The Tone at the Top

Corporate Leaders impact a business in numerous ways, but one of the most important is the standard they set for interaction between management team members.

Find an organization rife with conflict, and you can almost guarantee the CEO encouraging it.  If the firm is hyper-competitive, chances are high the boss is as well.  And if the senior management team works together well, in a fractionless and cooperative fashion, most likely the company leader treats them as peers and team members rather than as lackeys.

Corporate leaders set the tone for the organization in a number of ways.  Managers who want to "get ahead" tend to watch the leader, and do what she does.  Those whose styles hopelessly conflict with the CEO's tend to leave the company (or are asked to leave).  New recruits, to the degree possible, look for organizations that operate in a way as close as possible to their comfort zone -- although, I've noted before there are many reasons a person might find themselves in an organization where they don't fit.

As a practical matter, what does this mean for the average management employee?

Watch the CEO and other top officers, and judge how they conduct themselves.  What tone are they setting at the top for the organization at large?  Is their way compatible with your way?  Can you hammer yourself into that mold?  If the answer is "no," you might consider getting out, or at least staying far enough down the management ladder that you don't have to become a CEO clone to progress.

When you consider a new employer, ask a lot of questions about the leadership style.  How aggressive is the CEO in meetings?  Does he yell?  Does she make it personal?  Do assignments often devolve into contests?  Does the leader roll up her sleeves and get into the work herself, or does she step back and act as jury (and executioner)?  It may be challenging to get good answers, but be persistent -- this is your life and pursuit of happiness you are taking into your hands when you change jobs!  Pick a company with a tone as close to your natural comfort zone as possible.

One CEO I worked for was a screamer.  Meetings with him rarely ended in any way other than expletive shouting , fist clenching, and neck vein bulging.  That tone traveled through the management team with many imitators trying to "one up" the big boss.  If you thrive on that kind of thing, so be it, but I hated it.

Another corporate leader was consultative.  I always felt I was on the inside of everything going on, and my opinion counted.  People worked together in a low conflict way that validated our contributions.  That particular tone brought out the best in me, and I was able to achieve more in my role there than in almost any other in my career.

I also had a boss who was a huge conflict avoider.  He left a vacuum which encouraged all kinds of errant behavior on the part of others in senior managers.  The environment ranged from paternalistic to highly disfunctional, depending on who's personality was holding sway at any given moment.

Another CEO was a micro-manager.  You can probably imagine what this tone at the top did to interactions up and down the management ladder.  Lots of CYA action, plenty of over-management of subordinates, and a good deal of fear and suspicion permeating typical interactions.

I always wondered if these leaders were blind to their tones, or if they thought they were doing something that was adding value by continuing to stress them.  Maybe changing the tone was simply beyond them, although at least one of the leaders, I know for a fact, was "acting" most of the time.

In my experience, the tone at the top doesn't change until the leader changes, and then it is only a "maybe."  And the change takes time.  If the old leader was "successful" in the mind of the board (who are normally blissfully ignorant of the company tone), then the successor is likely to be a carbon copy of the former leader.  Even when boards want to "change things," their lack of connection to the tone of the company makes it likely they will still select someone in the old paradigm.

Assess the tone at the top, and make sure it is an environment where you can flourish.  If it isn't, you should either consider leaving the company, or adjusting your expectations/ambitions.  11.2

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Corporate Thriller novels: LEVERAGEINCENTIVIZE, and DELIVERABLES.  These are all based on extensions of my basic experiences in the world of corporate management.