Business Leadership Today

The Role Of Top Leadership In Defining An Organizational Culture


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

In a previous article, we discussed how the development of organizational culture starts with strong leadership, is interwoven with business strategy, and organically grows from the bottom up. 

While employee behaviors and actions play a critical role in solidifying and spreading culture throughout the organization, leaders plant the seed from which a strong culture grows. 

They do this by providing the framework for an authentic, caring culture to develop naturally. 

The role of top leadership in defining organizational culture is to foster a strong mission, communicate a clear vision, and model core values that put people over profits. By defining culture, leaders unite employees with a shared sense of purpose that motivates them and gives meaning to their work.

In this article, we will examine how top leadership defines, shapes, and reinforces culture through a values-driven approach, informed by the organization’s mission and vision, that puts employees at the heart of the organization. 

Set the Tone for the Organizational Culture You Want

A leader’s perceptions and values play a significant role in defining and developing organizational culture. Because of this, strong leadership is key to developing an authentic organizational culture and continuously reinforcing that culture with employees.

For culture to develop and grow, employees have to be on board. The best way to get cultural buy-in from employees is to establish the framework for a culture in which they feel valued and essential for the success of the organization. 

Since organizational culture is embedded in unspoken behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns, it is important to guide employees toward the behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns that you want to see more of in your organization. 

As we’ve mentioned before, the most important part of a strong company culture is having a senior management team that truly cares about employees. Senior leadership should consistently demonstrate that care since all other aspects of company culture are improved when organizations put people first.

Creating a work environment in which employees feel that leadership values their health and well-being, feel inspired to succeed, feel encouraged to grow and develop personally and professionally, and feel their feedback is valuable to the success of the company is essential for defining, refining, and reinforcing culture.

Culture has to develop in an authentic way to produce these results. This is why it is so important for leaders to set the tone for a culture that values people over profits by truly caring for their employees.

In turn, employees will care for their organizations.

When interwoven with all aspects of a company’s strategy, including policies, procedures, benefits, and perks, culture will reflect an awareness of employee needs and connect the dots between organizational values and the work employees do. 

The starting point for this is the organization’s mission.

Be Passionate About the Mission

In the early stages of culture development, top leadership defines the mission—the impetus that will drive the organization and its employees toward success. 

A company’s mission statement should be clear, understandable, and relatable to get employee buy-in. It should also be clearly linked with actual business goals and the overall strategy.

Even more importantly, leaders should feel enthusiastic about the organization’s mission and demonstrate their enthusiasm to employees.

To quote “Positive Mental Attitude” guru W. Clement Stone, “When you discover your mission, you will feel its demand. It will fill you with enthusiasm and a burning desire to get to work on it.”

This is key to engaging employees with the organization’s mission. When you are truly passionate about the organization’s mission and show your enthusiasm consistently, employees will also feel enthusiastic about the mission.

The sense of purpose you feel in pursuing the company’s mission should be regularly communicated to employees, in both words and actions.

Leadership can take this to the next level by having each department within the organization develop its own related, but unique, mission statement. This can help refine how each department’s role will more specifically help the organization achieve its mission. 

This clarifies and reinforces the mission with employees, helps them gain a greater understanding of their roles within the organization, and gives their day-to-day work activities a deeper meaning and purpose, which is instrumental to engagement. 

Build a Team that is Passionate About the Mission

A culture that puts people first is key to engaging employees. It’s also essential for building a high-performance team. And one of the main things that drives performance is passion.

According to CEO Maria Haggerty, when it comes to soft skills, passion can be the most valuable employee asset there is. 

Haggerty says, “What sets passionate workers apart is that they are intrinsically motivated. They are motivated by new challenges, constantly looking to improve themselves, have the best interest of the company they work for at heart, and are in it for the long haul.”

When shaping culture, leaders should continually convey their own passion and dedication to the organization’s mission. It’s equally important for leaders to be able to inspire passion for the mission in existing employees and identify passionate employees in the hiring process.

When employees are passionate about the mission, it gives their work meaning and instills in them the feeling that they are working toward a higher purpose, but this is not the only benefit of a passionate team.

In a study published in the Journal of Managerial Issues, researchers found that it is better to identify employees who are excited to work at an organization than try to keep people who are ambivalent or want to leave but stay with the organization and perform poorly (known as “dysfunctional retention ”).

This is where good communication and feedback are indispensable to top leadership. When senior managers know who is likely to enthusiastically stay, rather than reluctantly hang on to a job they aren’t engaged with, they will see much better performance overall. 

