Leadership Perspective: You’ll Fall Short Unless You Keep “And” in Mind

By Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin

Even if you have a great culture, a whip-smart strategy, and undeniable presence in the market, you will still fall short of great company standards if you don’t keep your focus on the and.

Leaders who get it right execute on a strategy that takes into account the needs of their consumers and the needs of their employees. They recognize the importance of creating a product that both consumers and employees can feel good about. They realize that employees are key to creating a strategy that works and a customer experience that keeps them coming back.

We interviewed dozens of leaders for this book, many of whom have appeared throughout its chapters. On your behalf, we asked for advice. Specifically, we asked: What would you tell someone about your role as a leader? What is the importance of building trust? What have you learned from mistakes along the way?

While we weren’t surprised by leaders’ answers, they inspired us. We also surmised yet another key leader imperative: Great leaders are balanced in their approach to culture. They see their role as a leader as an important one, but they don’t falsely believe they can singlehandedly create or maintain a culture. And, while they take visible and decisive action, they also recognize that the fruits of their labors won’t appear overnight.

While leaders in recognized companies are as different as you’d expect them to be, their comments on what it takes to create a great workplace reflect a balance of the tensions between responsibility and humility, between passion and patience, and between relationships and results. Great leaders don’t choose one or the other; they balance both perspectives.

The First Balance: Responsibility and humility

Many of the leaders we interviewed could define their job in their organizations’ cultures clearly. They understand their important responsibility in creating and maintaining great workplaces, and rise to the challenges it brings. But they also know they can’t do it alone.

Great places to work have strong relationships, which means that everyone needs to be involved in building that great workplace. Great leaders make sure managers, supervisors, and employees understand their roles as well, and that the effort to build a great workplace is a group endeavor.

When describing her role in culture, Terri Kelly, CEO at W. L. Gore & Associates, says:

I feel fundamentally that making sure that the culture evolves in a healthy way — stewardship of the culture — is one of the most important roles that I play. It’s very tricky. You’ve got to be able to adapt where you need to adapt to meet the business challenges, without losing the core of the company. So making a judgment about where we are on that line — of supporting the fundamental beliefs, but not getting behind and not having the culture hold you back—I don’t think you can delegate that. You’ve got to have a very hands-on role. I put quite a bit of time into stewarding the culture, communicating the values, making sure our leaders live up to those values, and evolving our practices to make sure they meet today’s challenges.”

Keith Oden at Camden Property Trust also speaks about his personal commitment to creating a strong culture:

If you are committed to a great workplace, you can’t kick it to HR or form some working group. You have to lead the charge. Now, it doesn’t mean that you have to lift every bale and tote every barge, but you have to make the commitment and then enroll your senior executives. It has to be top-down in terms of commitment. Grassroots efforts are great, but for something like this, a change in a company’s culture, you have to make a commitment, and it has to be a very visible commitment.”

As a leader, you must accept responsibility for your role in culture. You are the chief role model and trust builder, and people look to your behavior and decisions for guidance on their own behavior and decision making. But you also need some degree of humility that allows you to reach out and enlist people. Your responsibility needs to become everyone’s responsibility if you want to create a great workplace.

The Second Balance: Passion and patience

Leaders at great workplaces put a priority upon people, not to the exclusion of strategy and marketplace, but as an important cornerstone of the organizations’ success. They see the success of their companies as intimately tied to the health of their workplaces, and they want to take decisive action in order to make positive changes. They also know that building relationships takes time; it doesn’t happen overnight.

No matter their role, leaders at great workplaces are passionate about how their work helps the companies to succeed. Though Vic Buzachero at Scripps Health rarely makes direct contact with a patient, he understands how he contributes. “My role is to really help to deliver outstanding patient care, and one tool is having an outstanding workforce and outstanding talent.”

While Buzachero’s comment shows he understands how strategies and people are linked, Patrick O’Brien, President of Developed Markets at SC Johnson, talks about the importance of communicating that link.

Having a great place to work is a driver of key business results. It makes us a sustainable, strong concern for the long term. So, as I look back on my early mistakes, I could have done a better job at linking it — the more people are engaged, the more they’re involved, the more they’re going to be committed, the more we’re going to get better results.”

Balancing passion is patience. Great leaders are passionate about creating and maintaining a strong culture, but they know it doesn’t happen quickly, and that it can take months or even years of activity before the culture shifts. Thomas Holder, CEO of Atlanta-based Holder Construction, says it this way,

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I don’t think it happens overnight. I think it’s years and years of demonstrating your value system. I think if you have an organization that is not going so well, and you walk in and say, ‘Okay, today we are going to have a strong value system, and this is going to be a great place to work’ — forget that. You have to live it first. To get your people to buy into it, they have got to see you walk the walk, not only talk the talk, and they’ve got to believe it. The important thing for me is you have got to live it every day.”

The Third Balance: People and results

Leaders at great workplaces advise you to strike one last balance in your perspective: people and results.

Here, we refer to the leader’s people perspective as the keen understanding of the importance of people to the success of the enterprise. Behind every job description there is a person, and behind every organizational accomplishment there is a team of dedicated people.

But while grateful for employees’ contributions, leaders at great workplaces make their expectations for success clear and hold people accountable for results. Err on the people side, and your organization may be fun and caring, but not productive. Err on the results side, and goals are met, but people live in a state of burnout and fear.

As a leader, you need to be sure your managers understand this balance. You need to hold people accountable for great results, but also ensure that they are building a workgroup culture that values its people.

Mike Davis, SVP of Human Resources at General Mills, explained to us that their leaders are given regular feedback on their performance, and are required to attend to the people side of their operation. He told us,

Almost any time we take a leader out of their role, it’s not because of performance, it’s because he or she is failing fundamentally in the human side of what it is we’re expecting him or her to do. When you think about it, when you put somebody in a role where they are responsible for other people, there is no more precious thing you can do. We take that pretty seriously. If you’re in a people role, every three years at a minimum, you get feedback from those who work with you about how you’re doing. Anybody who’s in a managerial position goes through some level of centralized training. We owe people a minimum of a good, and hopefully great, boss.”

At Camden, managers are held accountable because everyone in the organization is trained on what they should expect of their leaders. As Cindy Scharringhausen from Camden tells us,

Creating a great workplace is ultimately accomplished through total commitment. We see it from the top down and from the bottom up. People are judged on their ability to maintain our culture. You know as a manager what you are accountable for. When you train people on the front lines to know what the culture should be, they can tell us when their manager isn’t doing it.”

The point of view you have as a leader sets the tone for the entire organization. Your commitment to the organization’s values is important, as is your passion about the role of people in your success.

But these must be balanced with the belief that you can’t create a culture on your own, and it’s not going to happen overnight and without some degree of accountability. Once you’ve determined your own personal blend of responsibility, humility, passion, patience, people, and results, you can begin to put what you’ve learned into practice.

Excerpted from The Great Workplace: How to Build It, How to Keep It, And Why It Matters by Michael Burchell and Jennifer Robin. Copyright © 2011 by The Great Places to Work Institute, Inc. Published by Josey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA. 94103. Used with permission. All rights reserved. http://www.joseybass.com

Michael Burchell is a corporate vice president with the Great Places to Work Institute and a partner in the Institute's UAE affiliate. Prior to joining the Institute he focused on workplace development issues at W.L. Gore & Associates. Jennifer Robin is a Research Fellow at the Great Place to Work Institute. She currently teaches at Bradley University.

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