Building Company Culture: To Make it Work, It’s Gotta Start at the Top

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Aug 22, 2012

Out of everything I read on a daily basis, interviews with CEOs tend to be among my favorites.

Case-in-point: this recent SmartBrief interview with John Taft, CEO of RBC Wealth Management, in which he focused solely on the importance of executives leading the culture of their companies:

Culture is everything when it comes to responsible, long-term business success. Culture is what exists before any given leader shows up, and it’s what exists after any given leader moves on. Culture is in the DNA of an organization. It is not something that a leader necessarily goes out and creates. A leader’s job is to discover, communicate and reinforce culture. If you don’t get culture right, nothing else matters.”

How financial institutions lost their way

In fact, Mr. Taft lays the blame at the feet of failed culture for many of the problems in financial institutions today:

I believe that the financial organizations that have gone astray have done so because they lost touch with their culture. They lost touch with their stewardship mission, purpose, values and responsibilities. Those have always been at the core of the financial services industry. What we need to do today is not so much invent or create a new culture for our industry but find our way back to the culture that should have been there all along.

Most financial services firms have a culture that at some point, somewhere, was about serving the needs of their clients. It wasn’t just about making money. It was about helping clients achieve their objectives, promoting economic growth and performing a social good. Chances are the people at the firm came to the firm because of the chance to make a positive difference in the world. That ethic is embedded in most of the financial institutions I know. We’ve just lost touch with it in too many cases.

Restoring the culture of financial institutions to what it ought to be is the No. 1 leadership challenge right now in the financial services industry. Regulatory reform is not enough. If we are going to keep future financial crises from happening, we have to address cultural failings at the heart of the financial services industry. Whether or not we get it right will be a case study in leadership for years to come.”

“The tempo starts at the top”

This is precisely why our No. 1 tenet of strategic recognition as outlined in our book Winning with a Culture of Recognition is “the tempo starts at the top.” Without senior leadership support, guidance and demonstration of desired behaviors and actions, no employee recognition program can move beyond being a “program” to becoming the basis of your culture.

Or, as Chris Edmonds of the Ken Blanchard Cos. said in a recent SmartBlog post:

“Senior leaders must become champions of their desired culture, investing time and energy each week in proactive culture management. Responsibility for corporate culture cannot be delegated to subordinates; the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of senior leaders.”

Who is in charge of the culture of your organization?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.