Many companies take culture far too lightly. Perhaps some think it’s a trait that will simply sort itself out given enough time. Others build a kind of surrogate for culture by populating their break rooms and common areas with pool tables, pop culture tchotchkes and focus-grouped slogans.
There’s a place for all those things. No employee wants to arrive at work each day only to toil away in some antiseptic office building without so much as a potted plant. However, companies that want their culture to stand the test of time have to start at the top — with a clear-eyed vision and high-quality leadership.
Leaders are the key to shaping company culture — and even the culture beyond their walls. Let’s take a look at how and why.
Leaders Help Frame the Company’s Values and Goals
World-class leaders exude a spirit of positivity and fairness and provide an example worth emulating. In other words, they turn their own values into company wide ones. In turn, a company’s values inform its goals and its brand personality.
We can look at any number of examples of weak or shortsighted company values. A couple of years before he returned to Apple, Steve Jobs had some choice words about the priorities and values Apple’s leadership had cultivated in his absence:
“What ruined Apple was not growth … they got very greedy. Instead of following the trajectory of the original vision, which was to make the thing an appliance and get this out there to as many people as possible … they went for profits. They made outlandish profits for about four years. What this cost them was their future. What they should have been doing is making rational profits and going for market share.”
Has the company stood by these words? History often repeats itself, but it doesn’t have to. In shaping company culture, leaders must build a tightly woven collection of ideals, values and goals — and ideally, it should be strong enough, and pro-social enough, to long outlast them.
To put it another way, “the true meaning of life” — or leadership, in our case — “is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
Leaders Help Develop Performance Benchmarks and Engagement Platforms
There’s no shortage of research confirming it: Engaged employees are more productive at work and more successful in generating revenue. How exactly do leaders go about cultivating engaged employees who work to better themselves and the company over time? It starts with answering questions like:
- What does it take to succeed in this organization? Does this company hire a consistent caliber of individual? How high are its standards?
- What are the concrete steps required for employees to advance up the company ladder at each stage of their career?
- How, and how often, does leadership deliver meaningful feedback to employees? Is this process reserved only for end-of-year reviews?
- Does the company provide internal or extracurricular opportunities for employees to better themselves, advance their education or build new skills?
Leaders can set expectations for how employees engage with each other, too. This goes back to the idea of atmosphere at work: Is this a place where ideas are exchanged freely? Do employees feel empowered and comfortable exchanging actionable feedback among themselves? Does collaboration thrive here? Do employees elevate suggestions and ideas to the c-suite fearlessly, or are they afraid to speak their minds? Does leadership reward learning from failure as reliably as it rewards success?
Each of these questions is one more way leaders shape the culture of a company. They must take a serious look at how well employees are engaged on a daily basis and if they view their careers as a transient experience or the beginning of a rewarding journey.
Leaders Help Set the Tone for Life Beyond the Workplace
Have you heard the phrase “tone at the top?” It means company leaders must lead by example. More specifically, it means they must determine whether, and to what extent, a company and its team members value things like transparency, integrity, high-quality communication skills, cheerfulness, commitment to ethics and much more.
This idea shouldn’t be unexpected or controversial, but it’s the job of your company’s leaders to provide an example worth emulating and an environment worth working in. Today’s workplace isn’t a collection of strangers, after all — and it definitely isn’t removed from the rest of society or reality. Employees whose companies invest in their communities — and entreat their team members to do the same — are poised for success. There’s a big world out there, and it wants to reward businesses that demonstrate their commitment to responsible growth and social progress.
If there’s a bottom line here, it’s that leaders of men and women find themselves in the enviable position of molding not just employees, but also citizens and neighbors. The question is, are they up to the task?