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Don't Be Like Goldman Sachs: 5 Ways

Regardless of what industry you're in, how can you make sure your company culture doesn't grow toxic over time?
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By now, everyone has weighed in on the Goldman Sachs crisis. Pundits have pilloried the firm for enabling a toxic and destructive culture. Supporters such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have defended the darling of Wall Street, saying it remains a great institution. And the Goldman Sachs PR machine has simultaneously done everything possible to undermine whistle-blower Greg Smith's credibility while insisting his remarks don't reflect the values of the firm's 30,000 employees.

Regardless of where the truth lies, companies must learn from the image and reputation damage that's been wreaked on Goldman. I've worked for countless organizations in, well, every conceivable industry and can assure you of two things:

  • There are many Goldman-like cultures in fields that have nothing whatsoever to do with the world of high-powered finance.
  • There are just as many cultures that espouse the best-in-breed ethos of such rock-star companies as Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, and Zappos.

So, how does one embrace the latter while avoiding the former? Here are five sure-fire ways:

1. The CEO must be always open, honest, and transparent.

It’s also critical she displays vulnerability (or, in other words, becomes the antithesis of a macho, Wall Street type). The best executives manage by walking around. They lead by example. And, they allow the troops to share in the laughter when they fumble a word or sentence in a high-profile meeting. Vulnerability inspires confidence and loyalty in employees and will, I believe, become the watchword of great CEOs in the future.

2. Senior management must continually experience their organization from the audience's perspective.

The only way to remain ahead of the curve in terms of what your customer, employee base, and every other constituent audience needs is to constantly experience their world. See what it’s like to call your customer service line and wait forever as a virtual operator transfers you from one department to the next. Visit your website and determine how intuitive it is to locate information on, say, a new product offering. Or pay an unexpected call on the Minneapolis branch office in the guise of being an out-of-town client. See how quickly the team reacts and what the overall experience was like. The only way to determine your organization’s weakest link is to continually test the various components of the chain.

3. Bottoms up.

Employees are tired of hearing what the old white guy in the corner office wants and needs. Today’s best employees want a voice. They want to be heard. They want to know senior management is factoring their values into the overall business strategy. And, they want to voice their concern if the values they signed up for when joining the organization are no longer the ones being reinforced in a weekly staff meeting. So, empower them to create bottom-up news and information that is relevant to them and their needs. Allow them to share best practices from outside the company. Shine the spotlight on those that are taking the lead in moving the needle in new, unexpected and morale-enhancing ways. In short, make them feel important.

4. Tie compensation to values.

Do you want to make sure your sales force isn’t dumping toxic products on the unsuspecting? How about preventing your lieutenants from preaching boiler-room sales tactics that reward the Glengarry Glen Ross-type salesman while punishing the one who’s doing the most to ensure a long-term client relationship? Bring human resources into the equation. Make sure every senior executive in every nook and cranny of your tiny or far-flung empire understands that people come first. That's people, not profits. And, tell them their year-end bonus will be deader than Ron Paul’s presidential aspirations if they don’t reflect those values in their actions.

5. Start with the end in mind.

How do you want future generations of senior leadership, as well as the rank-and-file of the organization, to remember you? As a robber baron, akin to Dennis Kozlowski, or as a businessperson-cum-humanitarian who did well by doing right? The best way to ensure your organization doesn’t fall into “Goldman Gulch” is to create a list of principles that detail why your organization exists and how it intends to make the world a better place by delivering on those principles every working day of every year. By accomplishing both, you’ll not only be highly profitable; you’ll create a toxic-free environment that will become your legacy. 

Last updated: Mar 20, 2012

STEVE CODY | Columnist

I'm a climber, comedian and dog lover. But not necessarily in that order. I also happen to be co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a strategic communications firm headquartered in NYC, and with offices in San Francisco and London. I publish RepMan, a daily blog, and have had the opportunity to appear on CNBC, MSNBC, NPR, and a host of other top tier media over the years. scody@peppercomm.com

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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