Setting the Tone From The Top

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Several years ago I was asked to speak about culture and the role executives play in setting the culture of a company.  Having had the opportunity to work in different industries and in different sized companies, I’ve experienced a lot of different cultures. In fact, I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in developing the vision, mission, values and culture of several companies. I was part of the team who debated every word and then put the information in a nice graphic for everyone to hang up at their desk. But we all know that it’s not what is on paper that sets the culture of a company, but rather how people behave, what gets rewarded and how things get done.

Culture is defined as the rules of behavior that direct daily actions in the workplace. It’s how things happen or the way a company does things. And many times, it’s not the same as what is written on paper. Culture is based on actions not words. It’s how the leaders behave during good times and in high stress situations. It’s what gets rewarded or recognized in a company. It’s the unspoken but understood way the business operates.

I was fortunate to find a perfect culture for my personality in my first job out of graduate school. It was a fast-paced environment. I had the opportunity to lead big projects and make an impact. The more I accomplished, the more I was recognized or rewarded with a promotion. I was a director in my late 20’s leading large team and several agencies. I had responsibility for big budgets. It was a ‘lean and mean’ organization that let you take on a lot of responsibility. I did well. I didn’t appreciate the importance of cultural fit until I moved into my next job.  My next company was huge with a lot of great people, but I was bored! I went from being stretched and growing like crazy, to moving slowly and bureaucratically. There were so many people and you had to involve just about everyone to get a decision made. I likened it to “whack a mole”. You thought you included everyone and then another person popped up and said they needed to be involved. Things moved too slowly for me.  And, the people who got promoted were nice people, but didn’t necessarily work the hardest or do the best job. It was just a different culture and one that worked well for a lot of people, but not me. After that, I knew what to look for in an organization that fit better with my style.

I also learned that leaders really impact the culture of a company. If the boss wants people to openly give their opinions in meetings, people learn to speak up. If the leader rewards people who keep quiet and do as they are told, that’s what most people will do. In my first job, the leaders expected people to speak their minds. In fact, the head of marketing kicked people out of meetings if they weren’t adding value. He wanted a lively debate and didn’t have time for people who didn’t have a point of view. He wanted to hear everyone’s thoughts (based on data, of course) so we could make the best decision.

Leaders set the tone and attitude in a company by how they behave.  I had two bosses that approached problems very differently, and the environment reflected their behavior and attitude. When something went wrong with a project, the first boss would get very grumpy and angry at the team. He was quick to blame and wanted to know who was at fault. People spent time defending their role in the situation, trying to explain what happened, and ultimately pointing fingers. Bodies were tossed under the blame bus. Unfortunately, issues took too long to get resolved because people were wasting time playing the blame game.

Another boss reacted to problems differently. When a project went off the rails, he told the team to work together to fix the problem. He didn’t want details on what happened or who messed up.  He wanted the problem fixed … and fast.  After the problem was resolved, he got the team together and thanked them for responding quickly. Then he asked key people to review the situation and propose changes so the same mistakes wouldn’t happen again. This culture was one of teamwork and continued improvement.  This boss treated mistakes as learning opportunities that would ultimately strengthen the team and the company.  The first boss had the attitude that mistakes were failures, and someone had to pay.  I know which boss inspired the teams to want to do their best.

The tone and culture are set from the top. If you want your company to be one of accountability and teamwork, that’s what you should recognize and reward.  If you want a culture where people contribute at all levels, then engage all levels and make sure people know you care about their ideas. Reward them for coming up with more efficient methods and cost savings.  Decide the culture you want and then live it. Reward the behavior you want to see. Nip bad behavior in the bud. Culture isn’t what is written down but rather how the company gets things done based on the leadership and what gets rewarded and recognized.

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