Worried about your company culture? 
Look at your CEO’s habits

Staff model their behaviour on that of their CEO, so you need to make sure that your company figurehead is leading by example, writes Nicholas Barnett.

Who is responsible for creating and maintaining a constructive organisational culture, providing appropriate leadership and delivering compelling messaging? The universal answer is the CEO. Yes, the board is ultimately responsible and yes, the leadership team has a role, but the primary responsibility rests with the CEO.

CEOs are accountable for the culture and performance of their organisations and the outlook for employees with regard to their jobs. This realisation is empowering, but to some it can also be disconcerting. If things aren’t going so well, if employees aren’t really putting in, or if there is a whole lot of negativity in the workplace, it is all too easy to blame it on your employees or on other circumstances.

If you aren’t happy with your organisation’s culture, environment and the approach of your employees, take a good look at your CEO and their habits. Your organisation’s culture is a reflection of your CEO, his or her aspirations, messaging, values and behaviours.

Everyone is watching the CEO

If CEOs say one thing and do another we shouldn’t be surprised if employees model their actions rather than follow their words. Great CEOs have 100 per cent alignment between words and actions. They understand that actions are just as important, if not more important, than words in communicating to employees what is appropriate and what is not.

Great CEOs not only connect with the minds, but also with the hearts and emotions of employees. Such leaders are able to communicate a compelling and inspiring vision for your organisation’s future. They also understand that their behaviours need to be of the highest standards, and that employees are forever watching and taking cues from them. The best CEOs guard against doing even the most minor thing that would undo all their great work. They are absolutely consistent and, therefore, their behaviours are totally predictable.

Inaction speaks loudly too

A CEO I know occasionally shares the story of the time he pulled up a staff member for sending what he thought was an inappropriate email soon after he started. The behaviour that had been acceptable up until then was suddenly considered unacceptable and the relevant person knew it. The amazing part was that the culprit let a few other people know and the story about what was now considered unacceptable went around the organisation like wildfire, including through other state offices. The CEO didn’t have to say another word. A new cultural norm had been set and continued from that time on.

The CEO recounts the story not so much to boast about the high bar he had set in relation to that particular matter but more because he shudders to think what might have happened if that person had not been pulled up. Inaction would have sent a very loud but different message to staff.

Engage the heart as well as the mind

Many organisations are ineffective at bringing about organisational change because, despite developing a rational case for change, they never connect with or engage employees in a way that moves their emotions and creates a heartfelt desire for change.

A well-known chairman of a global organisation advised that he was having trouble working out why his extremely intelligent and competent new CEO was not as effective as he had expected. The chairman later concluded that the CEO was not able to adequately connect with the organisation’s employees as he ‘didn’t love his people.’ The CEO had treated the employees as numbers or units of labour, and the employees had noticed and withdrawn their emotional support.

Demonstrate you care for your employees

Research shows that caring for your employees is the single biggest driver of employee engagement. That is, if you want to increase employee engagement, the single biggest impact will come from CEOs ensuring that the culture of the organisation is one that demonstrates care for employees. This must, of course, be done and be seen to be done in an authentic way.

Care for a workforce is demonstrated in many ways, such as actively listening to your employees and genuinely valuing their opinions. Again, it will be obvious to your employees if you value their opinions. If you value them, you’ll give them regular and constructive feedback and ensure that this is a crucial component of your organisation’s culture. You’ll also ensure that you develop a constructive and supportive organisational culture in which employees are encouraged to reach their true potential and thrive.

You will also ensure that your organisation does not tolerate bullying and harassment and that all employees are treated with the same dignity and respect. A senior female executive I know was bullied and harassed. She reported it through the appropriate channels but nothing was done to support her or to deal with the perpetrator. After many months she had to take a significant break from work and never returned. It became clear to her that her employer did not care for her or other employees. The organisation was made aware of the bullying and harassment and chose to do nothing about it. This ended up being very costly for the employer and very damaging to the employee. It could have been so easily avoided.

Show you are serious (assuming you are)

Employees will ask themselves whether their CEO is serious about many aspects of their work before they apply themselves to a particular task. This is true in relation to just about every aspect of work that you can think of, including values and behaviours, employee engagement, customer engagement, productivity, innovation, risk management, high performance, etc. Employees will take their cues from the CEO.

A head of HR I know had spent an hour taking senior executives through some critical new organisation OH&S initiatives prior to a strategy session that the CEO was due to lead. After the session with the head of HR the CEO said: ‘now we’ve got that compliance session out of the way we can get down to the real business’ and continued with his talk. Without even understanding the full consequences of his words he undermined the important efforts of the head of HR and made it very clear to those present that OH&S was not a priority for him no matter what he might say or do in the future.

CEOs can set a high bar – and keep it there

Your CEO will set the height of the bar in relation to the values, behaviours, performance and risk management in your organisation. CEOs need to be absolutely consistent in their words, actions and behaviours. If they are inconsistent or if their bar isn’t kept consistently at a high level employees will adjust their efforts to the lower bar.

It is very unlikely that the CEO’s leadership team will set a higher bar than the CEO. It is also unlikely that the bar set by those who report to the leadership team will be set at a higher level than the bar set by the leadership team and so on. Expectations are cascaded down through an organisation.


Nicholas Barnett is a director, business leader and strategist with over 35 years’ experience. He is CEO of Insync Surveys.  He is the author of the book, 7 Business Habits That Drive High Performance (Major Street Publishing, $29.99) which can be purchased here. insyncsurveys.com.au