Our research demonstrates that leadership is the foundation for a meaningful employee experience. The relationship between a leader and an employee is a critical connection—if the link is weak or negative, our research shows that employees will be disconnected from other aspects of culture as well. We found that when leaders are mentors, actively advocate for employee development, and proactively connect their employees with meaningful opportunities, employees and leaders feel more successful, become more deeply connected to one another, and contribute to a stronger workplace culture.

Leaders are often promoted to leadership because they are good at a certain skill, not because they are particularly skilled at leading others. It takes time, experience, and practice to learn to inspire and motivate others to be their best. Our Leadership Index measures leadership using five criteria: feeling a sense of support, trust for leadership, inspiring the employee to focus on things outside of themselves, feeling motivated to do great work, and garnering loyalty. According to our measurement criteria, great leaders are more than just gatekeepers; they are mentors and catalysts for greatness.

Leadership may represent the most important of the six essential Talent Magnets. Leaders influence and provide support for purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, and a sense of wellbeing.

Leadership begins at the top. But leaders at all levels must be aligned with the corporate purpose and know how to build trust. We found that when a leader blames “management” for decisions, the odds of an employee staying at that organization decrease by 64%.

Leaders should lead, not just be “bosses.” Good leaders do much more than tell employees what to work on. They provide vision and purpose, inspiration and mentorship. They give opportunities for shared influence and input into decisions. They build a sense of camaraderie, success, and appreciation when goals are accomplished. They directly impact the employee experience.

Employees with a high confidence level in their company’s senior leadership are 5 times more likely to remain with their employer more than 2 years compared to employees with no confidence.

Leaders are Falling Short

We found leadership to be one of the most divisive magnet topics. Almost every employee in focus groups shared both positive and negative examples of leadership. They shared stories and feelings about mentorship, trust, shared responsibility, collaboration, giving credit, camaraderie, and advocacy. They agreed that managers could do better.

Overall, employees strongly differentiated between managers who tell them what to do and leaders who help them accomplish something great. In many instances, the manager-employee relationship represented how the employee felt about the organization. One focus group attendee noted, “I do my best work when the company delivers on its promises because I feel like I should deliver on mine. The tone flows down.”

Negative behaviors also flow down. Unfortunately, many employees have lost trust (and motivation) due to their poor relationships with direct supervisors and senior leaders.



There’s a difference in leaders who lead by telling people what to do, and leaders who lead by influence. Influencers invite those they lead to make an impact.2


Teach leaders to be mentors and development advocates.

One of the most useful things a leader can do is focus on developing the people who report to them. Leaders are in the unique position to advocate for and mentor their teams. Organizations should teach managers how to cheerlead their employees instead of just being the gatekeeper to their internal careers.

When a leader is an active mentor, our research shows employees feel a:

76% increase in feeling like part of a larger purpose

72% increase of connecting strongly with leaders

102% increase in feeling motivated

320% increase in a favorable perception of their leader



Be transparent and stop blaming “management.”

Leaders have a direct influence on the employee experience. Employees who have direct access to their leaders feel more ownership in their work and a stronger connection to organizational purpose.

Be open and honest with employees. Stop blaming management. Our data show organizations that fail to do so can see:

174% increased odds of not trusting their direct leader

64% decreased odds of staying at their organization

20% decreased odds of an employee promoting their organization as a great place to work

34% decreased odds in an employee feeling appreciated

Shared leadership is a way for leaders to be transparent and more aligned with their employees. Shared leadership enables employees to develop skills with a more seasoned leader who can act as a mentor. It gives employees exposure to a variety of leadership styles and also provides them with additional avenues for connection, opportunity, and development.

When leadership is shared, employees are:

225% more likely to believe their leader considers the needs of the team

55% more satisfied with the company culture



Get to know your employees on a personal level.

This elevates the employee experience. Employees feel more appreciated and supported, feel like they belong in the organization, and know their leaders are advocating for them. Take a look at the difference in leaders in 2 stories from our focus groups below:

Leader 1: “The program manager came in to meet an assistant store manager that had been with [our company] for 19 years. He didn’t even stop to shake her hand. He just shook her hand while he was walking by. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s the respect you give somebody that’s been with the company that long?’”