This can have a tremendous impact on the bottom line. More importantly, it can lay the groundwork for a winning culture that really resonates with employees. 

Envision a Future Where the Organization and Employees Thrive

Most of today’s organizations have developed a strategic vision, and there’s evidence that this can greatly impact employee performance and employee perceptions of leadership.

In both practice and theory, there is a consensus that a vision is a valuable asset for organizations to have, with organizational vision functioning “just like a lodestar for a ship,” guiding the ship towards its desired destination.

For this reason, another vital role of top leadership, and one that should never be underestimated, is setting a clear vision for the organization.

Leadership should provide tangible goals for achieving the organization’s vision. They should also demonstrate to employees that they are essential players in realizing that vision and play a key role in the future success of the company.

A company’s vision will shape its future and guide the actions and behaviors of employees. It is so important for employees to be able to visualize the organization’s future and envision themselves as a vital part of that future.

Visualization exercises are a valuable activity for top leadership and employees to participate in because they provide a positive glimpse of a future in which the organization and its employees have achieved their goals and produced a real impact.

This activity boosts engagement and has the added benefit of creating a more positive, optimistic work environment in which employees perform well.

Establish People-Focused Core Values–and Model Them

Top leadership’s dedication to core values, which they should demonstrate by modeling behaviors that align with these values, will guide employees toward similar behaviors. Because of this, that dedication should be strong and observable by employees.

Leaders who regularly demonstrate their dedication to core values through modeling behaviors that align with those values won’t have to work as hard to bring employees into the fold. 

Setting an example for employees to follow and reinforcing core values regularly will keep employees always mindful of culture and how their own behaviors align with the organization’s culture.

There are many ways leaders can model and reinforce core values. 

If a company’s core values include collaboration, constant improvement, or innovation, establishing a system of frequent communication and feedback with employees will demonstrate good faith efforts to always be improving upon the work employees and leaders do.

It will also demonstrate leadership’s dedication to fostering a work environment where employees are able to see the impact they are making, which will take employee performance to the next level.

If a company’s core values include continuous learning, high performance, or trust, providing continuing education and other learning opportunities, as well as opportunities for coaching and mentoring, will create an environment in which employees can grow and thrive. 

Doing these things will not only demonstrate to employees your dedication to practicing the core values leadership has defined, but it will also help the organization realize its vision and stay true to its mission. 

Refine and Reinforce the Mission, Vision, and Core Values

It is so important for senior leadership to understand their roles in helping define an organization’s culture because culture starts with leadership.

Leaders should be intentional in setting the tone for organizational culture, with an in-depth understanding of how their beliefs, values, and behaviors align with the organization’s mission and vision and how they impact employees.

In the early stages of development, top leadership helps to define an organization’s mission, its vision for the future, and the values that will shape its culture.

While employees are instrumental in spreading organizational culture throughout an organization, it is the role of top leadership to ensure ideal working conditions for cultural alignment so that employees, and the organization, can thrive. 

It’s important to clearly communicate mission, vision, and values to employees but equally as important to revisit them regularly, adjust and update them as needed, and continue to communicate them with staff. 

Leaders should constantly fine-tune culture. This means providing what employees need to succeed but also addressing inconsistencies between cultural philosophy and daily practice that could create a less-than-engaging environment for employees. 

Additionally, top leadership can ensure organizational culture stays true to a company’s mission, vision, and values by addressing toxic situations when they arise so they don’t hinder the development of a positive culture.

The most important thing leadership can do to ensure their organizations weather the future, and employees continue to grow and develop, is to nurture the development of a caring culture that consistently demonstrates to employees that they are valued and vital to the success of the organization. 

A workplace culture that is built on caring for the team is essential for engaging and retaining employees and creating an environment where they flourish, perform at a high level, and have a high degree of job satisfaction and company loyalty. 

A care-focused culture can have a tremendous impact on the bottom line. Creating an environment where employees feel valued is a key component of providing excellent customer service. When employees feel valued and taken care of, they will take care of customers. 

Top leadership should work diligently to shape employee perceptions of the work they do. As a leader, make it your goal for employees to feel a sense of meaning in their jobs. 

Make a habit of providing feedback and recognition to employees. Regular feedback, mentoring, and one-to-one meetings can help build trust, which is essential for a positive organizational culture. 

This will help define and reinforce culture for employees and make them more aware of how leadership demonstrates the organization’s core values daily.  

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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