Corporate Culture – The Genesis

Servant leadership and the essence of corporate well being   

By Paul Max Le Pera

What could be a company’s greatest asset (or liability) is difficult to quantify.It exists, but you cannot touch it; you can see its effects in the form of things like attitude, décor, spirit, protocol, communication and relationship, but you cannot directly see it. But, it can have positive or negative effects, depending on how it is nurtured.

The effects most demonstrably manifest themselves as employee turnover, trust, relationships, job satisfaction, productivity and end-user satisfaction. While it affects every department and employee, it is rarely actively managed. It tends to be dismissed as a “given” or something that just exists that people must conform to. However, there are steps that can be taken to build a quality foundation.

There is a special style of leadership known as “servant leadership” that best establishes the foundation for a healthy corporate culture. Servant leadership focuses primarily on the well-being and paths to grow for its team. Servant leaders will share power, not use it to dominate; they put the needs of others first to help them develop and to become more productive and most willingly so. Essentially, the servant leader is servant first, which instills a sense of self confidence, healthy autonomy and a feeling of appreciation within their team’s sense of self.

With this understanding, it becomes apparent why servant leadership also requires a relatively higher emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is critical to a leader’s ability to stay calm under pressure, readily understand the needs of the team and deliver on them so as to optimize the cohesion and by doing so, help optimize performance.

Every individual adds a component to corporate culture. However, this input is often shaped by the values a company possesses, the degree to which they are shared and enforced, the behavior demonstrated by its leaders and how well down-stream management is aligned and consistently demonstrates the values of servant leadership.

When in harmony, a cohesive team can be one of the company’s most powerful assets. This positive energy among employees is contagious and self-perpetuating. Therefore, servant leaders, at all levels within an organization, serve as the pillars that anchor the corporate culture. It starts at the top and trickles down, permeating every spoken and unspoken variable of the company’s existence.

The healthy change I see growing is that many of today’s leaders focus on establishing and maintaining a healthy corporate culture – they see this as non-negotiable in their duty. They realize that the very thing they are challenged to do, which is deliver results, profits, ROI and happy customers, is best achieved by maintaining happy healthy employees and the very atmosphere that many people devote a significant portion of their waking hours.

You, or outside specialists, can analyze, assess, evaluate and make necessary changes to support positive outcomes, growth, morale and lower turnover, and yet, if the symptoms are fixed but not the root cause, relapse to a declining atmosphere is inevitable.

So when trying to fix chronic tardiness, end high turnover or increase customer satisfaction ratings, for example, the source for these problems must also be identified and fixed, which can be a much more daunting task.

If the leadership primarily looks out for themselves, always needs to look good and be right, fails to lead by example, and/or practices a finger pointing/blaming style of accountability,  problems are likely to persist. Outdated narcissistic leadership styles can be a source for negativity, self-centeredness and even apathy of team members.

Targeting those behaviors without targeting how the leader serves or fails to serve may be a colossal waste of time, energy and money. If the executive is the fulcrum to solving the problems, but is also the root of them, by their very nature, they may not be willing or humble enough to hear or believe they are part of the problem.

Corporate culture is more than just employee attitude, it is also the reinvesting in employees, and showing appreciation, empathy and a degree of servitude by the leaders. As a whole, these items create an atmosphere of safety, a willingness to go the extra mile and a sense of belonging among employees. What ensues tends to be increased productivity, more job satisfaction, decreased turnover and increased customer service. If you can develop a spirit of community, employees are more willing to help one another and pitch in, when they see that their efforts are supporting a greater good than just their weekly paycheck.

A leader’s dream should be to have “super-performing” employees because the leader gave them their time, respect and a caring safe place in which to park a large percentage of their lives. Building a solid corporate culture is also a critical way a leader can remain successful. Although there are many contributing factors to this dynamic, one core truth remains: “Happy employees make happy customers” and therein lies the magic of investing in the emotional and financial well-being of your people.

Foreign-owned companies that establish domestic operations must add successful cultural integration as well as leadership style to create a healthy corporate culture. This dynamic is very powerful and often discarded, for example, under the guise of ignorance or sadly, egotistical bravado by management. Sometimes, the deadly belief pervades that the product, not its people, defines the company. Both are needed and both are of equal importance, with employees often tipping the scale of what is the key driver to company sustainability.

While the United States is a melting pot of many cultures, collectively we have American customs, ideals, morals, ethics and core values around teamwork, religion and interpersonal relations, to name a few. They can be different than much of the world. American-owned and operated businesses have set a standard with respect to working hours, general demands, manner of being addressed and spoken to and expectations of what are “normal” working conditions. Foreign-owned companies who attempt to set foreign values here, disregard the importance of playing by some of the most widely held norms here and may fail to successfully culturally integrate well.

The failure of foreign-owned companies to culturally integrate is pervasive and a dynamic that has played out repeatedly here in the United States. The failure to culturally integrate also stems back to the leadership style and core values. Essentially, servant leadership requires humility, in which there is little room for ego. If the leadership is not mentally tough, emotionally intelligent and, to some extent, spiritually evolved, they may not have the tools to serve others. A genuine care for others, putting others first, rolling up your sleeves and helping, talking to the lowest level employee as often and with the identical respect as the highest are all elements that make servant leadership the single most important KEY to establishing a healthy corporate culture. Here are just a few questions that can help identify items which negatively affect corporate culture:

■Are there gender or other biases in the manner and tone management speaks to their teams?

■Does management do anything to acknowledge their teams around key holidays?

■What does the office environment look like? Is it a dark and quiet, almost sweatshop like atmosphere?

■Do leaders fail to acknowledge the contributions by their employees and need to take the accolades all for themselves?

■Does the leader hire good people and tell them what to do instead of hiring good people who can offer insight to the management about what they should do?

■Does the management provide a safe environment to contribute and provide constructive feedback or is constructive feedback seen as disloyalty, or even insubordination, to the leadership?

One of my favorite definitions of corporate culture is by Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., former CEO of IBM, who said, “Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization’s makeup and success ... I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”

While corporate culture is an intangible asset that can’t be physically touched or seen, its effects can certainly be felt and observed. Establishing and maintaining a healthy corporate culture IS the end game. Once your teams are emotionally vested in their leader, the company and its values, you create super-performing people who feel safe and appreciated. The common attitudes and beliefs of a company’s greatest asset, their people, significantly determine a company’s success. Corporate culture is an asset that requires re-investment and whose ROI is seen as lower turnover, productivity, sense of teamwork, total contribution, and more satisfied and retuning customers. Don’t overlook this important concept if you want a truly successful business.

About the Author

Paul Max Le Pera is president of Global Surfacing Alliance, LLC, a global consulting and product sourcing firm. He can be reached at [email protected]