As with the quote widely attributed to G.B. Shaw, “The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Alper believes many times problems arise because companies think they are communicating when they are not, and the most critical component of communication is listening.

Moving the Needle on Employee Engagement From “Like” to “Love”

Keith Alper, the man who founded eight companies and serves in leadership positions at many of them—including CEO of CPG Agency—was not always as confident a leader as he is today. Looking back on the early days of CPG (formerly Creative Producers Group), he recalls some of the growing pains that transformed the fledgling company into an award-winning powerhouse—and Alper into a recognized leader in the field.

“A lot of what I’ve learned over the years came from experience and facing my own fears,” said Alper. “For a long time, I never wanted anyone to leave CPG because I saw that as a failure… Over time we realized that sometimes you have to grow the business by letting people go.”

Alper combines experiences like this with industry research in a new book titled “From Like to Love,” which serves as a how-to manual for transforming employees and customers into loyal brand advocates.

Over 30 years, Alper has seen that the speed of technology—along with industry and generational expectations—places a tremendous strain on teams, relationships, and work-life balance. Citing research (such as the positive correlation between employee engagement and profitability and productivity, as well as best-in-class practices from brands like Nike and Southwest), Alper prescribes four principles to identify gaps in your critical business relationships and move them from “like” to “love”:

  1. Listen—Employees need to be heard; there are many channels of communication and they are two-way.

Like the quotation widely attributed to G. B. Shaw, “The greatest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” Alper believes many times problems arise because companies think they are communicating when in fact they are not—and the most critical component of communication is listening.

How you listen should be built into the company culture. In Alper’s experience, larger companies often do an employee satisfaction survey once a year or every other year. Smaller companies can take a pulse check by correlating data to figure out what the rhythms of communication and engagement are. Companies that get it right see success with employee attraction, retention, engagement, and profits.

Sharing an example from CPG, Alper describes a quick win that was only possible because an employee felt she would be listened to. “We heard from someone who worked here,” said Alper. “’I really like working at CPG but I don’t love it because you have a crappy maternity policy.’ We didn’t really pay attention to it until someone brought it up, and then we changed it. That was so easy, and it created an exchange of accolades: thank you for thinking about it, thank you for reacting, thank you for changing the policy.”

Engaging employees starts with understanding what are you asking of your team—how are you communicating, and do employees feel loved?

  1. Ownership—Employees want to feel necessary and that they can contribute to (and have some ownership in) the company’s success and that everyone shares a meaningful purpose.

CPG has a long history of leading the way in terms of innovation and creativity by asking people to be individuals and work in teams. Alper credits his competitive edge to having a team of industry experts who are encouraged to “be entrepreneurial and just start.”

Crowdsourcing is one of the ways employees contribute to the company’s success. An account manager might send out a company-wide email showing current work for a client and ask for more ideas. Within minutes, the team has more options to work with and the entire company has a chance to participate. “The creative process is hard but we’ve tried to make it easy as possible.”

  1. Vibe—Create a work environment that is positive, fun, and one where you live your company’s values. Employees want to feel proud that they work there.

At CPG, the vibe is driven by feedback and constant communication in the creative process. For the teams, we implement a feedback process similar to Pixar. Every movie idea starts out lacking. Pixar has the writer and producer take their initial idea to a council of all-stars that have had the best movies at Pixar and they give honest feedback to “plus it up” or add to the existing idea.1 Having feedback from these experts is invaluable. Art Directors at CPG get together to present an idea and they have to be able to take the feedback not only for the client’s sake, but also for their own improvement and development.

Alper says creativity is at the soul of everything CPG does, whether it be innovation or strategy—they will not recycle an idea. That is what attracts both their customers and their employees.

  1. Empathy—Employees want to feel that you genuinely care about them and you let them be who they are.

Alper says one of the best pieces of leadership advice he’s received is to treat others the way you want to be treated.

“From Like to Love” is universal and anybody can apply the concept, across all levels of the organization. For example, the receptionist can decide what might make someone love coming to the office. When a courier comes to CPG, they get chocolates and a thank you for the service they provide because no one else does that. Any employee can run these principles against the decisions they need to make: what’s the environment, who are the people involved, and are we making a difference?

Fast Facts

Location St. Louis, MO
Number of Companies Founded 8
Previous Experience Self-proclaimed AV geek in junior high/high school; one of the youngest executives at Six Flags/Ballys; serial entrepreneur.
Boards and Other Affiliations Entrepreneurs’ Organization; Young Presidents’ Organization; KWMU/NPR; Siteman Cancer Gala; Maryville University; Downtown St. Louis Partnership – CID; St. Louis Film Festival.
Major Awards INC 500: “Top 100 Multimedia Producers” and “Founders 30 or Younger”; STLBJ: “40 Under 40”; St. Louis Business Journal: "Most Influentials"; EventMarketer: “Top 100 Event Agencies IT List”; Special Events Magazine: “Top 50 Event Company.”

Interviewed by Heather E. Henderson and Sean Riordan.