by Joyce Lai, MPsy
This series was originally completed as a Thesis in partial fulfillment of Adler Graduate Professional School’s Master of Psychology degree. Joyce Lai is a PsyD candidate at the Professional School of Psychology.
5.1 Participant Demographics
All the participants were male. All held roles as CEO (or equivalent) at the time of the study and were based in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). All participants had at least 10 years of leadership experience, and all were within the 50 to 70 age group.
5.2 Interview Theme Results
In reviewing the transcripts for evidence of common leadership themes and behaviours among the six participants, it became apparent their influence was key in fostering culture, engagement, customer relationships, and overall long-term health/success of the organization. The interviews revealed a number of common themes and are grouped in the following Adlerian constructs: social interest, purposive behaviours and lastly encouragement.
5.2.1 Social Interest
When participants were asked to describe their company’s culture, they all had no hesitation, and appeared familiar, in describing their work environment. Unanimously, each participant described his work environment as being informal, flat, open, collegial and easy going with low turnover. Employees have access to senior management and leadership teams and there is a high degree of transparency in communication.
It’s an informal environment, so people are comfortable. People walk into my office, I walk everywhere, and everybody else does. It’s a very, very easygoing environment. It’s not formal, not bureaucratic, not autocratic. People feel like they can say what they want, so they feel heard. They feel like they’re contributing, they feel like they’re an important part of the team.
I would say we are a flat organization in the sense that we don’t have layers of management so it’s a very open culture because our team at different levels gets to interact with senior management, right up to the ownership level, which would be and I. And has the opportunity to interact directly, at certain levels, with our client base. So, it’s not a siloed organizational structure. We’re big enough to do big deals but we’re small enough that we can have a very collegial flat sort of cultural organization where everybody gets a little more… they see more of the organization, they see more of the transaction flow than you might expect in a bigger siloed shop.
Our three values are treat others the way you want to be treated. About being innovative and entrepreneurial, about believing in long-term relationships for both our clients and our employees… I mean, it’s a client-centric organization that will do the things that are in the best interest of our clients in the long-term. We will make the right long terms decisions. We are going to be creative and entrepreneurial, and we’ll find ways to say yes and make things work. We’re going to innovative and come up new products and things. And all the way through it, we’re going to do it being nice to each other… And to be honest, I think a large part of how we have been successful.
When asked about their role in fostering such a culture, participants described modeling behaviour or leading by example. In other words, these leaders “walked the walk & talked the
I think it’s modeling behaviour. I’ve always been believer in the fact that you have to … It’s great to be able to articulate something, but if you live it, if you exhibit it, then you have the opportunity to perpetuate it and institutionalize it.
It goes back to talking the talk and walking the walk. That I can’t ask them to do something I wouldn’t do. And, also have to respect that they’re working hard to make sure that we reward them at some type of a level, where we’re giving them a reward for the hard work that they’re putting in, and we’re not taking advantage of them. That’s something that we can’t have. We can’t them make bricks without straw.
I think the leader’s role is just to make sure that, one, it’s front and center, that two, people know what it is, that people realize that our leaders live and breathe. Again, it can’t be something just up on the wall.
Leaders have self-awareness and are also aware that their teams are looking to them for direction. Leaders are being observed and evaluated by their actions. Therefore, a leader’s accountability and awareness are key contributors to gaining an employee’s respect and trust.
To be a good leader, you have to realize that people are looking up at you, people are looking for direction, they’re looking for leadership, they want it as well. A team really wants leadership, whether it’s just from the top, but it’s at every level. If you’re my boss, I’m looking to you for leadership and if you have a boss you should be looking to it, and everybody’s looking up. As a leader, you have to be accountable for what you say, how you behave, and if you’re not leading, if they see that you’re not providing leadership or direction or managing people properly, whether that’s promoting them or exiting them or getting things done, your staff loses respect. Your team loses respect.
