Illustrations by Matt Taylor Illustrations by Matt Taylor

A three-hour daily commute is the kind of thing that makes a person reassess her employment situation. Tracy Clark was no exception. That’s why, in 1999, the young and energetic data-entry clerk from Lac du Bonnet, Man., quit a job she loved at Winnipeg equipment financier National Leasing. Tired of the slog, she took a job closer to home—and quickly regretted it.

The atmosphere at Clark’s new gig was cold and impersonal, a stark contrast to the family vibe she’d loved at National. She missed feeling as though she were part of a team and that her work had purpose. So, a year after leaving National, she popped in to her old employer to say hello to some former colleagues—and to see whether it was as good a place to work as she remembered.

As Clark walked down a hallway, a group of businessmen—bankers, or maybe lawyers, she thought—approached from the opposite direction. Among them was National president and CEO Nick Logan. What happened next floored her.

Logan stopped, excused himself from his guests and shook her hand. He asked about her baseball team and life in Lac du Bonnet, and said how much the company missed her. Then he carried on.

“I’ll never forget it,” Clark recalls. “I had been a junior employee, and I hadn’t worked there in a year. But he remembered me, and took the time to greet me personally. It absolutely solidified my decision to come back.”

That was almost 13 years ago, and Clark—who’s now happily serving as National’s accounting manager—still considers her CEO’s personal touch a major contributor to her job satisfaction.

Clark is just one employee, but she’s one employee who feels motivated to do good work, talks up her employer at every opportunity and never has “one foot out the door”—the hallmarks of employee engagement. So, imagine the benefits that can accrue when a CEO’s personal touch touches all.

Read about the employee engagement tactics of Canada’s Smartest Employers

As it happens, thousands of people just like Clark work for the companies on the 2013 list of the 50 Best Small and Medium Employers in Canada (BSME), including 33rd-ranked National Leasing. Produced by the Queen’s Centre for Business Venturing and Aon Hewitt in partnership with PROFIT, the BSME ranking is based on the results of detailed surveys of employees, executives and HR managers that measure employee engagement at participating organizations.

Many factors play a role in employee engagement; among them are the fairness of compensation, the quality of performance feedback and whether the rank and file feel heard by upper management. But the data show that, more often than not, companies with high-performing workforces have CEOs who lead the employee engagement charge. Adopt their mindset and employ their practices, and you too could be the boss everyone loves.

“It’s a matter of fact that high engagement correlates very strongly with improved corporate results,” confirms Einar Westerlund, who spearheads the BSME program as director of project development for the Queen’s Centre for Business Venturing. Yet, given HR’s reputation as a “soft” discipline, many CEOs— busy enough with sales and strategy—happily delegate the job.

They do themselves a disservice: employees of BSME firms perceive their leaders twice as positively as those in less engaged firms. “We see very big swings in engagement solely based on staff confidence in those at the top level,” says Westerlund.

According to David Zinger, a Winnipeg based employee-engagement consultant, CEOs play a vital role in driving engagement because their enthusiasm for staff well-being—or lack thereof—is so visible. “The CEO sets the tone,” he says. “Staff will follow that lead.”

What makes BSME CEOs so good in winning the hearts and minds of their employees are not words but actions; specifically, these four blindingly simple behaviours that any boss can model right away.

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