In this post:
- What is Company Culture?
- Ten Traits Common Among Top, Culture-defining Leaders
- Case Studies: How the 10 Traits Come Together to Create a Robust Culture
- Conclusions: Where Companies Should Put Their Energy
What is company culture?
Every workplace, organization, or company has a culture. It’s the water in which workers swim; it’s the felt sense of what it’s like to work there. When a workplace is toxic, it can really suck to work there. Too often, leaders overlook their own culture or don’t realize that they can influence it. In many ways, leadership is the steering captain of organizational culture. Robust and positive company culture is the backbone of a thriving workforce that genuinely brings the best out of everyone. A leader can change their culture for the better or for worse. Bezos can prioritize profit, requiring workers to forgo rest, or he can prioritize the health and longevity of his workers; both options have consequences–which is the right way? In a vacuum, questions of right or wrong become meaningless.
In my 30-plus years of experience consulting companies in various industries, I have seen many leaders grapple with tough decisions where the right path forward isn’t clear. In this time, I have noticed patterns that identify the strongest leaders. Here are the top ten traits of leaders who cultivate great culture.
Ten Traits Common Among Top Culture-Defining Leaders (aka Ten Steps to Becoming a Top Leader)
Like a creature learning to walk, leaders aren’t born overnight. It takes many small steps and many, many hours of practice. Each of these ten traits are a little baby step to leveling-up your leadership.
- Top leaders have a people-centered mindset.
The greatness of a company depends on the people in it. Sometimes leaders think that to be “people-centered” means they have to sacrifice other company goals to please their workers. It doesn’t. People-centeredness means designing workplaces that encourage people to thrive. A workplace is more than an office. It describes the physical and the felt sense of what it’s like to work at your organization.
Many factors make up the sense of what it is like to work at your organization, ranging from the design of the building or the hours people work to the subtle ways people miscommunicate and recover from it. Likewise, it may not be apparent from a first pass what thriving means. Thriving means that workers bring their best. They feel challenged, supported, engaged. Thriving people get all their talents to benefit the company.
- Top leaders are flexible with their approach.
There’s no one “right way” to show up and create a thriving company culture. Every company is unique, and the culture will depend on the nature of the business, a leader’s style, and the special alchemy of the workforce. Taking a strategy that worked in one niche and applying it to another company doesn’t always work. Leaders should be flexible with what others have tried and dare to stand firm in their values and priorities; customizing the approach from their place of power, not because of a tip someone gave them.
- Top leaders involve others.
The best leaders take the necessary time and effort to get input and ideas from everyone who works for them. Getting the correct input doesn’t mean crowdsourcing their decisions, which can grind productivity to a crawl. It means that leaders at all levels should make it a priority to ask the people within their organization what they think, listen to their responses, and communicate openly and freely in both directions.
A culture that welcomes open involvement automatically integrates powerful feedback loops into their business. Feedback loops increase buy-in across the board, which increases participation, which then increases ownership. Ownership means things get done. When people care, things get done well. Genuine involvement makes everyone at your organization accountable, not just leaders at the top.
- Top leaders see beyond the profit.
While a leader’s main priority is efficacy and performance, their company’s profit depends on its overall health. The people who work for them should feel that they’re better people as a result of working for that specific organization.
The presence of their organization should enhance the communities in which they operate. Consciously choosing to see beyond profit to other indicators will create a company that has a sustainable and high-integrity culture.
- Top leaders address leaders first.
Everyone experiences their company through their direct manager. Period. This means that even the CEO, general manager, executive director, or business owner is the best in the history of the world, if another manager who works for them is a tyrant, an abuser, or just a negative influence, the employees will not thrive. Showing up as a leader means investing time, energy, resources in the leaders whom you lead.
Leadership is not for the faint of heart. Advanced degrees and years of experience don’t necessarily make a great leader. Leaders who know when they have a great person on their team will inspire loyalty, foster esteem, and bring out the best in their people.
- Top leaders remember that “life” is work.
We work for many reasons, but no matter what motivates people, work is part of life. After all, how we work matters; the average worker will spend 1/3 of their life at work.
What goes on at work affects peoples’ view of their world and their ability to thrive at home and in their communities. The so-called “work-life boundary” is illusory. Sure, it helps to have boundaries around where we are spending our time and energy. At the end of the day, though, there’s no wall between the two. We bring what happens at work home. We celebrate with our co-workers on the weekend.
Conversely, we bring our lives to work. We bring our favorite coffee and look forward to our leisure time. The people, activities, and circumstances employees encounter away from their workplace are essential to what they bring into the workspace. Leaders must talk to them about life as well as work.
- Top leaders start with small changes.
Showing Up doesn’t mean radical change. There’s no need for a wholesale makeover or herculean consulting resources. Small, positive, practical changes are by far better than significant, romantic, programmatic changes. These enormous efforts tend to fail for lack of bandwidth and fatigue.
- Top leaders listen to understand.
