Twenty-four newly promoted store managers sit in a classroom at Home Depot's corporate headquarters. They sport orange aprons and name tags, and they call out answers to questions about how to keep employees motivated.
The door opens. A man walks in. He's bald, with a ring of gray hair. He's wearing olive pants and a button-down shirt and holds a rolled-up paper in one hand. The students break into spontaneous applause. Some snap pictures with their cell hones.
"It's good to see you all," Home Depot CEO Frank Blake says. "It's a great opportunity for me to talk to you a little bit."
Whether it's town halls or more intimate chats, CEOs long ago learned the benefits of face time with their staffs. Many executives meet with employees here and there. But for more than two years, Blake has incorporated a face-to-face meeting with practically every class of newly minted store managers or assistant managers at Atlanta-based Home Depot.
The idea behind such CEO exposure is two-way communication. Employees get a chance to hear about a company's mission and strategy straight from the top. For Blake and other executives, such regular meetings can also provide ground-level feedback they might not otherwise get.
For Blake's recent session, the new managers sit around tables, four at each. Walls are decorated with pictures of Home Depot's "values wheel," as well as an inverted pyramid with the CEO at the bottom and customers at the top. The students tell Blake who they are, where they're from and how long they've been with Home Depot. He nods at each, sipping occasionally from a plastic foam cup.
"Okay, good move," he tells someone who came to Home Depot after 26 years with Wal-Mart.
"Take care of Ken," he tells another when he recognizes the store he's from.
Blake talks off the cuff about how the housing crisis has been worse than during the Great Depression. About Home Depot's sales growth, even in the troubled housing market. About the opportunity each of them has with Home Depot.
He offers them all advice for their new jobs as store managers.
"Pick something that's broken and fix it," he tells the managers.
Blake stops in on the classes unannounced. He asks the new managers and assistants what the company makes them do that wastes their time. Then he opens it up to questions.
"It kind of humanizes the CEO," said Sloan Weitzel, director of business development for Duke Corporate Education. "It definitely sets the sense of 'Wow, we're really important to the organization.' "
Employees who have that kind of interaction with chief executives are more likely to understand and believe in the corporate strategy, Weitzel said. They're more likely to feel like they're part of something that matters — that there's an esprit de corps.
But there are risks. If a CEO is stiff or off-putting, the plan can backfire, Weitzel said.
That doesn't seem to be a problem for Blake, who sits in on one to four classes a week.
"The fact that he would take the time to talk to us, instead of just looking at us like subordinates" said Doug Curtright, a 10-year Home Depot employee and a new manager in St. Louis. "It was probably one of the most important things out of the entire week."
While many employees know of Blake's propensity to drop in, Tom Spahr, Home Depot vice president of learning, said he takes care not to tell them the CEO will be coming. Blake has missed just one or two classes since the program began, Spahr said.
Blake said he appreciates the ability to have candid conversations and explain to employees why the company does things certain ways.
"It's a great way to get people a consistent view of our expectations for them," he said. "They're all individuals. It's not like it's a generic company. It's hugely effective to be able to talk to 20 store managers in a small-room discussion."
And the employees say that of all the training they go through, they get the most out of hearing their executives speak. For Duane Thierry, an 18-year employee and the new manager in West Covina, Calif., just being in the room with his CEO was huge.
"A lot of times at companies, you don't have access to people that high," he said. "It just goes back to having that opportunity to get an answer on something very specific from the head of the horse's mouth."