The Culture Is Only As Good As The Leader


Has your company culture got a bad case of the Mondays? Is store-bought birthday cake the highlight of your employees’ workday? Do you have company leaders doing the Bill Lumbergh shuffle, strolling amongst the cubicles, coffee cup in hand, looking for missing TPS reports? If so, it might be time to rethink the culture in your office space.

Which Came First: the Leader or the Culture?

A company’s culture is palpable from the moment you step through the front door. Whether it’s a polished establishment, a disruptive startup or an ailing Initech, you get an immediate sense of its energy and style.

There’s a misconception that employees create a company’s culture — how they dress, conduct business and communicate represents the company. If you observed a company’s employees, it would be easy to think they’re both the byproduct of the atmosphere and its creators.

But peel back the layers. You’ll discover that a company’s culture grows, in many ways, from the top down. Leadership is the real root of any organization — the vital source from which all energy, vision, values and style manifest themselves. It’s a direct reflection of a company’s culture. And when leaders forget they’re the ones running the internal machinery, it can lead to a real paper jam.

What You See is What You Get

A company’s culture establishes unwritten rules and norms for how business should be done and how people should interact. So how are you, as a leader, a direct reflection of this culture?

  • You’re the visionary. You set the direction and tone for the company’s personality. Employees want to “fit in” so they take behavioral cues from you. The priorities you set and the way you foster relationships in the office establishes the mindset and guides the behavior of everyone working for you.
  • You’re the gatekeeper. You create internal culture via the people you hire, the information you disseminate and the resources you make available. Externally, you control employee satisfaction, products and services. What you reward and punish sends clear messages about the behaviors you expect from your team.

Leaders who remain aware of their role in shaping the company’s culture to support business objectives will be positioned for success. Costcounderstands this and works hard not to forget it. Founders who don’t acknowledge this often find themselves wondering why they’re stuck in the basement without a paycheck.

Symptoms of a Toxic Culture

As a business owner, certain symptoms in your company’s culture will signal that it’s time to reevaluate your leaders and implement change.

  • Disinterest: Look for declining performance in financials, production or compliance. When you see that once-successful behaviors are no longer working, it’s time to reevaluate what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
  • Resistance to Change: Getting leadership and employees to change the way they work can be tough. You can have a beautiful strategy for growth that goes nowhere because people can’t — or won’t — adapt to a changing environment.
  • Bad Habits: A toxic company culture evolves out of a leadership holding onto the “right” way of doing business, even though that way no longer serves the company strategy. Stuck management is a recipe for unhappy, unmotivated and disengaged employees.

Healthy Leaders, Healthy Culture

Leadership ultimately determines the culture of a company. You develop it, foster it and maintain it — good or bad. But if you’re the creator of an unhealthy culture, you can also be its cure.

If management is the source of toxic culture, work with your leaders both in groups and individually to intervene and get things back on track. Provide both leaders and employees with a safe space to share their thoughts about company culture and strategy. It’s important to remember that you’re dealing with ingrained beliefs, values and assumptions about how business should be conducted. These must be challenged in order to transition to a new cultural mindset.

Be an honest advocate for the change effort. Bring in an objective expert. Engage all members of the company in open dialogue and talk about culture and how it affects performance. Model the behaviors you want to see in your leadership and employees. Reward those behaviors that align with your vision and the company’s success, and remove the ones that don’t.

Be the visionary, and while you’re at it, ditch the TPS reports.

ByChris CancialosiManaging Partner and Founder at gothamCulture