The culture of successful leadership

Everything about business begins with people.

By Amy Smith, PhD, Consultants for Education, Manitou Springs, Colo. September 22, 2016

After hearing from readers, studying, and researching how people work, I’ve come to some conclusions over the years that seem to ring true no matter where you are in your career, no matter what type of firm or organization, and no matter what role you are currently working in.

Leadership ideologies

In an interconnected world where the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, driverless cars, and a constant barrage of information are in the daily news, I’ve learned that innovation doesn’t happen without a person or a team of people.

In a 2015 keynote speech at a conference about Big Data, Alan Mulally, former CEO of Boeing and Ford Motor Co., presented his top 10 leadership beliefs. These weren’t tips or pointers. These were deeply held philosophies that Mulally cultivated after decades of leading complex organizations in highly technical fields.

You can picture the room. More than 2,000 attendees, lights dim, eyes focused on the keynote. Nowadays, at any conference, you see half of the audience on their phones or tablets at any given moment. The concept of holding a room in rapture, especially as a keynote, is something we just don’t see anymore.

But this was Mulally. The man re-engineered the management and leadership culture at Ford to revive its reputation as a U.S. leader in the automotive industry, and he was sharing what he knew to be his most important beliefs in leadership. As he worked through his David Letterman-style top 10 list of leadership ideologies, I felt myself crouch forward in my chair in anticipation. And as I turned to look around, everyone—and I mean every single person—was leaning in to hear him work his way to the top of the list.

So what was the No. 1 leadership philosophy Mulally listed? People first. Everything about business begins with people—those who work for you; those under your guidance and leadership; those who are your peers; and those who support your workforce, the families and networks that help your employees do the work they do for you.

Create the environment for people to thrive

I have a suspicion that many of us, as leaders, think of the culture of our organization as a mystery, something that just unfolds and occurs without much guidance and direction. In my career, I have worked in environments that proved difficult to thrive and really perform. These were settings where internal competition was promoted, superiors represented my work and ideas as their own, and colleagues were suspicious of each other—environments where focusing on personal needs and goals outweighed any strategic plans or what was good for the company.

Nevertheless, I have also worked in environments where I was treated and respected as if my opinion and knowledge were vital to the organization; where it was cool to be smart and asking the hard questions was seen as helping rather than as negative. It is the latter environment that, I have come to learn over time, is the product of solid leadership.

While it is not written in my job description to build a positive culture where my employees can enjoy their work, which leads to higher productivity, commitment, and retention, it is completely the responsibility of the senior leadership team to define, guide, build, and manage the organization culture so all employees can enjoy and produce their best work.

Over the years, I’ve written about onboarding new employees , ways to build productive, innovative teams, and the ins and outs of finding mentors and mentees to provide support for engineering careers. In all of my research and work with a variety of technical professionals, I have found that employee engagement and the culture of the organization directly impact the bottom line.

How we set the cultural vision, manage conflict, and onboard new team members matters. It matters for their productivity and enjoyment, but it matters even more for the bottom line.

Everything begins with your workforce. We have a responsibility as leaders to build and sustain an environment where our employees do their best work.

Amy Smith is the president of Consultants for Education. She has more than 20 years of experience in organizational leadership, adult teaching and training, and cognitive research.