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How Great CEOs put Workplace Culture First

Originally published on on September 20, 2017

Culture affects employee onboarding, employee engagement, and customer appeal, so it’s not surprising that many great CEOs put workplace culture first.

What is workplace culture?

Sometimes workplace culture gets confused with free food, unlimited vacation, and other perks. While such things may be an expression of culture, they aren’t culture itself. Culture is defined by the values that lead a workplace to choose certain policies or encourage certain behaviors.

Why does it matter when CEOs put workplace culture first?

“For CEOs who want to take a values-driven approach to business, putting culture first is job number one,” says Jim Ludema and Amber Johnson. This means that not only does a CEO create that culture and invest in corporate training that supports engagement, they also are the first to adopt it. Company culture works from the top down, and CEOs need to lead by example.

When the founder/CEO of a startup defines the values at the beginning and builds culture around those values, a solid foundation is born. The culture provides direction for future expansion by keeping the original vision in sight.

For companies that are already established, when the CEO puts the culture first, that culture is re-emphasized, improved, or better incorporated into daily work as needed.

A culture of integrity

Former T/Maker CEO Heidi Roizen tells a story of when the company was just starting. As her team prepared a new version of their product for launch, the stockroom full of the current version of the software and associated ads were destroyed in a sprinkler accident.

The landlord assured them they could claim damages through his insurance, but Heidi and her cofounder decided that would be dishonest to claim insurance on items they weren’t planning on using anyway. As soon as the new version launched, everything in that stockroom would be “pretty much worthless.”

Says Roizen, “We did not want to run a company where cheating was a way of business. So we told the truth….How you act will determine how everyone else in the company will act.”

A culture of people first

Curt Anastasio, CEO of NuStar Energy, preserves the culture of his company by emphasizing its ‘people first’ values. For one thing, NuStar Energy has no layoff policy: “We’ve never had a layoff in the history of the company, and we’re not going to have one either. It’s really a sacred trust with our employees.”

What the company does have is a strict bonus policy. Either every employee gets a bonus, or none do—not even Anastasio. That’s certainly one of the reasons that NuStar is #37 on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For in 2017 list.

Most companies don’t have these exact policies, but whenever a CEO offers something of value to their employees with no direct business benefit, they’re putting people first.

A culture of customer service

Zappos is famous for its onboarding process. New hires for any position work in the call center for two weeks. At the end of that time, they’re offered a month’s salary to leave the company if they feel they aren’t a good fit for the culture.

As incredible as it sounds, CEO Tony Hsieh would rather pay off employees “who are there for a paycheck”. He believes that having employees who are there because they want to be there results in better customer service, which is what Zappos is all about.

In fact, its marketing plan is all about customer service. The company takes most of its marketing money and invests it in “the customer experience/customer service and then let our customers do the marketing for us through word of mouth,” says Hsieh. It seems risky, but it works—because Hsieh has led the way in creating such a strong culture.

Zappos isn’t the only company that values customer service. Other companies, like Disney, incorporate customer service into their culture in ways that fit their brands.

In conclusion

A strong, value-based workplace culture is a huge benefit to a company. It provides a direction for every employee, regardless of their position, and it also helps a company as it grows. In the end, a consistent and positive workplace culture is one of the most important investments that a CEO makes—all it takes to get started is a great CEO whose example leads the way.