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Leaders are the drivers of company culture. They set the standard for what great looks like, propel organisations forward and constantly search for innovative ways to engage their people. It’s no surprise then, that employees believe in their company’s purpose and direction when they trust leadership. 

According to a study by MetLife, trustworthy leadership was the most critical factor in creating alignment, with 93% of respondents saying it's important but just 61% of workers feel their companies are aligned with their values. It's key for leaders to not only keep a pulse on culture, but to be an active driver in measuring and improving it.

When you have a leader who is dedicated to improving employee engagement, your organisation naturally focuses on how to attract and retain top talent and outperform the competition.

Here at Reward Gateway, we’re inspired by forward-thinking CEOs who not only get involved with engagement initiatives, but aren’t afraid to think outside the box, try new things and make a positive impact on their people because they know engaged employees are at the heart of a business’s success.

But it’s easier to understand the how and why when it comes straight from the source. We spoke with five CEOs of varying industries to see why employee engagement is a top priority for them. Here what they had to say:

 CEO Name: Neil Lott
 Company: Pacific Atlantic Handling
 Engagement focus: Improving the employee experience with consistent recognition and communication


Pacific Atlantic Handling (PAH) offers a unique customer handling service and provides luggage tracking at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Working in a heavy-traffic airport comes with its own set of challenges (like constantly being on your feet or not sitting at a desk), but as PAH continues to grow, attracting and retaining top talent is at the top of its list. PAH’s CEO, Neil Lott, knows that to stand out as a top employer, the organisation needs to improve the employee (and customer) experience.

Working with Reward Gateway, PAH launched “Elevation,” its employer-branded employee engagement platform. It’s here that employees can send one another performance-based eCards such as “Customer Experience” or “Leading by Example.” What’s more, employees can send one another monetary rewards called “Altitude Awards” and nominate top performers for Employee of the Month to create a culture of appreciation in the organisation.

pah-hub-finalPacific Atlantic Handling's "Elevation" hub

Keeping communications at the core is key to many businesses, but especially at PAH, as the organisation continues to grow and change.

When the site first launched, Neil realised he needed to be a key driver for the new culture initiative and make himself more visible. 

He wrote a blog post welcoming employees to the new hub and outlining key goals for the initiative to keep all employees in the loop. And to keep the two-way feedback open, the Elevation homepage houses a poll to gauge employees’ interest and feedback on the site to make sure it’s hitting the mark.

Neil adds, “When I started this journey of creating my company, I knew I wanted it to be different for all the employees that worked for us. With the challenges and issues working at an airport can create for someone, I wanted everyone to feel supported, recognised, engaged and most of all, a feeling of belonging at work. As we move into the next phase, I am confident that we will be able to expand the path of recognition for our employees at PAH and continue improving the employee experience.”

 CEO Name: Jill Wilson
 Company: Otterbein SeniorLife
 Engagement focus: Improving employee retention with values-based recognition and leadership participation

Otterbein SeniorLife is a non-profit health and human services organisation, offering seniors unlimited lifestyle options and constantly looking for new ways to better serve the residents in its communities throughout Ohio and Indiana. 

The ageing services industry can be unpredictable, with a turnover rate of 50% – leading to feelings of stress or doubt among employees. To combat this, Otterbein’s leaders and managers focus on creating a culture of appreciation to improve employee retention, particularly with buy-in from Otterbein’s President and CEO Jill Wilson.

As the CEO, it’s Jill’s job to ensure that the organisation’s mission and values are lived out in the work everyone does and received by those that they serve.

When leaders and managers have the tools they need, they set the example by recognising what good behaviour looks like – helping to improve employee engagement. Another key part of this is measuring it. Since Otterbein’s strategic recognition program launched in 2017, over 25,000 stories of employees delivering a great experience to elders, family members and other staff have been shared publicly. From 2018 to 2019, there has been a 64% increase in the number of employees receiving recognition through the system. And 97% of managers wrote recognitions for colleagues and staff in 2019.


Jill, who has been with the organisation since 1997, was admittedly a little skeptical about the new program and how effective it would be. But the success of the program has turned her into a true advocate. In 2019 alone, Jill wrote 20 recognition stories and commented on 156 stories written by others. She looks into the recognition data to help drive the company’s engagement strategy and increase participation (as well as usage) among certain teams. 

In fact, the organisation’s top leaders come together to discuss recognition scores from the platform and see the impact of everyday recognition first-hand. Further commenting on the power strategic recognition has on employee retention, Jill says, “Employee recognition is making a difference for the people that work hard every day at our organisation. It is impacting their experience and their desire to stay. Introducing employee recognition has been a very positive endeavour for us."

 CEO Name: Bill Sammis
 Company: Crystal Run Village
 Engagement focus: Connecting a dispersed workforce to company vision 


Crystal Run Village (CRVI) is a Human Services organisation that provides services for the empowerment of people with disabilities. Its vision “Together, Creating New Directions… New Lives” helps focus the organisation and its employees within a fast-paced working environment. Decreasing employee turnover and improving the employee experience were key objectives for CRVI in order to connect dispersed employees and create consistency among its 46 locations.

