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Dear Leader: Your Job Is Culture

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We're treating our executives unfairly.

Wait! Before you curse audibly and click on a different link, hear me out. I know this isn't a great time to write about executive hardship. With egregious abuses of leadership in recent memory -- financial, automotive, and petrochemical spring to mind -- it's easy to see why it has become fashionable to despise those in power, rather than to help them.

I'm all for holding leaders accountable. Abuses shouldn't be tolerated; those at the top should be held to standards of ethics, appropriateness, and plain old common sense, just like everyone else. Remember though, that the few bad apples don't represent the rest. For the sake of fairness to the many good leaders out there -- and, to make it easier to identify the bad apples sooner -- the expectations we place on our executives should be reasonable and well-defined.

Often, they're anything but -- especially when it comes to the nebulous notion of "culture." If customer service is bad, policies are bureaucratic, or coworkers are crabby, we label the problem bad culture and we blame leadership for not inspiring a better one. "It all flows from the top," employees tell each other knowingly. "It's your job to set the tone," advisers caution executive clients. The platitudes may be true, but they don't contain any information about what the leaders should actually do.

Unclear expectations aren't just bad form, they're bad business. Even the most capable person can't reach a goal that isn't defined! So, to make everyone's expectations on culture a little more clear and reasonable -- and, to make sure we are holding our leaders fully accountable -- I offer the following open letter from employees to their leadership.

Dear Leaders,

You know, we hope, that we carefully watch and follow your example. What you do, we do. You've pondered, we hope, the importance of establishing a culture here that will lead us to high output, high morale, and high employee retention. We're counting on you.

We also suspect that your jobs require more hours than you can ever reasonably give them, and put pressures on you that would prevent many of us from ever sleeping again. So, to help you succeed at establishing a positive culture, we'd like to respectfully place three simple expectations on you.

First, be purposeful. We know that we have a company mission; we've all seen it on the walls. But you need to be talking to us about what you're doing -- the actual, real, important work that you're doing, and how it will help the company. The more you help us to see you as real, functioning leaders doing useful work, the easier it is to give our own time and energy to your cause. Please speak about your work plainly and honestly.

What you do, we do. If you're in the habit of grandstanding and inflating your own importance, then we will be too -- and that makes for some long, wasteful staff meetings for us! If you're in the habit of being secretive about what you're doing, we'll start doing the same, and output will suffer. On the other hand, if you consistently speak frankly about what you're trying to accomplish, then we'll start speaking that way too. Less of our time will be spent selling ourselves to each other, or hiding our work from each other, and more of it will be spent exchanging productive information with each other. That's good for everyone.

Second, be realistic. It's one thing to be optimistic and encourage us to work a little harder, or to be conservative about the future, but please balance optimism and pessimism with reality. If you repeatedly tell us good things are going to happen in the market soon, and they don't, you appear clueless. If you cut raises because revenues are sure to decline, and they don't, you appear greedy. Either way, we stop trusting you. We don't expect you to have a crystal ball, but we do expect you to be realistic. So, please, if you're taking a guess, say so. If you're making an estimate, say so. And if you lay out a timeline or a plan, and then discover that it's wrong, give us the update and make corrections as soon as you can. In short, please show us that you are paying attention to what's going on.

What you do, we do. It may not be fun for you to revise plans or to admit error, but it will encourage us to do the same. And it's better for all of us when plans at every level use realistic timelines and market information rather than hyper-inflated, feel-good data -- or overly pessimistic, gloom-and-doom data -- that makes us fail to deliver. If we're all willing to admit when we don't know, and when we're wrong, we'll all end up being wrong less often. Please serve as an example of this.

Third, avoid drama. A little drama is part of the human condition. Sometimes we all play the victim, get a little villainous, or try to be the hero. But you know, we hope, that this is too simplistic a view for our complex world. Please don't let it creep into your leadership. Try not to frame the competition or the economy as evil, or to frame yourself or our company as the victim or the hero. Please speak to us realistically about competitive pressures, requirements, and actual strengths and weaknesses.

What you do, we do, and drama begets drama. If it's OK for you to be the victim of federal regulations, then it's OK for us to be the victim of traffic on the way to work. If you brag about saving the day by working 24 hours straight at the last minute, then our quantity of work begins to get emphasized over our quality of work. And when you persecute your managers, they persecute us. As the drama escalates, and the focus on real strengths and weaknesses diminishes, we end up wasting energy and time better spent on delivering real output. Please help us avoid this by avoiding it yourself: keep your energy focused on output, and not on drama.

These are simple, reasonable expectations to help our culture. Most likely, they are things you are already doing. We intend to hold you accountable to these expectations, so please do them visibly. Meanwhile, so that you know we're serious, we invite you to place these three expectations on us as well. Let's share the load.

Respectfully,
Your Faithful Employees

Could it actually be this simple? Some might argue with me, but I believe it can. Culture doesn't need to be abstract, mysterious, or the purview of only the most magnetic and magical leaders. All that is required is the practice of good behaviors in ways that others can repeat them. Much of the rest takes care of itself.