Harvard Business Press is releasing a well timed book called Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down by Sylvia A. Hewlett in October 2009. I’ve been able to gain access to an excerpt from the book which provides and example of what Time Warner is doing to keep staff motivated. It’s a great example of what companies can do during the recession to keep their talented staff motivated. Best of all it’s simple, costs little and is getting good results. You can read the excerpt below and look out for the book when it is published in October

Time Warner has embraced a high-level, high-touch, low-cost program as part of an overall effort to help raise morale and engage employees. The media company’s Chairman and CEO Jeffrey L. Bewkes hosts Skip-Level Lunches with small groups of employees from across Time Warner’s corporate offices in New York City. Approximately every four weeks, Bewkes sits down with ten to twelve individuals for a two-hour lunch, talks candidly about his plans for the organization, answers questions, and listens to employees’ thoughts and perspectives. Human resources and department heads choose the lunch guests. They select employees who do not report directly to the CEO and usually have little or no access to him. Although the guest list is always diverse—ranging from senior vice presidents to administrative assistants—attendees are typically high performers and high-potential employees. They are also seen as “connectors” and “influencers” — well-respected employees who are likely to share their lunch experience and the CEO’s perspective with colleagues.

In this way, an experience for only a few can have far-reaching impact. Approximately three weeks before each lunch, the CEO himself e-mails invitations to guests. The conversation and agenda are unscripted. Bewkes simply asks everyone to introduce him- or herself to the group and then speaks for a few minutes about his vision for the company. Eventually, he opens the conversation to employees’ questions. Employees have asked about the direction of the business, inquired about Bewkes’s thoughts on industry issues or the stock price, and requested more information on recent company announcements. Other guests have discussed employee culture and morale.

The feedback from both sides of the table has been positive. Employees who attended past luncheons reported feeling more “confi dent in the company” and described their CEO—whom many did not know much about before the lunch—as being “open,” “approachable,” even “funny.” Others have said the experience helped diffuse uncertainty, and they appreciated Bewkes’s ability to explain things in a way that was easy to understand. In turn, Bewkes appreciates and benefits from meeting some of the organization’s most valuable employees and hearing their concerns and issues firsthand. “He has a great time,” says Patricia Fili-Krushel, Time Warner’s executive vice president of administration, who reports directly to Bewkes and spearheads the Skip-Level Lunches. “He has been impressed by how much people care about the company.”

In turn, face time with the CEO shows employees that the company cares about them. In times of high stress, direct contact with senior leaders is an invaluable tool to enhance confi dence among employees and heighten their corporate pride. Time Warner’s Skip-Level Lunches reach out to employees who might not otherwise get those messages, proving that the media company knows how to practice what it preaches: communication.

Getting Started
• To ensure that the CEO participates and that the lunch is well perceived by employees, the host must believe in its value.
• Let the chief executive’s calendar dictate when to schedule the lunch. Avoid holidays or predictable times of high activity, such as the end of a fiscal quarter. Lunch is preferable to breakfast or dinner, especially for people who must travel to attend.
• When selecting lunch guests, choose people who are comfortable speaking in a group.
• Provide advance reading material for employees— recent articles, press releases, a CEO bio—so they feel more empowered to ask questions and participate in the discussion. Give the CEO a list of attendees’ names, titles, and departments.

Critical Elements
• The gatherings should retain an air of honesty and sincerity. Do not let the CEO lean on formal presentations, talking points, or prewritten speeches; do not set limits on questions or topics employees can bring up.
• Keep gatherings small. Having fewer than a dozen people creates a comfortable environment and allows everyone an opportunity to introduce him or herself and speak directly with the CEO.
• Select attendees based on performance, but avoid the “usual suspects” such as the CEO’s direct reports; target people with little or no access to the organization’s most senior management.

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