The first step was changing employees’ mindsets about using new technology by offering an easy-to-use tool that was tailored to a mixed demographic. The organisation launched a new employee engagement platform, called “New Directions,” with the goal of bringing employees closer to the company’s purpose, mission and values and improving connections. The name incorporates the vision and symbolises the journey towards creating a more engaged workforce.

crvi-hub-mockupCrystal Run Village's "New Directions" hub

It’s on the platform that employees can find important company updates from key stakeholders – including blogs from CRVI’s CEO Bill Sammis. Bill has been using the blogs to respond to items or questions from the company’s “Solution Box,” which is a place for employees to leave anonymous feedback, learn more about company policies or stay connected to various teams across the business. Employees can then leave comments or reactions on the internal blog post to boost connections and open and honest communication within the organisation. 

Read the full Crystal Run Village story »

Bill has published 19 new blog posts in the first two months of launch, and that number continues to grow with his involvement in the initiative. Bill comments, “We launched our new site in the fall and we are committed to ensuring it is a success. Transforming your culture begins with your leaders – these are the people who are driving the engagement journey and keeping a pulse on your people. When you make communications a two-way street and connect recognition to your company values and vision, you begin to see positive cultural change.”

 CEO Name: Marty Birmingham
 Company: Five Star Bank
 Engagement  focus: Cementing new values and improving manager-led recognition to transform company culture


In 2017, Five Star Bank, a publicly-owned financial services provider, initiated a rebranding process while also moving to a new service model. To continue building on its 200-year history, the company wanted to ensure the new brand was reflected in its recognition initiatives to really drive the brand home, both externally and internally.

The organisation needed to stay true to its mission of putting customers’ financial wellbeing at the heart of everything it does, while making sure its people could deliver on the brand promises. To ensure a consistent and meaningful experience, the company refined and focused on five values and their associated behaviours, which then tied into the recognition criteria and measurement strategy within its employee engagement platform.

five-star-bank-image-no-whiteFive Star Bank's brand promises

This consistency in values was doubly important in fostering collaboration for a company that offers a variety of banking, investments and insurance services with dispersed employees across 10,000 square miles and 53 locations. As part of Five Star Bank’s leadership development framework, strategic and public recognition is top of the list to truly transform the company’s culture. 

Marty Birmingham, CEO at Five Star Bank, is a true believer in the power of strategic, consistent recognition and leadership involvement. He comments, “If the tone isn't set at the top by people like me, it's not going to happen. Culture changes at a glacial pace. It takes patience and tenacity.” Managers are encouraged to write at least one recognition on the employee recognition platform per month and start their regular team meetings by sharing a recognition story. 

Read the full Five Star Bank case study »

In the last 12 months, two-thirds of managers and nearly half of non-managers have recognised others publicly for doing good or great work, and this number continues to grow. Public (and values-based) recognition helps connect dispersed employees and inform others in the business about key projects or initiatives. Marty adds, “When you recognise people across functions, you also create an understanding of what happens to your product downstream.” 

 CEO Name: Doug Butler
 Company: Reward Gateway
 Engagement  focus: Influencing and driving a mission-driven company culture 


CEOs can’t dictate culture. But they can influence, impact and drive culture by connecting with their people and aligning with them around the company’s mission, values, strategy and an environment of continual recognition. Developing a strong culture supports higher employee engagement, which in turn leads to improved business results.

Recognition can be a fundamental driver of culture as well. While all businesses are different, the prevalence or absence of employee recognition can be a defining characteristic of a company’s culture. If you have or want to have a culture where recognition is valued, implementing a system for broad communication and visibility of management or peer-to-peer recognition moments can amplify the impact and help to embed recognition practices into day-to-day practice.

doug-boomAn example of how Doug connects with 400+ employees through visible communications through our employee engagement platform.

CEOs can also influence the culture by promoting, or simply by setting an expectation for, recognition and other culture driven actions from leadership. Furthermore, because of a CEO’s visibility in a business and the interest people have in what they say and do, setting an example by publicly recognising individuals and continually referencing the company’s mission, strategy and values across various communications platforms will drive cultural and business objectives.

CEOs can help align employees with the company’s mission, values and strategy. A more aligned team is a more engaged team, and a more engaged team leads to a stronger business.

There’s no doubt about it, culture transformation starts at the top. When forward-thinking leaders take an active role in moving the needle on employee engagement and setting the standard for what good looks like, organisations are more likely to achieve their goals, overcome obstacles and stand out from the competition. 

These five CEOs are all in different stages of their engagement journeys but they all have one thing in common: Their greatest cultural asset is engaged employees. Do you have a story about transforming your company culture? Reach out to me on LinkedIn to share more. Plus, don't forget to subscribe to our blog for more insider content.

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Meghan Barrett

Meghan Barrett is a Content Marketing Manager at Reward Gateway. Outside of writing about employee engagement, she spends her time capturing sunsets with her camera, making a mess in the kitchen and relaxing in local cafes while eating chocolate croissants.

Content Marketing Manager

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