People often ask me what it takes to become the kind of company that makes the Top Workplaces lists that appear in the Star Tribune and other publications. Many factors come into play, but in my experience, strong leadership and management’s commitment to building great leaders and an employee engagement culture matter most.

According to a 2015 Gallup poll, one in two employees left their job to get away from their manager. While top talent may be leaving a person, not the company, such departures may reflect a deficiency in tone and culture set by leaders at the top.

To avoid this, companies should invest in finding and developing great leaders, which not only supports a top workplace but also saves money. Job turnover costs the average company 30 to 50 percent of the annual salary of entry-level employees; this number jumps to 150 percent of middle-level employees, according to Gallup.

What does it take to be a great leader? Like a winning recipe, the best leaders have the right mix of ingredients, including the ability to create a compelling vision, build trust, and communicate openly and often. Perhaps most important is that the best leaders ­recognize employees’ achievements, large and small.

Employees who can’t relate to or see a future in their work will be less successful. To build a compelling vision, leaders need to collaborate with employees so the team has a clear purpose that they can get excited about. I recently took on a new team and worked with these employees to ­create a team vision. Because they were involved, I got more ­buy-in and excitement about where we were headed.

A compelling vision needs to be attainable and ­relevant. If it’s communicated correctly, employees should be able to answer one question — how does my job support the vision? According to the Great Place to Work Institute, leading with shared values and principles provides an ­effective strategy to grow trust within ­organizations.

This ability to build trust starts with leaders. Top ­leaders connect employees to the vision and empower them to do what’s best for the company — thus building trust and a feeling among employees that they own the company. Employees who have this mind-set are more engaged and concerned about the end result of their work. Great leaders inspire confidence by also supporting employees if something goes wrong. Mistakes happen in every company. The best leaders see through the mistakes and identify what employees and the company can learn from the experience.

A third part of inspirational leadership is to listen and be open to the ideas and ­opinions of the team. Simply surveying and getting feedback isn’t enough. True listening involves actually taking action on the feedback. In addition, I frequently encourage leaders to seek feedback from co-workers and staff, and use it to improve their own performance. This openness and willingness to learn builds confidence and connections with employees. My team uses various ways to share information and results, including division meetings, one-on-one meetings, and weekly updates, as well as a monthly blog.

The final and perhaps most important ingredient of great leadership is to motivate through recognition. By recognizing excellent results, collaboration, and innovation, leaders help employees feel validated, and teams have greater confidence in each other.

The best recognition ­programs make it easy for leaders and employees to recognize each other. At Allianz Life, we’ve built recognition into our culture and made it easy to do through online tools, employee of the month programs, volunteer of the quarter awards, and “above and beyond” recognition within each division. And we’re seeing the results. Ninety-three percent of our employees report they have been recognized in our company and 96 percent of managers have recognized someone. How a company chooses to do it matters less than simply building companywide awards programs that share and recognize great work. Employees want someone to notice the meaningful work they do every day.

The best leaders with whom I have worked inspire their teams by creating a vision that employees can relate to, building trust through empowerment, listening and reacting to what employees are saying and, of course, recognizing results. Leaders who support these attributes will create motivated work teams. Mix these ingredients with the right talent and you have a recipe to become a top workplace.


Suzanne Dowd Zeller is chief human resources officer for Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America based in Golden Valley.