Michael left the office early for once. He was on his way home to celebrate the position he had just accepted at a new company. After 25 years of hard work and great personal sacrifice, he finally got the VP position he felt he deserved. He had more than enough experience to step into the role and produce solid wins for his new employer. Everything was moving along smoothly until that night when he got the call from the executive recruiter. There was a problem with background check they just completed. They couldn’t find record of him having completed his MBA. He recognized that when he presented his credentials, he neglected to mention that he was two classes short of graduation, but he felt that his vast experience more than made up for that. Unfortunately for him, his new employer disagreed. The offer was withdrawn, not because he lacked the degree, but because he hadn’t come clean about it.
Joan was celebrating for a different reason. Her team exceeded their stretch sales target for the fiscal year, a herculean effort on the part of everyone. Her leadership, strategic planning, and ability to pull the group together to find innovative approaches to problems had paid off. This news would be well received by investors and provide her and the team with a significant bonus opportunity. The president called and asked her to stop by his office. As she walked down the hall to see him, she imagined his congratulatory words. She might even get a promotion! But when she opened the door and saw a somber look on his face, and the HR VP already present, she knew the message was going to be very different. Someone had reported a few irregularities in Joan’s sales tactics. She had simply taken a bit of interpretive license in several guidelines, just a gray area that didn’t hurt anyone. But the president didn’t see it as a minor issue. And he dismissed her on the spot for her lack of integrity.
Both executives violated the core values that defined acceptable behavior in their organizations. And these core values are the fundamental underpinnings of establishing and maintaining a certain tone at the top. These senior leaders were held to particularly high standards because they were expected to be the models for how team members should act in a variety of situations.
There are many articles that talk about building a culture of innovation or collaboration in workplaces. They talk about characteristics of making a company a great place to work. But there are a few critical elements that make the place fit for work. These are the 3 C’s, the basic ingredients of establishing each organization’s tone at the top. Just like flour is a basic ingredient in baking a cake, and a power source is a basic ingredient in a vehicle; character, civility and commitment are basic ingredients for establishing tone at the top.
Let’s Learn More about Them
Character – Character is the way a person thinks, feels and behaves. It’s a representation of their ethical traits, based on their personality, which tends to be stable over a lifetime. Character governs how you treat others, how you handle adversity, your measure of integrity, what motivates you, and what you do when no one is looking. Some leaders hire for capability over character. I recommend hiring for character over capability. Capabilities can be learned and improved. Character goes to the core of the candidate’s values, and is harder to change. Individuals with character flaws may be able to mask it for a while by complying with accepted behavioral norms, but sooner or later, as they’re faced with situations and choices, coupled with increasing power in the company, it will be revealed.
Civility – Social media and the 24/7 news cycles have had an unfortunate effect on what used to be respectful discussions. It has amplified disagreements by providing an accessible platform for dissenting opinions, and enabled instant feedback on every bit of information available. People engaging in public and free speech have become more uninhibited in using hateful, negative and critical tones with one another. While we must understand and recognize the variety of opinions that exist, in order for organizations to function, we must learn to disagree agreeably. That means, respecting others’ rights to have varying points of view. It also means that where possible, we should find areas of shared agreement and explore the reasons behind our differences, to achieve workable solutions. Life is full of compromises, that require understanding, and respect. The ability to listen to one another and to engage in civil discussion around diverse perspectives is a critical element for individuals to grow and develop as a team. It will support their growth towards innovating new solutions and performing at a higher level.
Commitment – A key responsibility of leadership is demonstrating a commitment to compliance with external laws, regulations and policies governing their business, and putting proper internal controls in place to ensure fulfillment and transparency. More than just paying lip service or going through the motions, they must ensure employees understand this as part of the embedded values of the organization. Violating such controls may be illegal, immoral, unethical or simply unwise. And while there are obviously some gray areas of interpretation, intent and actions are key factors. One impactful way to communicate the range of acceptable behaviors is through using the power of storytelling. Effective leaders use impromptu settings and situations to speak to employees about the organization’s commitment to doing the right thing. They make it clear to their teams that they prefer to hear the bad news of the business, rather than implying that employees should take steps to inappropriately fix or fake things to create an acceptable report. While some leaders may not overtly take a negative action, they’ve set a tone with their team that it’s OK to stretch the truth or interpret the law or rule differently to achieve the desired outcome.
So Set the Tone
This tone at the top starts with the Board, the CEO and the senior leadership team. They establish the environment and hold themselves and others accountable to it. They identify leadership competencies that align with the desired behaviors, and evaluate performance against it. Their position on these matters must be visible and their behavior transparent. Double standards, disproportionate need to justify decisions, and displaying behaviors that require excessive explaining are all red flags that must be addressed.
Sometimes, establishing and maintaining the tone at the top requires tough decisions, like negatively impacting an otherwise high performing leader. Or publicly addressing a behavioral issue that a predecessor failed to deal with effectively. But doing so makes a bold statement; one that becomes imprinted on the team as a positive example of the leader’s and organization’s values.
So what tone are YOU setting at the top of your organization?