October 19, 2017

CEOs: 4 tips for setting the tone for great workplace culture

During my vast career in the executive search business, I’ve certainly seen my fair share of organizational cultures and the CEOs that shape them. Needless to say, there are no quick fixes or sure fire prescriptions to assure great cultures. But, there are a few tactics any CEO can implement to improve the likelihood of success when forming or transforming organizational cultures.

Below, I’ve outlined four tips along with real-life examples to showcase them in practice.

Tip one: Craft a message and stick to it. One of the best examples I’ve seen came out of the higher education sector. The organization in question had been mired in a culture that had gone stale, which is not uncommon in academia. However, a new leader walked in and had obviously spent considerable time thinking about first impressions.

First impressions are lasting ones, and I believe that this leader put her best foot forward by crafting a message and sticking to it during the most successful run in the institution’s history. Every single person from the rank-and-file down to the Board of Directors of this university could recite this message, verbatim, not only after the leader’s first day on the job, but also the last one.

Tip two: Don’t forget about hope. This example involves the arrival of a new CEO for an extremely prominent nonprofit organization. Unbeknownst to the market at large, this prestigious organization was failing, financially and otherwise. Even the new CEO did not fully understand the disaster that he had inherited. Of course, this person had to take immediate action to right the ship by instituting cost cuts and restructuring the entire organization.

These actions were painful, but the new CEO added one important variable into the equation: hope. Sure, a new vision was important, too, but expressing and harnessing the emotional concept of hope galvanized employees, funders and volunteers. Today, this community treasure is stronger than at any other point in its history because a CEO recognized that hope was the missing ingredient in the recipe for transformation.

Tip three: Listen. At a multi-billion dollar industrial giant, a new CEO came on board to replace a long standing and beloved owner/CEO. This new CEO spent considerable time determining the true state of the organization’s culture by simply listening to employees.

One of his first actions was to convene an enhanced service award meeting to recognize retired employees and to pay homage to the company’s well engrained culture and long-standing success. Indirectly, the new CEO ingratiated himself not only to the retired employees, but also to present staff members who realized that things were “going to be OK” with a new person in the CEO chair.

Tip four: Create enthusiasm. I saw a CEO walk into an organization that had experienced massive change over 15 years inside of a technology-centric business and industry. A natural reaction would’ve been to calm the waters a bit and provide stability to this company. Instead, the CEO had the foresight to recognize that change was just a part of this organization’s world and fighting it was not an option. So, he painted a picture to the employee populace that they were going to not only embrace change, but eat it for breakfast in the morning. He threw gasoline on the fire to the point that people became more energized than ever before rather than just being exhausted. His secret - interjecting enthusiasm into the workplace.

The takeaways from the above situations demonstrate how you can increase the success of forming or transforming a workplace culture by crafting and staying on message, providing hope, listening and creating enthusiasm to jumpstart a seemingly exhausted workforce. Additionally, in order to create a great culture, a CEO needs to assess the current situation to the nth degree, apply a good dose of intuition and understand that every situation may be different.



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