An Open Letter to CEOs: Treat Employees Like Adults

CEOs and C-Suite leaders get a lot of advice, often from highly-paid consultants and coaches. It’s tactful, carefully worded, and designed not to offend.

This post is different. This is the advice your employees want you to hear. Follow it, and they will work harder for you. Ignore it, and they will look for a better opportunity elsewhere. It’s your choice.

Stop Talking

As the old proverb says, you have 2 ears and one mouth. Use them accordingly. Too many leaders are always telling. Just as your best information about the market comes from your customers, your best information about what’s happening in the company comes from the employees, especially at the levels where the real work gets done.

Listen to the right people

Your direct reports don’t have all the answers. They are probably looking after their own careers and are reluctant to tell you what they think you don’t want to hear. Instead of focusing just on their advice, listen to the people further down the chain. Use informal conversations (get out of your office by yourself) and listen to what’s on peoples’ minds. Ask them who else you should talk with. The people doing the real work know who is most knowledgeable; find those people and listen to them too.

Stop the blah-blah

At Town Halls and other company meetings, talk to employees as people. They want to listen. Just cut out the corporate speak. I once sat in a ‘straight talk information session’ after the sale of a corporate division was announced. Someone asked whether employees would be allowed to apply for jobs in other divisions. Instead of saying ‘we don’t know yet,’ the leader gave a long-winded answer in the passive tense, long on jargon and short on honesty. The entire employee population knew they were being jerked around, and trust in the leadership team plummeted. Don’t make that mistake.

conflict with casualties

If you want change, live it

To create new behavior, demonstrate it yourself. Want to break down silos? Seek out conversations with people deep in the company, and force your management team to do the same. Want more diversity? Show it in your leadership team, and at all levels. Consciously put more women, more people from different cultures, ages and perspectives, into senior and mid-level leadership.  Want to encourage work-life balance? Don’t send midnight emails, or work during vacation. If your employees have too much to do in a normal work day, hire more people or reduce the workload. Hold your managers and HR staff accountable to the goals that you talk about. Words are meaningless. Employees watch your actions.

Own your mistakes

Admit that not all of your decisions work out perfectly. When you make a mistake, say, ‘we got this wrong. We expected the market to do X, and it did Z. Here’s what we’re doing to adapt.’ People will respect you far more, help you recover, and be more willing to take intelligent risks, if you acknowledge your mistakes.

Share the numbers

Whether it’s sales performance or salaries, everyone’s talking about them anyway.  I have worked in companies where global marketing managers could not see their brand’s sales, and where talking about salaries was grounds for firing. Neither one did much for employee morale. The marketing managers couldn’t do their jobs, and employees who thought they might be unfairly paid became convinced of it. Good employees left the business. Share important information and answer questions forthrightly.


Your employees are adults. Some are world experts in their fields. All of them are competent, knowledgeable and want to work. Otherwise we wouldn’t be there. Treat them with the respect they deserve.

As a CEO it’s easy to live in a bubble. You only hear information that makes you feel good and reminds you of how wonderful you are. Don’t fall into that trap. If you want committed employees, treat them like intelligent adults.


Marne Platt

Dr. Marne Platt is the President of Fundamental Capabilities and the author of 3 books (so far): Living Singlish: Your Life, Your Way; Professional Presence; and PREP For Success. Originally a practicing veterinarian, she built a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry. She founded Fundamental Capabilities to ‘pay it forward’ by providing career development workshops and coaching for women. ‘Living Singlish: Your Life, Your Way’ is an ‘older sister in your pocket’ packed full of advice for young women on building their own independent and exciting life. 'Professional Presence' and PREP For Success' help you strengthen your spoken and unspoken communication and leadership presence.

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