But as the leader, just remember that people are looking up, and they’re looking for that direction and they’re listening to what you say, even when you don’t think it. It’s easy to be casual, it’s easy to be cavalier, it’s easy to be condescending, it’s easy to be anything and not really mean it and then you’re sending a message that you don’t even know you’re sending downstream. Then if you send that message that’s not an empowering message people go, “Oh, well, I guess he doesn’t care, that doesn’t make sense,” and then all of a sudden people start to behave in a different way instead of everybody building, charging up together based on, it’s a self-awareness. I don’t think a lot of leaders realize how important it is for them to behave a certain way because people are looking for that.
Oh, sure. Look, the practical reality is that while you may work for an organization, everything ultimately is personal, right? You know, the organization may be going through a tough time and you may be asked to articulate a company position or do something that you know is in the best interest of the company, but when it’s all said and done, you’re going to say, “You know, that’s great, but what does it mean to me? What does it mean to me?” That has nothing to do with being selfish or anything like that.
That’s just the real world. To the extent that initiatives, or decisions, or programs, or policies impact different people, you got to be sensitive enough to understand what that means. I don’t give a doggone if that’s a small company or a large company. You know, large companies are layered with managerial infrastructures and things like that. It’s incumbent upon everyone to make sure … I mean, you hear out there politics is local and politics is personal, well, business is personal, too. It’s really personal. You know, the rah-rah-sis-boom-bah for the company, you know, always good for the company goes a distance, make no mistake. But when you’re riding home in your car, or you’re sitting on the bus or the train going back home, and you got to pay your rent, you got to put food on the table, you want to buy a nice, you know, a new clothing item or you want to take a trip, that stuff’s personal. You got to be doggone sure that as a leader you’re sensitive to that. Because if not, it gets away from you.
For me [in maintaining a sense of connection with employees], it is getting to know people on a one-on-one basis. And it’s hard. Now that I’m getting to know people, I think that conductivity is critical. And one of my old bosses told me something that is never left, he said, ‘You can bullshit the people above you,’ he says, ‘but you’ll never bullshit the people that work with you or under you.’
They see it… People need to see me for who I am, and I don’t put on pretentious airs. I intentionally kinda dress down and roll up my sleeves and go to work like everybody else. I try to be very approachable.
Employees also want to be assured that their leaders have a proven, tangible track record of success and that there are able to handle ambiguity.
They have to understand where we’re going and they have to understand why we’re gonna do this and not do that. It just starts with this leadership. They have to see tangible evidence of direction and what’s the behaviour pattern of senior management.
My favorite thing that I do, Joyce, is twice a month I sit down with a group of 10 employees selected randomly with no agenda. It’s just a total open session. We tend to, for the most part, do it over a breakfast, but they can ask me any question they want, and those conversations go in a million different directions. I never know what I’m walking into, but I learn so much, and it’s a great opportunity for people to get to meet each other as well. Part of it is not only me connecting with them, but because they’re randomly selected, for the most part people in that room don’t know each other. So they get to know different businesses, different things we do. I think that’s really important as well.
Having the right people on the team is an essential component to having the right culture, making the leader’s role in monitoring the quality of the employees an ongoing task. As one participant described: ensuring the right people are in the organization is not only doing due diligence during the hiring process to ensure applicants are actually are as good as they say they are on paper, but it is also about managing up (if they are high performers) and sometimes out (if they are not a good fit).
If you allow an employee to infect your culture, then the outcome is never going to be very good. What you really want is you want to create … Accolades is really not the right word, but what you want to do is you want to find people who embrace the culture of the organization, who are the culture of the organization, because what happens is that if the prevailing wind of that culture or that view of the organization is positive, then someone new or someone who’s on the fence have a decision to make. Either they’ll get on board or they’ll get, you know, move out of the way because it’s just not going to be … You know, a negative person is never going to last very long in a largely positive organization because they’re never going to be able to embrace that. You have to be very mindful of … I don’t want to say weeding out negativity, but you have to either changing it or providing leadership that allows it to have a positive term. Ultimately, you know, it doesn’t work all the time. Sometimes, you know, you got to dig in and weed that out.
