Executive and CEO Lunches With Employees Help Build Bridges

Woman shaking hands with businessman
  Hero Images / Getty Images

One of the top jobs of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and senior executives is to maintain good relations with all of a company's various stakeholders. These stakeholders include shareholders, board members, customers, suppliers and business partners, and of course, employees.

However, it is sometimes challenging for CEOs and other top executives to get to know their employees and importantly listen to their ideas and concerns. This article offers suggestions for strengthening top executive and CEO communication through a simple, valuable lunch-and-learn program. 

A Simple but Effective Format for Executive and Employee Interaction

An executive outreach program does not have to be complicated or costly. This simple format helps top executives prioritize and realize face time with employees, and importantly, it gives employees an opportunity to ask questions and suggest ideas in a comfortable setting. 

  • Employees have the opportunity to raise questions about a firm's results, strategies, and overall direction. 
  • Executives have the opportunity to gauge employee understanding and buy-in to strategies and programs. 
  • Both groups get the chance to bond at a level beyond the traditional hallway greeting. 

The CEO and executives leave these meetings informed and better aware of the concerns and challenges of their employees. Employees typically appreciate the effort and opportunity to hear from and ask questions in a more intimate setting than the common and much larger town hall meetings. 

New Employee Orientation With the Executives

One software firm set up a monthly lunch meeting where the executives and new employees met and shared backgrounds and got to know each other. This was a nice, low-cost method of breaking the ice with new employees and helping them feel comfortable engaging with the firm's top management.

As time progressed, the program was expanded to include all employees. As the company grew, the executives each took responsibility for meeting with a set number of employees to ensure that every person had a chance to join a lunch once per year. 

An example that highlighted the importance of this event was when a new employee looked at the person next to her and asked, "What do you do here." The individual answered, "I'm the CEO, and I am interested in what you think I should do." They had a great laugh and a good exchange of ideas. 

Establishing a CEO and Executive Lunch Program

The logistics of a Lunch with the CEO program depend on the size, location, and culture of the company. Sample programs are described below. Elements from these examples can be rearranged to create a "Lunch with the CEO" program that is appropriate for your company.

  • Small company or small program: Once a month, the CEO or a small group of executives select a few individuals to invite to lunch. If the company is very small, the CEO or coordinating executive should invite the employee directly. If the company is a little larger, the executives may ask for recommendations from their direct reports. 
  • Medium-sized company or program: Each department nominates someone to have lunch with the executives. The department manager can select a representative or ask for volunteers. Some departments may let the employees within the group pick the person to attend. Some may vote on who to nominate. If the company has a cafeteria or lunchroom, it can be a good idea to let all employees see the meeting in progress. After all, a good program will ensure that everyone gets their chance at some point in time. 
  • Large company or program: Nominations are submitted by the various departments. A small group or 3 or 4 is selected based either to reward superior performance or by rotation. These individuals go to a conference room or boardroom for a catered lunch and their opportunity for dialog with management. 

Critical Success Factors in Making a Lunch With the Executives Program Work

It is easy for programs like this to stray into something less than positive. Here are some important success factors in bringing these programs to live and keeping them valuable for all parties:

  • Commitment is commitment. If the executives roll out this idea for a monthly lunch and do not consistently live up to this commitment, then the program will earn a bad reputation and quickly lose the interest of employees. 
  • The executives must come to the table ready to share information about the firm's strategies and key programs.
  • Employees must come to the events and quickly move beyond their discomfort over engaging with the firm's senior leaders and start asking challenging questions. 
  • If the executives commit to taking action or following-up on an item, well, commitment is commitment. 
  • The executives should consider publicizing the key questions raised by employees at lunch, to the broader organization...along with appropriate answers. 

The Bottom Line for Now

Lunch is never the issue with these meetings. The value comes from the chance for all parties to meet each other, raise issues, offer ideas and to begin forging new relationships. This is one low cost, high touch way to strengthen morale and improve employee engagement.