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What Every CEO Needs to Understand About Company Culture

Feb 10, 2020

Group of happy young  business people in a meeting at office

You don't have to be a CEO to improve your company culture or enjoy this post—but if you are the CEO, here's a framework to help you maximize your impact.

If culture drives strategy, your mindset drives culture. 

One CEO views leadership as a sacred trust, another says to himself, "The rules don't apply to me." 

Mindset drives everything. But when you're the CEO, it can drive everything and everyone. To put it another way, company culture isn't all on you, but it starts and ends with you. And it rarely rises higher than ...

  • your own example
  • your own reinforced expectations
  • the tools/training you provide for your team to meet those expectations.

Since your mindset is literally contagious, it pays to discern carefully how you see yourself, your role, and those who work for you. Those who ignore this principle may find themselves with disengaged employees, or worse, ousted from their role over one unfortunate mistake.

The rules apply to all. Choose your mindset wisely and let your actions follow. For more insights on the importance of a leadership mindset, click on The Leadership Lesson Most Managers Miss

The best CEOs trust their team. 

"You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible." — Anton Checkhov

Leaders who are trustworthy see others that way as well. They keep staff in the loop, even when the news is difficult. They don't hide or play games. Over time, trust grows and so does teamwork.

Leaders who are not trustworthy treat their team with suspicion—hiding crucial information, for example, even when it's not necessary. At best, this leaves good people rolling their eyes. But it's more likely to leave them feeling burned and betrayed. 

To maximize your impact:

  • Hold yourself to a higher standard than anyone else could expect
  • Surround yourself with people of similar character and competence 
  • Create a culture where transparency is the norm and risk-taking is encouraged.

A senior manager I'll call Sheila had a star employee whose performance threatened to outshine the boss. Feeling somewhat intimidated, Sheila went to an industrial psychologist and asked "What should I do?" The psychologist shot back, "Get out of her way." She did—and everybody thrived.

To communicate the vision, start with the heart.

"People will read the statistics, but they'll remember the stories."
— John Duff, advising Ron Friedman before he began writing The Best Place to Work

Have you ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation that stirred your soul? Neither have I.

Which is why as a grad student, I objected when my professor insisted we use PowerPoint. He said, "This is the way of the future." I thought, "Not my future." To me, it's a tool to be used sparingly at best. 

As head of your company, you have a vision worth sharing—a vision that needs to be shared, embraced and carried forward. Instead of focusing solely on facts and statistics, look for ways to connect with your employees' hearts. If you don't, their hearts and minds will be somewhere other than work.

A few practical ways to connect when giving a speech or presentation: 

Illustrate your points with meaningful stories. The stories don't have to be long. In fact, it's better if they're brief. In the speaking world, the principle is "Condense to connect." The more you practice, the more you can boil stories down to their true essence. 

Give employees a reason to buy in. Especially in a changing work culture, your people may need reminding that they are visible and valuable, that they have what it takes to fulfill the vision, that their contribution matters. Which brings us to the next point:

Make other people the hero. Many moons ago at a summer internship, I caught a glimpse of this principle in a way most people would have missed and I hope never to forget.

It was about 10:00 in the morning, and more than 300 employees were gathered in the first-floor commons area. The occasion? To highlight the company's latest achievements. Imagine rousing music, slide after slide of smiling employee, and a voiceover of how its employees made this company a great place to work. 

While this was going on, I noticed two people in the audience beaming and pointing at each other from across the room—as if to say, "You make this a great place." "No, you make this a great place." The love between them blew me away. One was a young warehouse worker with a mental disability and the other was the CEO.

Call me a sap, but that scene has stayed with me for nearly twenty years. The two men weren't doing it for show. In fact, I doubt many other people even noticed. But it spoke volumes about why culture matters and how a CEO can have an incredibly powerful impact. 

Look for ways to highlight your employees' accomplishments—publicly if they enjoy public praise and privately if they don't. Contrary to popular belief, not all employees like being singled out. 

For more engagement ideas, click on Inspiring Your Team's Best

An employee first culture only works if you have the right employees—and a meaningful mission

Who doesn't want an employee first culture? But if the team is disjointed, disinterested, entitled, or otherwise off track, the employee first theory is going to work against you. You know this, of course.

But ask yourself, What is the mission that unites us?  Not the mission statement, which tends to be wordy and forgettable, but the crystal clear mission that drives the organization.

For example, the Ritz Carlton motto is "Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." My own company motto is "Inspiring leadership at every level."

What is yours? Does it bring out your team's best? Make it a yes. 

The key to changing work culture for the better: continuous improvement. 

"Small, consistent efforts." — Niles Crane, explaining how to keep a clean house

For example, how well do your recruiting and hiring processes reflect your carefully thought-out company values? When a new hire joins your company, do they go home thinking "I made a great choice" or "Jury's still out"?

There's no shortage of ways to improve daily. But it helps to have continuous improvement woven into your culture, to make it not a platitude but an expectation.

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