Many of the participants highlighted the importance of the relationship between the organization’s culture (for instance, the attitudes of the people who work in the company) and how that is reflected outwardly i.e. the quality of service delivered to customers, how customers see the organization and ultimately, the company’s brand.
Culture goes hand in hand with brand. You don’t have brand unless you have the correct culture. So this is an evolving culture, where we promoted some veterans, we are bringing in some outside business people that have a strong record of success, and we have great young talent. In order for us to have great brand, in order for us to have great culture, it has to start with the leadership, but it has to happen at the functional level of the organization. It’s got to permeate through.
When asked for an example of a strategic action they have taken along those lines (referring to the previous question about their role in fostering the culture), participants shared stories of proactively “weeding out” those who don’t fit the culture; but also noted that this happens with a lot of communication and full transparency. Employees must understand what is expected of them, how they are evaluated, and the consequences.
Well, I mean, making the hard decision of getting rid of actually, the people that don’t fit in the culture and being a little more proactive in terms of dealing with either, and I shouldn’t say just get rid of them but I performance manage people up or out. I think there’s, you’ve gotta be proactive when you see that there’s a challenged employee or a challenged situation. And you wanna work to manage that person up into being able to perform or to the point where you manage them out. And at the point where you manage them effectively to the point where you as a leader have determined that they don’t perform, they also understand that they don’t perform. Cause they now understand what the expectation has been and it’s no surprise to them when they’re gone or when you have to tell them it’s time to move on.
Not only are you communicating constantly what the mission is and reminding people of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and then measuring how they’re achieving it is really important. As you measure it, you can actually course correct relatively quickly if things aren’t progressing as they are.
In order for participants to maintain a sense of connection among employees and work toward a common goal, these leaders created an environment where employees can see them, have access to them, engage with them and can be evaluated by them (in the office, with clients, in action in a transaction). Employees also know that leaders notice and listen to them.
I think because it’s a flatter organization, we’re in contact with the team on a more regular basis and it’s probably because we’re a transaction company that we touch these people on a regular basis. We just make an effort, I make an effort to be in front of our team and it’s daily. The doors are open, anyone can come in and everybody knows that wants to know this, and wants to know that. They know that they’re empowered, but then they come in for a little check. We know we have regular meetings, we’re not a very formal organization, but we do have certain weekly get-togethers. Then we just have some real social, we spend a lot of social time, crack a bottle of wine at the end of the day if we want. It doesn’t even have to be a Friday. Come on guys, let’s go. We bring in food, we take people out for different lunches. If I’m not here one day but decided to come in and the next morning you’ll see all the wine glasses in the kitchen you go, “All right, well, we had some wine.” But, people like that, that’s how people live.
Participants also emphasized, it is how leaders make employees feel important as individuals that matters. Further, participants mentioned that when employees love their work and are clear about their values and contributions to the bigger picture, then it helps set them up for success in their roles.
I am still a believer and very much a believer in hands-on. I can influence you a little bit over the phone during this conversation, but if you were sitting across from me, you’d be evaluating my body language. You’d be evaluating my eye contact. You’d be evaluating how I put myself together and whether this was meaningful or whether I was looking at my watch or staring into space and things like that. I think all of those things are measures of your ability to engage and how important it is. By the way, if during this conversation you don’t get the sense from me that you’re the most important thing that I have to do right now, then it becomes a factor in your whole decision-making process as you go forward.
I honestly think the majority of motivation of people that work here is they wake up every single day thinking, “How do I improve lives? How do I make a difference in the world, and how do I improve the business for my clients because I’m consulting with them or supporting them or something like that?” I think it’s keeping that front and center. I think it’s giving people permission to structure their days and structure their work and structure their priorities around it. I think it’s setting the vision. It’s being clear with people about the strategy. It’s talking to them about how they fit and how their work fits in the strategy. I think it really does come down to clear vision, clear purpose, communicating regularly with people, and then getting out of their way so they can get their work done.