I believe the first job of any CEO is to be the orchestrator and guardian of his or her company's culture. It often is too easy to become focused on the external world of servicing customers while disregarding the internal world of your people who are there to do just that. Maybe that's why it's been shown time and again that the first sign a company is in trouble is not decreasing sales or shrinking profits but rather an eroding employee morale.

That's why I say a CEO's job starts at home with the company's culture. It's his or her job to set the tone, foster the spirit, and build the values and other factors that go into creating a company's culture.

At the end of the day, how could any CEO worth his salt truly lead a company that lacked his own values, visions, attitudes, etc.?

Organizations adapt to the personality.
With that said, how does a CEO orchestrate a company's culture? And once it's in place, how do you protect it from erosion? The answer to the first question is a lot easier than it sounds. Right or wrong, organizations adapt to the personality of their leaders due to the very nature of how organizations function. The CEO, through direct contact, or more often through indirect contact, sets the tone not only for how employees do their jobs, but how they interact with each other, and ultimately with the consumer.

It's more than saying the buck stops here.
In other words, as the CEO interacts with the world, his or her team will determine how to function in the environment that he or she creates. It's been said that you are what you stand for, and nowhere is that more evident than in the leadership of an organization. It's more than saying the buck stops with a company's CEO. The harder question to answer is how does a CEO protect his or her company's culture from being eroded? Understanding the impact that employee morale has on an organization's success or failure means every CEO needs to know how to address this issue.

People are the common denominator of any organization. And people are anything but simple. But instead of looking at "the people issue" as a problematic quagmire, I suggest that you embrace all those thoughts, feelings, emotions, and moods that all people have as the solution rather than the problem.

People must be encouraged to express themselves.
People by their very nature need to express themselves. Whether they're being heard or not, creating an atmosphere that embraces people who are expressing their true feelings is the first and biggest step in protecting a company's culture. Encouraging employees to communicate their hopes, dreams, fears, and worries is, in and of itself, protective of the company's culture. But beware. Some employees might use their self-expression to sabotage your company culture. Those saboteurs are called weeds, and a good company culture pulls its weeds quickly.

Nothing I have done as a CEO has been more important than fostering my company's culture.
In building Aquascape Designs into a $57 million, four-time Inc. 500 company, I believe nothing I have done is more important than crafting and protecting my company's culture. It's the most natural thing to do because it's an expression of who I am. Yet it's also the hardest thing to protect when I'm being pressured to change by factors inside or outside. The one thing I've learned is this: Creating an atmosphere that not only encourages but actively promotes open, honest dialogue is the basic ingredient in creating a company culture that rocks!

So, the first job of any CEO is to '¦
I know it starts and ends with me, but it's the team who always does the legwork. Without embracing people's need to impact their environment, without setting a tone from day one of a new hire's start, and without the understanding of how important employee morale is to the health of an organization, a company will not reach its fullest potential. That's why I can unabashedly say building a company culture that rocks is the first job any CEO must focus on.

It's truly amazing, but I've found that when I take care of the company culture, all the other stuff just takes care of itself.

Greg Wittstock, also known as The Pond GuyTM, is president and CEO of Aquascape Designs Inc., the nation's largest water garden builder and a leading manufacturer of ready-to-assemble pond kits.