What would your job or workforce be like if it was enriched by a more powerful company culture? Michael C. Bush is CEO of Great Place to Work® (GPTW), the global analytical authority on high-trust, high-performance workplace cultures. GPTW produces several annual “Best Workplaces” lists, including the popular Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® list. Bush is also co-author of A Great Place to Work For All. Previously, he was the CEO of Tetra Tech Communications, a billion-dollar global telecommunications infrastructure firm. Here he discusses the vital role of culture in the workplace.
How effective is your company culture when it comes to helping your workforce flex, pivot, and react quickly to disruptive change? How readily do the people in your organization engage with company goals? Or go after innovation opportunities with a strong sense of purpose, instead of just sticking to what they know?
At GPTW, we’ve spent more than 20 years researching what type of experience at work is considered “great” by employees, and how these experiences translate into positive, high-performance cultures.
Compared to their less-great competitors, great workplaces help innovation thrive, bring ideas to life, and ensure people can easily collaborate across the business and the world. They also perform better when it comes to employee retention, agility, customer service, and more. Even more significantly, some research has shown there’s a clear correlation between high-trust cultures, profitability, and growth.
Good things happen when people bring their best to their jobs, thinking up new and better products and processes in their spare time, and going out of their way — with a smile on their face — to serve their customers well.
All of this is especially important in a fast-changing business landscape where — thanks to social and technology changes — what it took to be great 20 years ago doesn’t cut it anymore. Today, information moves more rapidly than ever before, and technology gives any customer or employee the power to be heard worldwide in an instant. The new frontier in business is all about responding faster to a landscape defined by speed and hyper-transparency. To compete effectively, companies need to maximize every ounce of human potential — whatever their employees’ age, gender, race, and job level may be.
So, how are the best workplaces accomplishing this? What are they doing differently to create a great place to work and turn company culture into a competitive advantage?
The first piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating a company culture built for success is leadership. To better understand the role leadership plays in creating great places to work, we dug into data from over 10,000 managers. This helped us identify five distinct leadership levels, which together represent what we call the “For All Leadership Model.”
Our research shows that the higher the level of leadership, the higher the percentage of employees who report they consistently experience a great workplace.
On the bottom rung are the “Unintentional” leaders — people who may have been promoted because they were outstanding individual performers, but didn’t actually want to be in a leadership role. Such leaders can be negative and contribute to high, disruptive turnover and poor performance within teams.
At the pinnacle of leadership are “For All” leaders. They surpass the others by:
“For All” leaders also build positive relationships with all or nearly all of their employees, regardless of personal backgrounds or role, and consistently reinforce the company’s larger vision and goals. Not only do these leaders create a great experience for their people, but their teams benefit from much higher productivity, agility, and retention.
It’s particularly vital to have “For All” leaders on your executive team. In other words, your senior leaders ought to be people who can connect with all employees, who have positive working relationships among themselves and who can create and communicate a clear strategy that cascades throughout the organization.
When executive teams perform well in these ways, the payoff is dramatic. We created an Executive Effectiveness index that measures how employees view senior leaders on matters such as strategic clarity, even-handedness, and authenticity in their relationships. We found the Great Place to Work–Certified companies with the highest scores on this index grew revenue 5X faster than the companies with the lowest scores on the index.
We also measured the extent to which all employees feel included in innovation activities. Here too, we found that involving everyone pays off. We discovered that the companies that best create what we call an “Innovation By All” culture enjoy revenue growth more than 5X higher than the revenue growth of companies that have the least inclusive approach to innovation.
If companies are committed to building an outstanding culture and a great place to work, their leaders must start with a clear understanding of their teams’ experiences — both for the sake of employees and for the business.
The second piece of the puzzle is values. This isn’t a new business topic, but it’s not just about slogans you put on your office wall or website. We’re talking about the bedrock principles that guide the day-to-day way everyone at your company works together, and that guide leaders’ choices in complex matters like doing more for customers and protecting employees’ rights. Smart companies ensure their values and behaviors support their strategy.
At one company that has been certified as a Great Place to Work For All, we learned that its leadership team had revised its core values numerous times throughout the years, to adapt to the ways that the organization had grown and evolved. They also told us that after employees began organizing efforts to do community service projects together, they recently added “social responsibility” as a company value.
When companies live out strong values, employees buy in. Conversely, if people don’t see evidence that they’re being offered the same opportunities as others — or the same amount of respect, because of their gender, race, or age — buy-in erodes.
Given increased expectations that business leaders will lead on social issues and become activist CEOs, meaningful values are only growing more valuable.
The final puzzle piece is trust — specifically, trust between employees and leadership. Business conditions may have changed dramatically, but people are still people, and trust is still a fundamental requirement for any positive interaction.
In a high-trust culture, employees don’t have to focus their time on trying to decipher corporate speak or worry whether their jobs are secure. Instead, they can spend their time creating exceptional products, powerful customer experiences, and lasting relationships at work.
The challenging thing about trust, however, is that it’s not merely about making people feel good or being on a moral high ground. Trust isn’t something you can simply program, contract, or outsource. It must be built by leaders with their employees on an individual basis.
Companies can build a high-trust culture by thinking of their team as a community. One company that has been certified as a Great Place to Work discovered that team members who share personal information with each other via social media are able to have difficult and honest conversations when working on projects. They said that employees who debated and disagreed with one another were more likely to excel at their work (and surpass the competition) because they had enough trust to push each other’s limits and identify better ways to solve the biggest problems.
At GPTW, we believe employees trust leaders when they see them as credible, respectful, and fair. Leaders must show themselves to be not just competent in running the business, but consistent in living up to their word.
Part of this involves creating and communicating a coherent strategy that cascades to every level of the organization. It also involves putting an executive team in place that reflects the demographics of the organization and the wider community.
Companies that maximize human potential through effective leadership, meaningful values, and a foundation of trust are seeing a healthier bottom line and faster revenue growth. I hope you can find the same benefits in your business by focusing on your people, your culture, and what it might mean to truly create a Great Place to Work “For All.”