The Bottleneck is Always at the Top of the Bottle

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I originally wrote this post for Shep Hyken’s site. It appeared on his blog on March 21, 2022.

Have you heard the saying, “A fish rots from the head down?” It means that the problem starts at the top, with your leadership team. Guess what? Your culture rots from the head down, too. It means that the problems, failures, issues, toxicity, etc. in your organization – or any organization – start with the leadership team.

Here’s another way to look at it. Peter Drucker said, “The bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle.” When I heard that I thought, “Darn, I wish I’d have thought of that one!” He is so right!

Senior leaders and executives: take a good, hard look at how you and your colleagues talk, act, behave, make decisions, incentivize, measure, prioritize, walk the walk/talk the talk, live the values, etc. How would you feel if your employees did what you just did? If you say, “I’d feel great!” then kudos to you. But if you scratch your head and think that what you do is fine because you lead a team or lead the company – but wouldn’t want your employees to act the same way – you are wrong. It doesn’t work that way.

Everyone in your company must live by the same standards, by the same values. Good or bad, that’s how cultures are purposely created. That’s how cultures are sustained. That’s how cultures are transformed. That’s what they mean when they say that you get the culture you create or allow.

Not sure about the negative impact leaders have on the organization? Need some examples of the bad?

  • Uber. Travis Kalanick’s leadership came into question quite often after videos of him arguing with a driver were released. Other examples: He said Uber wasn’t responsible if drivers attacked passengers, and he degraded women. His words and his actions drove the Uber “bro-culture.”
  • WeWork. A sexual harassment lawsuit from a former employee describes WeWork as having an “entitled, frat-boy culture that permeates from the top down.”
  • Wells Fargo. As CEO John Stumpf testified before the U.S. Senate Committee, he tried to escape blame for the unethical behavior of his employees. Even though he fired more than 5,000 of them for creating unauthorized and bogus accounts, it was really the culture that he created that failed. He blamed his employees.
  • Activision Blizzard. Sexual harassment lawsuits and discrimination claims by employees and by the State of California were all over the news last year. The company’s president was well aware of the situation, as were other executives, and even enabled the behavior that included “cube crawls,” groping female employees, and more.

Need  some examples of the good? Think about Tony Hsieh and the culture he created within Zappos. Think about Howard Behar and Howard Schultz and the culture they created within Starbucks. Think about Bob Chapman and the culture he has created within Barry-Wehmiller. Think about Doug Conant and Campbell Soup Company.

Leaders must model the behavior they want to see – this is where the real culture transformation begins. And if they see behaviors unbecoming of the culture they desire, they must stop them – not enable them. Because, metaphorically speaking, “What’s good for the goose (leader) is good for the gander (employee).” In other words, if you, as a leader, want employees to act a certain way, then you must live the values, lead, model, and show them what the right or acceptable behavior is. And only then does culture become “how employees act when the CEO (or anyone else) isn’t looking.” Because, let’s face it, most of the time the CEO is not there, looking over an employee’s shoulders. But if employees see that executives put themselves “above the law,” forget it; that’s a major culture fail.

One last point here about the behaviors you get – especially as we think about the behaviors required in a customer-centric culture. Remember that you get what you reward. If you reward sales and growth but talk about being customer-obsessed, the behavior you see will still only be sales-driven, not customer-driven. That applies to any type of culture that you are deliberately trying to create: if you reward one type of behavior while talking about something else, employees will go after the reward, not the talk. So make sure your rewards align with what you’re saying and the type of culture you’re creating.

Culture is the shadow of the leader. ~ Larry Senn, author of Winning Teams, Winning Cultures

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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