The Importance of Embodying Your Company’s Culture Through Leadership
BY, MHI CHIEF MARKETING OFFICER
With the war for talent at a fever pitch across every level, more organizations than ever before are prioritizing culture as a means to both attract and retain employees, from the front lines to upper management. Yet with the onset of the Great Resignation, the role of leaders, supervisors and managers in cultivating and propagating that culture—and bolstering retention—has come under greater scrutiny. There is, after all, the saying that “people don’t quit companies, they quit managers.”
The importance of culture is “massive right now,” said Alain Hunkins, author of Cracking the Leadership Code and CEO of Hunkins Leadership Group. “As a result of the pandemic, employees are taking their human values much more seriously and are expecting their employers to do the same. Otherwise, they will look for better opportunities.”
That’s why culture has become so important, Hunkins continued. “Culture has been described as ‘the way we do things around here.’ That boils down to, ‘how do we feel?’ Because human behavior is driven by emotion. Culture creates the employee experience.”
Leaders are the standard bearers of a positive culture, he asserted. If an employee’s experience includes direct supervisors who don’t respect their opinion, don’t value their contributions, refuse to make time for them on their calendars, send emails late at night and over the weekend that demand immediate responses, and only provide negative feedback, then workers are far more likely to look for a new job.
“Leadership is a relationship between two people, and the judge of the quality of that relationship is the person who chooses to follow,” noted Hunkins. “With the technology and transparency of LinkedIn and GlassDoor readily available today, employees who are no longer engaged because their leader isn’t representing a positive culture will quickly find better options elsewhere.”
What, therefore, can a company do to ensure its leaders are embodying its culture and cultivating an environment that employees don’t want to leave? According to five experts, there are a number of actions that can be taken to help develop leaders into better culture ambassadors. Applying these seven best practices will help an organization significantly slash turnover rates.
1. Develop a Relationship Based on Respect. Managers and supervisors are often the closest representation of a company and its culture to rank-and-file workers, noted Brian Devine, president and CEO, Staffing Leadership Group. The strength of the relationship between those employees and their leaders is therefore of critical importance when it comes to conveying a positive culture.
“A big part of creating a culture that people don’t want to leave is by building a foundation of trust. Managers can do this by demonstrating that they have their employees’ best interests at heart,” he said. “Once they’ve shown that they care, managers have an opportunity to build what I call a ‘professionally personal’ relationship. That level of interaction with their bosses makes it less likely for an employee to leave.”
Leaders can do this by demonstrating respect, acknowledging both the ups and the downs, and expressing appreciation for employees’ efforts. Devine has seen this in action at a large distribution center in Chicago, where the operation’s general manager would stand at the time clock and chat with associates as they punched out.
“He would say things like, ‘Bob, thanks for working hard today.’ ‘Sally, appreciate the effort.’ ‘Joe, how’d your kid’s baseball game go?’” Devine recalled. “He would acknowledge if the shift just missed its production goal but also reassured his associates that he was sure they’d hit it tomorrow, then shared how much he appreciated each one being there and their effort. That’s the last impression workers took with them as they walked out the door that day—that the boss cared enough to thank them. It’s that basic.”
2. Practice Servant Leadership. Traditionally, the managerial approach would be to tell someone to do a job and reprimand them if it wasn’t done to the supervisor’s satisfaction. However, with today’s emphasis on culture, managers need to become servant leaders, advised Phil Gautrin, CEO USA at Proaction International.
“Leaders who only talk to their people when there are problems create a culture of fear. But the servant leader is one who routinely checks in with their employees to make sure they have everything they need to meet expectations,” he said. “Perhaps they need more training, or there’s redundancy in certain processes that are generating non-value add, or they need specialized equipment to help reduce fatigue.”
Leaders who actively spend time on the floor, regularly talking with employees, soliciting their ideas for improvement, and then implementing the suggested changes demonstrate that they are at the service of their people. “This fosters greater loyalty,” Gautrin continued.
3. Communicate Continuously. It may sound simplistic, but frequent and ongoing communication between leaders and their employees is critical in embodying a positive culture, said Gautrin.
“In many cases, leaders only see their people to give them the tasks for the week, then see them a week later to issue the next assignments. Instead, it needs to be multiple times during the same day that a leader connects with their people, not just about the work, but as a means to bridge the gaps in culture from the topline leaders to the frontline workers,” he explained.
Annette Danek-Akey, executive vice president of supply chain at Penguin Random House, has made a concerted effort to share her company’s core values with not only her immediate reports, but also to all the employees under her.
“I regularly get in front of every employee to review our values and company fundamentals,” she explained. “By repeating your core values and answering questions about them over and over, it really sinks in, and the core values become a natural part of my day-to-day. The added bonus is that your presentation and improvisational skills will also improve.”
She advises her direct reports to do the same but cautions that if a supervisor is managing too many employees, it can be extremely difficult to maintain that commitment to regular dialogue.
“To help your supervisors become better culture ambassadors, review your ratios to determine how many employees each supervisor is managing,” advised Danek-Akey. “Most employees want to have a meaningful conversation with their supervisor every couple of weeks; if they’re managing too many people, those conversations become harder to do.”
Gerald Perritt, managing partner of The Perritt Group, agreed.
“The best companies don’t just talk about culture in meetings. Instead, the senior leaders have a consistent message they’re delivering out in the operation through casual conversations, but with the intent of building culture into employees’ goals and objectives,” he explained. “They’re connecting with associates, asking questions and helping people find meaning and purpose at work by engaging them in solving customer problems, operational problems or productivity problems.”
Sometimes the best way to communicate culture is through leading by example, added Devine. He recalled observing a distribution facility in Atlanta that had recently hired a new general manager, the senior-most position in that operation.
“The day he started, he spent time on the warehouse floor every single day doing whatever needed to be done—picking up trash, straightening a box on a pallet—while he was simultaneously getting to know every employee on every shift and earning their trust,” Devine said. “In asking the hourly associates their opinion about the current culture, every single person told me that the new general manager had made a huge difference. Because he modeled behavior that his supervisors picked up on and set an example for them to follow.”
4. Radiate Positive Energy. Part of creating a positive culture that engages employees and motivates them to stay is leaders who are upbeat, confident and energizing, said Hunkins.
“No one has ever said, ‘What I loved about this leader is how stressed and anxious they were all the time, or how much they used to get angry at us and bark out instructions,’” he chuckled. “Instead, find ways to make positivity a habit.”
For example, leaders should break up big projects into smaller milestones to help employees see and celebrate progress along the way.
“A little win creates a sense of momentum,” Hunkins explained. “Several studies have shown that the number one motivator of human behavior is the feeling of making progress toward a meaningful goal. That can be energizing, which further helps people perform at their best. Fuel their energy by bringing a sense of humor and lightness and joy into the work.”