Leader 2: “Our CEO was in my office yesterday. I had a conversation with him and he was listening to what I had to say. He can probably tell you the names of half the people that work here. And it’s like that with all of our senior leaders, so I’m very appreciative of that because I feel like they care.”

Half of employees said they would turn down a 10% wage increase to remain with a great manager.

The CEO in the second example is not only getting to know his employees, but he’s also making sure his senior leaders are doing the same. Employees know their leaders are rooting for them and helping them make real contributions to the organization. Take a look at the drastic difference in employee perceptions when their leader takes the time to get to know them on a personal level.

“You have to break bread with them, sit at lunch and have lunches with them, cry with them, laugh with them. You’ve got to be down there constantly shaking hands, talking to them, asking them questions. There’s no finish line.”


Recognize employees and build connections.

Recognition is a powerful way for leaders to develop relationships. Employees want their leader to notice and appreciate them and their great work. Recognition provides an opportunity for leaders to improve relationships with their own team members, as it proves their leader sees their effort and values their great work. Recognition also allows the leader to connect an employees’ work with the organization’s purpose and foster peer-to-peer connections by recognizing employees publicly and encouraging cross-functional appreciation. Both peer-to-peer recognition and recognition from leaders are crucial—but there is something uniquely powerful about receiving recognition from your manager.

“I wish my leader fostered teamwork and collaboration. I don’t just mean like the buzzwords, but really, making people feel part of something, part of an organization, whether it’s the large organization or smaller team. My team is not cohesive at all, and I think that affects all of our work. There’s so much my leader could do to help us work better together if she really fostered that feeling of a team.”

Leaders Build Culture and Connection

Leaders have the incredible potential to build a strong, positive culture filled with trust, connection, innovation, and loyalty. It all starts with them. But leaders must be influencers, not just doers, of great work. The leaders who truly succeed are the ones who create opportunities for connection and growth. They point to the organization’s purpose. They provide meaningful work. They show how an employee makes a difference. And that is what building a great culture is all about.


Teach leaders to be mentors and advocates for development.

Help leaders be transparent and aligned.

Encourage leaders to get to know their employees personally.

Use recognition to build relationships.

Leadership Sources

1. “US Employee Pulse,” Qualtrics, November 2017.
2. David Sturt, Todd Nordstrom, Kevin Ames, Gary Beckstrand. Appreciate. O.C. Tanner 2017
3. Melissa Tsang, “Built, Not Bought,” Referral Candy, May 6, 2017.
4. “New National Study Conducted by Ultimate Software Reveals Need for Greater Focus on Manager—Employee Relationships,” Ultimate Software, December 4, 2017.

We see generational differences in the perception of leadership. Generation Z and Millennials favorably assess their leadership 61% of the time, with Generation X and Baby Boomer employees at 54% and 51% respectively.

Adobe is a company known for its creative tools and solutions. To avoid hindering the creative abilities and energy of employees, the company felt that stack rankings were not the best way to judge employees’ work and accomplishments. Instead, Adobe assigned employees challenging projects, and managers provided the mentoring and support to help them succeed. Instead of micromanaging and telling employees how they are doing through a rating, they’re asking how they can help members of their team reach their goals. The result is that subjective critiques and ratings were replaced by creativity and coaching. It’s a process of mentoring where leaders inspire employees—and then get out of the way. Instead of providing feedback, managers are providing much more: motivation, support, learning, free-spirited innovation, and creativity. In turn, these employees become the mentors, and the cycle continues.3


When leaders are perceived as mentors, as strong advocates for employee development, and connect employees with special projects, the results are incredible.

1,019% increased odds of a favorable leadership perception

582% increased odds of feeling appreciated

600% increased odds of feeling like they have opportunity at their organization

647% increased odds of feeling successful, at an individual, team, and company level

433% increased odds of feeling like their organization and work has purpose

837% increased odds of being engaged