much what leaders say to their staff that determines how they will act. More importantly, it is what staff say to each other; and how, through their day-to-day interactions on and off the job, they make sense of what’s going on. And the leaders who have most potential to impact upon this sense-making process are the local leaders, not those at senior levels. Except, that is, where the ‘local’ conversations are those with and between their own direct reports.

    Finally, as regards “tracking effectiveness”, perhaps the best sign of success in engaging staff and building commitment would be if it was no longer necessary for leaders to use an impersonal employee survey to find out what staff really felt.

  5. Ivory Tower
    Good article which hopefully many senior management folk will read. The cynical side of me feels it will be read more by junior managers, HR folk and consultants like myself. Shame.

    Two comments to add…..first, we are not directing these comments far enough up the chain. I have been priviledged to work in an organisation, US based, where we receive occasional visits in New Zealand from Board members, and it was fascinating to see the reaction of staff when they came to morning or afternoon tea and made a point of sitting with “the troops”. They also made it part of their visit to walk the factory, the offices and the labs and the reaction was totally positive. So let’s not forget the contribution they SHOULD be making here. Second, we need to take on board some blame for the advice given here not being heeded. How often have I heard trainers/consultants/business coaches applauding the “open door” policy?……….and I am always dismayed. The message should be that they get off their posteriors and go to where the troops are because that is where the engagement is most beneficial, as the article reinforces. While the intention is fine that the troops can come any time, the reality is that when they really need some help they are less likely to go to the boss sitting in their “ivory tower”.

    Lastly, I take some issue with the reference to “old style” in the context of the article. In my working life, now 40 years, I remember well that we saw more senior managers/owners/CEOs in years gone by walking the floor, than whatever I see now.


  6. Good article…. and let’s not forget…
    …that the first place to break down the “Ivory Tower” culture should be in HR itself.

    Let’s keep the HR leaders a little closer to their own people, rather than just lobbying the boardroom area and losing touch with the service that their departments are providing to the organisatiuon as a whole….

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