Business owners, CEOs, general managers, or executive directors often struggle to see their organization neutrally. Their position limits their perspective.
Leaders can get fantastic feedback by listening to their leaders, front-line employees, and customers. Talking to the other people in their company will add nuance, detail, and clarity to their ideas. Go out and talk to people in your organization and hear what they think.
- Top leaders align their heads and their hearts.
The world of work or business is obsessed with the intellect. Big brains make big impacts. Emotions happen in the brain, too. Emotional states are a powerful source of information. Whether they have an MBA, 30 years in their industry, or just a killer technology to bring to market, great leaders focus on heart skills.
A leader’s capacity to feel is correlated directly with their capacity to engage with others, create meaningful connections, and inspire followership.
- Top leaders walk their talk.
People will read memos, come to all-hands meetings, and adhere to the policies. But more than anything else, they’ll watch and absorb what top leaders—and the leaders they hire—do. Everything a leader does—from how they run a meeting to what hours they work–communicates essential information to employees about what matters.
Their observations, in turn, shapes their view about whether the company is one in which they can learn, grow, and thrive. Leaders who make their actions conscious, ask about their impact, and do what they say will build trust. Your employees are watching.
REMEMBER: Leaders don’t need grand, sweeping changes to Show Up and make an impact. It’s possible to transform any workplace into a culture that brings out the absolute best in people by following these small steps. Master them, and you will embolden and enliven each and every person on your team.
High-gloss, highly-marketable Twitter images showing ubiquitous nap and coffee stations and swoopy modern desks or “Great(est) Places to Work” competitions boasting free dry cleaning and Friday keg parties are good clickbait but miss the issue at hand: strong company culture.
Healthy cultures, like fish’s water, buffet every part of every organization. Culture influences how employees act towards each other, how leaders manage, and the customer experience. Culture can make employees think, “I love it here; I feel seen and engaged” or “I can’t stand my job; I want to look at other options!” The same goes for customers; customers experience the culture as a brand and a solid or weak culture can attract, maintain or discourage and reject customer buy-in.
Case studies: the 10 Small Steps come together to create a robust culture.
Here are a few examples, followed by an interpretation based on my experience building strong company culture:
Case Study 1: A Culture of Competence
During recent travel, an error was made in my flight itinerary. I was told to get off the plane (the last flight of the day) and walk back inside to the desk where they would remedy the situation. When I got to the desk, I was told the plane I’d just been on had left and that I would have to travel home the next day. Ellen, the representative who was trying to help me quickly noticed my agitation and made a call to the plane. She swiftly grabbed my paperwork, spoke privately to a colleague, and walked me back to the plane. In 10 minutes, I went from feeling annoyed to devastated and angry to feel supported, seen, and cared for by the airline. Ellen appeared to feel empowered by the assistance she gave me. She did not hesitate to seek approval from a higher authority, and she valued my happiness. I flew home thinking about what kind of training or management Ellen had received to create such an authentic and heartfelt experience for me as the customer.
Case Study 2: A Culture of Empathy and Client-Centeredness
Years ago, I applied for a line of credit for my business. The first bank I approached was a large chain where we had all six of our family accounts. I was told I needed my husband’s co-sign for a business line of credit despite the fact that he was uninvolved in the business. I declined on principal and walked down the street to a then-new local bank. The manager invited me to a small room, and asked how he could help. I told him my story, and he listened, making notes. I walked out with my first robust line of credit and a new business bank, feeling supported, valued, and appreciated. The manager was clearly motivated to meet my needs. He believed he had a solution, and he knew how to access it. He was empowered, had clear authority, understood how to get something done quickly, and used empathy to understand what I needed as a future (and now very loyal) customer.
Case Study 3: A Culture of Belonging
A client of mine recently suffered a small car accident on her way to work. She was on her way to an important meeting and called her boss to say she was delayed as her car needed to be towed. Her boss immediately expressed concern for her welfare—Was she hurt? Did she need help? —and then provided reassurance that the meeting would be covered by her colleagues. Because of their team approach, my client was not the only person “in the know” and the meeting went off flawlessly. This story shows that collaboration, information sharing, and empathy was not only a company value but a company practice, performed in day-to-day interactions such that, when an emergency arose, it happened as habit.
I do not believe that these interactions would have been materially changed if the employees involved had stand-up desks or received complimentary movie passes or could nap and drink coffee anywhere in their office. These employees acted the way they did because they had been trained, encouraged, and indoctrinated into a culture that manifested it’s values: customer focus, accountability, team orientation, problem-solving, and others. Somehow, a core belief of the organizations had been identified and responded to with training and/or management practices.
Conclusions: where companies should put their energy
Rather than focusing on spending time and resources on surface elements of company culture, organizations would benefit from investing in people practices that drive behavior. Usually this means spending time and money on training, communication, management, and leadership development. Instilling confidence and belief in the core values of an organization and helping people connect the dots between these values and the things they do every day is what drives strong company culture.
Company culture can look very pretty from the outside but it is what they do on the inside that matters.