Your Corporate Culture Starts With You


CEO, elevēo – Customers may not remember what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel!

Where on your list of leadership attributes does “introspection” fall?

I’d bet most CEOs don’t have it in their top five; it’s not exactly a power word, after all. Setting aside time to take a personal inventory? Not a chance.

CEOs are assumed to be self-assured people of action, and leadership is supposed to be about certainty. But being a CEO can be frightening — assuming we’re prepared to admit such a human emotion. The easy decisions generally don’t reach us; other people make those. We work on the hard stuff, where clear rights or wrongs don’t exist, only shades of gray.

Perhaps we can be forgiven, then, if we feel like we need to put on a suit of armor before going to work, leaving our authentic selves at home. Good luck with that. Few of us are that good at compartmentalization, at least over the long haul.

Like it or not, we can’t wholly separate our individual psychology from our leadership style and its impact on culture, particularly in small- and mid-size companies. We may not always realize how deeply our life experiences, temperament, emotions and foibles permeate our organization, but we need to. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as the saying goes.

If there’s something wrong with the culture, we should ask, “How am I contributing to this?” Since culture follows leadership or lack thereof, we owe it to our organizations and employees to take a hard look in the mirror.

Discovering Your “Why”

There’s a business case to be made for practicing a little introspection. One theme running through Simon Sinek’s best-selling books on leadership is that “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

As CEOs, our “why” manifests in the culture, so we need to discover what it is. If you dig deep enough, I will wager it’s not ultimately about achieving wealth or producing a superior product or service. Those may be worthy goals, but they’re just byproducts of some inner desire that would have driven you to succeed regardless of the path you chose — athletics, education, medicine, politics, you name it.

My “why” centers on making a difference, on positively impacting our people’s lives. I believe most people want more out of their job than a competitive income. Intellectual and emotional security, a sense of connection, respect and recognition, self-actualization — aspirations defined by Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs 80 years ago — still apply in the 21st-century workplace. Human nature doesn’t vanish at the company doors.

Walking The Talk

That all sounds great, you say, but even the best of intentions fall prey to blind spots and bad days. True, we can’t live up to the ideal every day, but there is power in authenticity. On balance, do your people believe you walk your talk, or at least genuinely try? There’s an old saying about corporate hypocrisy: “It’s written on the walls but not spoken in the halls.” In other words, if it’s all for show, people know.

In my case, when our employees hear me say nothing is more important than you and your family, I need to put those words into practice in our healthcare benefits. When they hear leadership say work-life balance is essential, they need to see that we back it up in our vacation and personal leave policies. When they hear me say their long-term financial success is paramount, they need to see it in our retirement and profit-sharing plans. When we call ourselves a team and say we value entrepreneurial thinking, we need to demonstrate it in our day-to-day interactions, encourage out-of-the-box thinking and not punish risk-taking.

Deeds speak louder than any mission statement ever could. Deeds foster loyalty, enthusiasm and effort. People who are treated well treat people well — customers and co-workers alike. People who are treated well tend to stay, remain engaged and thrive. Better customer relationships, stronger teams, higher productivity, fewer new hires, lower recruiting and training costs, greater operational continuity and deeper institutional knowledge are the consequences of a healthy corporate culture.

Of course, every CEO needs to assess their company’s financial position when translating their “why” into formal policies. Still, I believe they should factor two fundamental questions into their thought process: What kind of people will this help us attract? What will they say about their experience as part of our company?

Allowing For Vulnerability  

My purpose here isn’t to convince you that your “why” should be the same as mine or that one is nobler than another. Instead, it’s to underscore something we already know: we’re all products of our environment. It is unrealistic to think we can pull a CEO persona out of our closet in the morning, put it on like a suit before we go to work and take it off when we get home. We lead as we live.

I constantly challenge myself to devote time to self-discovery and even make myself a little vulnerable. In fact, I believe I have a professional obligation to do so. When a CEO drops his or her pretense of bulletproof self-assurance, we open the door to authentic, open communication across our organization. Imagine the power of a company fueled by plain truth. Imagine the impact on decisions, problem-solving, relationships, teamwork and loyalty.

That’s my “why.” Find yours, and your culture will follow. 


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