Organizational Culture Starts at the Top

I recently published a post titled, “Isn’t Inclusion All About Employee Engagement“, where I talked about the 4 key levers that drive workplace inclusion – inclusive leadership, authenticity, networking and visibility, and clear career paths. I then argued that there’s a positive correlation between workplace inclusion and employee engagement. It’s not rocket science; in fact, it’s pretty intuitive if you read the post and followed the logic.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation with an industry peer about workplace culture, employee engagement, leadership, diversity and inclusion, and everything in between. It’s complex because organizations are made up of humans, and we are each different by virtue of being a human. We all have our own theories, core principles, methods, trusted practices and ideas. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that there is so much content available on the web, published books, magazine articles, thought-leadership platforms such as Harvard Business Review, Forbes, The Economist, etc… As professionals we end up getting confused, lacking confidence in our abilities and simply get stuck.

Building great workplaces and organizations is really hard work. It never was easy and never will be. It’s harder today because the world in which we do business is as competitive as it’s every been – globalization, technological advances, increasing demands and desires of talent, a ridiculous imbalance between talent supply and demand in new jobs (e.g. technology) and the list goes on. In my experience working with smaller organizations, many founders lack leadership skills simply because they’ve never had the opportunity to lead people. They’re what I call “technical experts” because they had a great idea and they started a company to solve whatever problem they identified. Leading people is typically an after-thought.

Whatever the case, leading people is really hard work, and many leaders are born to lead and others are not. For those who don’t have the skills to truly lead they can definitely learn. It’s not easy but leadership is learnable. I’ve seen it first-hand and I have worked with many leaders to build their leadership capabilities during my career.

But here’s the thing. With all the changes and difficulties we have experienced during the past several years one thing remains a constant. Can you take a guess?

The one constant is that building a great organization starts at the top. It always has and always will, and I openly challenge anyone who disagrees (I love debates). The next question is, “where does a leader start”? It’s all about values; you know that shiny poster on your wall that identifies and describes your core organizational values? Yeah, that. They actually matter.

Values Are Your Secret Sauce

Here’s a little secret. People in organizations screw up regularly. It’s a part of business and it should be okay to make mistakes. It’s how you deal with those mistakes; both the person making the mistake and those affected by the mistake. As a leader, everything you say and do should align to your core values. EVERYTHING. If you do this people will clearly understand behavioural expectations and will feel a sense of freedom in their work. Over time, you end up with an organization of employees who share similar values, and this is absolutely magical. It doesn’t matter where someone is from, where they were educated, what their experience is, what their sexual preference is, what gender they identify themselves with, how old they are, and so forth. It’s all about values.

One organization that I had the privilege of working with had a leader who was tough. She was what I would call an “old school” leader. She was demanding. She was also transparent in her communication, recognized people where it was due, was fair and cared deeply about both the customer and employee experience. The core values of this particular organization revolved around transparent communication, recognizing people for great work and valuing the interconnected customer and employee experience. Everything she said and did aligned to these values. She was tasked with several very difficult decisions, and each one was made with our core values in mind. Leaders make difficult decisions all the time that may or may not be popular. However, we knew deep in our hearts that this leader was making the best decisions possible based on our organizational values, in which the majority of our employees aligned with.

It was hugely powerful to see this, and I was honoured to work with this particular leader. Her unwavering belief that values drove everthing she did was remarkable, refreshing and unique.

Building great workplaces is hard work, and as a leader, you will be tested to make hard decisions. My simple recommendation is to make decisions in line with your core values even if they are made to the detriment of something financial. “Short term pain for long term gain” every time. You’ll be thankful you followed this recommendation.

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