How Great Leaders Cultivate Thriving Company Cultures

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The term “company culture” is commonplace corporate jargon these days. In recent years, it has referred more to healthy snacks, foosball tournaments, and unlimited PTO than purpose-driven belonging, shared vision, or a sense of trust. But times are changing as we all re-emerge into hybrid or fully-virtual workforces, with increased awareness around diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

What role does leadership play in driving company culture? (Hint: A big one.) Yep, leadership plays a starring role in creating and nurturing company culture. As Simon Sinek points out in his book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, “Leadership is not a rank, it is a responsibility. Leadership is not about being in charge, it is about taking care of those in your charge.” 

Let’s take a look at 4 principles we believe nurture effective leadership and cultivate a thriving company culture. 

1. Walk Your Talk

If you have spent any time around children, you have quickly learned that “Do as I say, not as I do,” is not effective. They are like little sponges, absorbing everything you do at the speed of light. Meanwhile, what you tell them to do seems to go in one ear and out the other. 

In your company, it’s a bit similar. While your employees are not children, they will rarely—if ever—create and live the company culture you desire without a little guidance. And that creation rests on your shoulders. Just like the children learning from your actions and behavior, so does your team and it shapes the very culture of your organization. If you want the culture to reflect particular values like diversity, equity, and inclusion, demonstrate those values in your actions. That will not only inspire your employees, but it will also create trust that gives you more authority when you implement ideas and strategies to build company culture.

However, this shouldn’t be a monologue starring you, the leader. It’s much more effective as a dialogue between leadership and employees. Given the opportunity, employees have a lot of valuable insights to share.  

2. Listen With Your Ears, Not Your Mouth

This might seem obvious—really, how would you listen with your mouth? But more people attempt to do so than you might imagine. And when it happens, the missing element is listening. 

Think about it: How many times have you asked yourself when would be the right time to speak while listening to someone else? Someone says something, you have an idea, and now, all you can think is when you will have an opportunity to share your brilliant idea. As a result, your listening goes out the window. 

Listening shapes telling. And telling shapes listening. Just like water being poured into a bowl takes the shape of a bowl. During any conversation or presentation, listening and telling are mutually influential and cannot be separated. At Narativ, we refer to this principle as the reciprocal relationship between listening and telling

It can be tempting as a leader to simply tell your employees how to be or what to do, but if you want to build a culture that is the fabric of your company, then your whole company needs to be active participants. Listening is not only the starting point, it is the through-line. The give and take of listening and telling not only activates genuine idea sharing but it fuses a connection amongst team members that helps to form the foundation of a strong culture. 

On top of choosing to listen, leadership needs to make other sacrifices to build a company culture that will last. Sometimes that means they need to be willing to “eat last.”

3. Be Willing to “Eat Last”

The idea of “eating last” actually originated in the U.S. Marines where the most senior leaders literally ate their meals last. When used as a metaphor in business, it shows a certain willingness to sacrifice and highlights the principle that good leadership puts their employees first. They are willing to give of their time, their energy, and even their money for the greater good of the people they lead.

Though the subject is controversial, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his refusal to go into exile amid repeated Russian invasions is viewed by many as an act of great leadership. In this scenario, he is putting his people first, despite the target on his back. 

It is human to take action to save yourself, so to speak, in moments of fear but it is the sign of a great leader to stand boldly in the face of fear as the first line of defense for his or her employees. Not only is this inspiring, but leadership that is willing to sacrifice and look out for their employees will also create the kind of company culture built on loyalty. And the long-term reward of loyalty far outweighs the short-term risks of eating last. 

4. Be the Man or Woman Behind the Curtain, Not the Wizard

The moment that the dog, Toto, pulls back a curtain with his teeth to reveal “the great and powerful Oz” as a small and meek man behind a curtain is arguably the turning point in the timeless classic, “The Wizard of Oz.” The moral of the story for today’s leaders? 

Don’t be afraid to reveal yourself as a human—flawed and not all-knowing. No one is expecting a wizard. 

Today’s leaders have a responsibility to sit in their own discomfort of not having all the answers. Narativ Co-Founder, Dr. Paul Browde MD recently said that, “Leaders right now need to be willing to sit in that uncertainty, honestly letting people know that they don’t know. Doing this takes courage and vulnerability.

The sign of a great leader isn’t having all the answers, it’s the willingness to say, “I don’t have all the answers.” No one does. It is simply not possible. Society and culture have groomed us all to believe that this is a characteristic you must have to be a great leader. And, in trying to live up to this expectation, many leaders end up creating a facade that is eventually too exhausting to maintain and….some dog reveals them fumbling and fidgeting behind a curtain. 

Start the Building Process Today

Company culture isn’t built overnight, but rather, over time with consistency and adherence to these 4 principles. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we’re happy to share the ones we do.

If you are interested in learning more on how you can train your leadership to promote the company culture you desire we’re happy to talk with you.  

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