Businesses are entering a new age of leadership. Ivory towers are crumbling across the country. The days of executives being disconnected from their customers, employees and the everyday activities of the workplace are drawing to an end.
Organizations are undergoing disruptive change brought about by rising customer demands, rapid advancements in technology, and evolving workforce needs and expectations. For many, surviving the turbulent times ahead with customers and employees intact will require a culture change—one that starts at the top with new leadership roles and responsibilities.
In our present-day era of heightened awareness of ethics, social issues and accountability, the C-suite’s values and actions are being scrutinized like never before. Customers are more selective about the brands they choose to support. They want to know that a company’s executives “walk the talk” when it comes to social issues, community support and moral values.
Likewise, today’s employees are no longer willing to settle for a job with a paycheck. Job candidates are seeking out companies that prioritize their needs and demonstrate a commitment to the employee experience—and they look to the behavior of company leaders to validate the workplace culture.
What does a service culture look like? In companies that prioritize the employee experience, leaders actively communicate and collaborate with employees every single day. Employees are not viewed as anonymous, replaceable cogs in a machine, but as internal customers whose feedback and involvement are critical to the operation’s success. Importantly, leaders are accountable for improving employee engagement and reinforcing the culture, and not just driving business metrics.
Closing the Culture Gap
All eyes are on leaders to act as role models for the organization’s values and culture. But while companies are grappling with employee skill gaps and efforts to upskill the frontline workforce, the management team’s skills seem to get much less attention.
Traditional leadership skills are often at odds with the competencies needed to reinforce a service culture. A top-down, command-and-control approach will not foster a positive employee experience. The problem is, many leaders are unsure of how to meet employee expectations when it comes to demonstrating competencies like authenticity, empathy, transparency and gratitude.
A significant gap currently exists between how CEOs view their performance on such behaviors versus what their employees think. A survey of 250 CEOs and employees found that the majority (90%) of CEOs feel that it is important to lead with gratitude, and 88% believe that their employees would give them high marks for doing so. However, only 37% of employees were satisfied with the level of gratitude expressed in the workplace, even though most (96%) considered it to be either important or very important to feel appreciated at work (Thnks Corporate Gratitude Survey).
So what can companies do to close the culture gap? Redefining how the leadership team’s performance is evaluated is a critical first step in an organization’s efforts to walk the talk. According to Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report, organizations still take a conventional approach when it comes to evaluating their top leaders. The report found that the top three criteria organizations used to measure leadership success were: driving strategy (63%), delivering financial results (58%), and managing operations (44%).
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
While transforming a culture must start at the top with the leadership team, culture is not an edict that can be handed down for workers to follow. The traditional approach in which leaders create new missions and goals, and then roll out generic programs and workplace amenities that they think their workers will want, is likely to be met with skepticism from employees, especially if they have been left out of the development process.
To gain employees’ trust in leadership’s commitment to creating a service culture that prioritizes the employee experience, all leaders must demonstrate their commitment through their everyday actions and behaviors.
How can leaders begin to model service culture behaviors?
In a service culture, communication from company leaders is frequent, open and transparent. Top-level executives need to spend more time connecting directly with employees, face to face, and not communicating only through broadcast emails and video recordings.
Employees want their voices to be heard. Leaders can use formal meetings and informal huddles, as well as one-on-one discussions to gather employee feedback on workplace values, issues that may be affecting performance and their ideas for improvement. Followup is critical. Taking action on employee feedback will build their trust that leadership is committed to employee engagement.
Show employees that their opinions are valued by involving them in the decisions that affect the work environment. Most companies find that inviting employees to participate in the decision-making process through cross-functional committees ensures greater buy-in, engagement and increased morale.
Frontline employees can also act as role models for culture change. Reward and publicly recognize individuals who embody the values and behaviors of the culture you’re trying to create. Share their stories and achievements across the organization. Positive reinforcement can have a significant impact on staff motivation and retention during times of change.
Take a personal interest in your team’s professional development. Help individuals to tailor development opportunities to their career interests and learning styles. Offer guidance, ongoing encouragement and networking opportunities internally (other departments) and externally (industry conferences and expos).
How can leaders show that they care about their employees? Provide them with more flexibility and work-life balance. Help them to manage stress and avoid burnout. Support health and wellbeing in the workplace. Give them the opportunity to do meaningful work. Invest in their training and development. Provide them with opportunities to give back to their communities. Spend time with them. Treat every individual with respect. These are just a few of the ways that leaders can create a caring environment that allows their employees to thrive.
Be the Change
Transforming a culture is not a once-and-done activity, nor does it happen overnight. In a service culture, the leaders’ role is to create value for employees they serve. In the long-term, that may include leadership training in soft skills like empathy, gratitude and servant leadership. In the near-term, bringing leaders’ performance more in line with employee expectations requires active involvement in the daily activities of the work environment, soliciting regular feedback from employees and reinforcing your company’s and personal values with your actions.