An employee writes a note on the message board at the new headquarters of Facebook in Menlo Park, California January 11, 2012. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)

HR and communications expert Nancy Reardon has held senior executive positions at Comcast Cable Communications and American Express after beginning her career at GE. Most recently she served as the senior vice president and chief human resources and communications officer for the Campbell Soup Company. Reardon is also a member of the Partnership for Public Service’s board of directors. She spoke with Tom Fox who is a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

How did you go about improving employee engagement at the Campbell Soup Company?

When Doug Conant came in, Campbell Soup was rated at the bottom of the heap in terms of employee engagement among Fortune 500 companies. He believed an engaged workforce is a more productive workforce. During a 10 year period, Campbell went from the bottom to the top. Early in the journey we recognized that you can’t improve everything overnight. However, we declared early on that consistent progress on engagement was important. We measured it regularly, gave leaders feedback, and recognized and celebrated progress.

What advice do you have for federal managers on how they can better engage their employees?

One key thing I have learned is to make it personal. Any leader, regardless of where they are in the organization, can work with their team to think through what isn’t working, what can we do about it and what we can protect that we are doing right. Any leader can change the dialogue to “How can I make things better for my team?” Managers have to be committed and supportive then provide resources and direction. Team members often have wonderful ideas on how to improve engagement, so they can be part of the solution as opposed to the manager being responsible for it all. That’s how you make meaningful changes.

Federal leaders consistently receive low marks around communication. What advice do you have for how federal leaders can communicate more effectively with their employees?

For some managers, communicating isn’t second nature. It needs to become a habit and be made deliberate. It’s amazing to me how many managers don’t regularly touch base with their employees. They may fly by their office periodically, but they really don’t have a regular sit down. Sometimes there is a need for a more thoughtful dialogue. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. It can be as simple as scheduling 15 minutes to touch base before Friday to see how things are going. Building regular interactions into the week ensures they happen. Once they become part of the managers’ weekly rhythm then they become a habit.

What can federal managers do to encourage employee feedback?

I think you could do it in two ways. In a group setting, I’m a big fan of using natural opportunities. Once you’ve seen your results for the year and you know there are two or three things you will be working on, take a few minutes at the beginning of meetings to discuss how the team is doing. A second way would arise when a leader takes action on a particular priority. The manager can then make the connection with their employees and say we just made a change as a result of your feedback. This says, “You told us, we acted and now I want your reaction to how it is going,” so it’s that virtuous cycle of communication.

Who is your leadership role model?

I’ve always been impressed with Wynton Marsalis. Good jazz musicians like Wynton and others practice a lot and understand that there is a structure to jazz and techniques to be learned. Great jazz musicians know how to do two things. They know how to improvise in the moment by taking all the fundamentals they have learned for the situation. And they know how to cooperate and collaborate. Sometimes jazz musicians play with two or three musicians they’ve known for years, but then they bring an outsider into the group and find a way to talk to each other and build on what the three of them have been doing. It can create magic. So it’s that ability to collaborate, to listen, to build, and create magic. Marsalis isn’t a typical leadership guru, but there is a lot to be learned from him and other jazz musicians.