When Alan Mulally became the CEO of Ford in 2006, the motor company's market share was plummeting. The problem was internal: Teams weren't communicating or working towards a unified vision. Mulally turned that around with his leadership.
At weekly meetings, he asked managers to use a traffic light system to indicate their progress on key programs. A green light meant it was going well; a red light meant there were critical issues. At his first meeting, he noticed everyone had green lights. Given the state of the company, Mulally knew this wasn't possible. And he told the managers so.
The next week, the meeting was full of red lights. The problems were finally on the table, and they could get to work--all because Mulally encouraged transparency.
As Mulally illustrates, strong company cultures start with strong leaders. Employees look to corporate leaders to set a precedent in the office and keep them engaged. The problem is that some leaders may be fostering a strong--or weak--culture without even realizing it.
Here are three ways leaders unknowingly influence the workplace.
1. Taking responsibility for their actions
Leaders must be able to hold themselves accountable. That means celebrating their wins and owning up to their losses. If they don't take responsibility for their actions, employees will think it's okay to do the same. And if the boss puts the blame on his team instead of himself, employees may come to resent him and lose motivation.
In 1976, Dale Miller conducted a study of two executive groups: Those whom colleagues identified as "highly effective and ready for promotion" and those deemed "unready or unsuited" for promotion. Those in the first group said this statement was most important to their success: "Accepts full responsibility for the performance of the work unit." It was even more important than statements about delegation, planning, staffing, and technical skills.
Leaders who took responsibility for their team's performance were more likely to be promoted. Those who didn't were more likely to be stuck in a dead-end position. And their colleagues knew it.
2. Stepping outside of their comfort zone
Leaders don't operate in a vacuum. They should be willing to take risks, collaborate, and learn from others--especially those in lower ranks. If they don't, they could stunt innovation throughout the organization.
As Mark Zuckerberg said of his experience creating Facebook, "I don't pretend that I had any idea what I was doing. The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that's changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks."
By setting that precedent, Zuckerberg built a company culture wherein people could pioneer groundbreaking products that keep 2 billion people connected across the globe.
3. Putting the customer first
Leaders can make it clear that they are working to improve the lives of real people--not just collect a paycheck. They can put the customer at the forefront of their programs and initiatives, and inspire others to follow suit.
In 2016, for instance, Samsung Electronics America CMO Marc Mathieu launched Samsung 837, a 40,000 square-foot-store in New York City. Here's the kicker: It had absolutely no inventory to sell. It was all about providing a great experience for the customer.
"The bottom three floors represent a physical manifestation of our brands--including consumers actively engaging with our technology on the ground floor and marketers collaborating in a cross functional space on the floors above," Mathieu said during an interview with Forbes. "This proximity to consumers allows us to observe, evolve, and innovate our marketing approach in real time."
Through this initiative, Mathieu made it clear that he prioritizes the customer above all else, and that anyone who represents the Samsung brand should be capable of the same.
Leaders don't just schedule meetings and sign documents. They set the tone for how their workplace operates. And if they don't understand this, they could end up leading by a poor example and missing opportunities to strengthen company culture.
All eyes are on them, and that's a tough--but necessary--power to wield.