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A fish rots from the head down – and so does your culture.

What does “a fish rots from the head down” mean? It means that the problem starts at the top, that the problems, failures, issues, toxicity, etc. in your organization – or any organization – start with the leadership team.

Senior leaders and executives: take a good, hard look at how you and your colleagues act, behave, make decisions, walk the walk/talk the talk, live the values, etc. How would you feel if your employees did what you just did? If you say, “Great!” Kudos to you. But if you scratch your head and think that what you do is fine because you lead a team or lead the company – but wouldn’t want your employees to act the same way – you are wrong. Everyone in your company must live by the same standards, by the same values.

That’s how cultures are purposely created. That’s how cultures are sustained. That’s how cultures are transformed.

Culture is like the wind. It is invisible; yet its effect can be seen and felt.
-Bryan Walker, Partner and Managing Director, IDEO

Leaders must model the behavior they want to see – this is where the real culture transformation begins. Because, metaphorically speaking, “What’s good for the goose (leader) is good for the gander (employee).” In other words, if you, as a leader, want employees to act a certain way, then you must live the values, lead, model, and show them what the right or acceptable behavior is. And only then does culture become “how employees act when the CEO isn’t looking.” Because, let’s face it, most of the time the CEO is not there, looking over an employee’s shoulders. But if employees see that executives put themselves “above the law,” forget it; that’s a major culture fail.

If you’re in the midst of transforming your business to a customer-focused/customer-centric culture, then employees look to you for what that means. It means that you’ll…

  • create meeting agendas that always include customer experience and employee experience topics and metrics, customer and employee stories, etc.
  • walk around the office, talking to employees and asking them about their work days, their careers, their passions, their lives, their jobs, etc., ensuring they have everything they need to have a great experience, and letting them know how their work matters and that you care about them as humans (not just cogs in your wheel to success, as Bob Chapman notes)
  • motivate and inspire employees to do their best work – and to deliver the best for your customers 
  • empower employees
  • listen to employees and to customers – and act on their feedback 
  • communicate with employees openly and candidly – about the vision, the purpose, the mission, the strategy, the business, etc.
  • visit customers regularly to understand their experiences – and act on what you learn
  • field calls from customers and mystery shop your own phone lines to ensure that the customer experience is what you expect it to be
  • deliver regular company updates via email and/or video that always incorporate some mention of employees and customers, their importance to the business, great things they’ve done or are doing, and how the CX vision and strategy are moving forward
  • develop core values that support this customer-focused/customer-centric culture
  • talk about and live the core values, always!
  • recognize and reward employees for the behaviors that drive great customer experiences
  • ensure all employees know that they impact the customer and the customer experience (and how)
  • consider the impact of all decisions – yours and the ones that your employees make – on the customer and her experience
  • make decisions through a “people-first” lens 
  • and more!

Remember this: the things you talk about a lot are deemed important to employees, and employees realize the things you don’t talk about are inconsequential.

Don’t let your culture rot from the head down. If you, company leader, do these things, it sets the tone for your employees. They’ll get it. They’ll see that you mean business. But if you never do any of the things listed above, your employees won’t believe that they – or your customers – are important or that there’s any kind of transformation underway.

When employees have confidence in their leadership team and the mission they’ve undertaken to transform the business, they buy in, they believe, and they align with you and with the goals of the transformation, of the organization.

When employees align with senior leaders and with the mission, when everyone is working together and focused on the same goals, then the real magic can happen.

Why is culture so important to a business? Here is a simple way to frame it. The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. -Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO, Airbnb