Nick Fewings via Unsplash

Living the Culture-building Principle of the Everything

The more I study what it takes to build and sustain great organizational cultures, the more I’m sold on what I call the “Principle of the Everything” in leadership.

The Principle of the Everything says that a leader shouldn’t (and can’t) do everything but that everything a leader does matters. That includes every program and policy a leader creates or supports and, most of all, every behavior a leader demonstrates or condones.

It’s the behaviors, more often than not, that are a culture’s undoing. Programs and policies are created and executed with intentionality. They are born of a company’s values and structured to support those values. Behaviors? They aren’t bound to structure, and they tend to roam, often into fields of temptation. They can lose sight of those values, give in to those temptations, and often have little idea of the far-ranging impact of their slide down the slippery slopes of indiscretion.

When behaviors fail to align with and support an organization’s stated values, the programs and policies become little more than high-profile reminders of the leaders’ hypocrisy. When leaders ignore or condone bad behaviors, or fail to support good behaviors, the organization’s culture soon will turn toxic.

Here’s an example. In June 2016, Suzy Welch posted an interview on LinkedIn with Under Armour CEO and founder Kevin Plank. She noted how his company had gone from a start-up with two employees to a competitive player in the ultra-tough sports apparel business in just ten years. In fact, when Welch did the interview, Under Armour was coming off 24 consecutive quarters of 20 percent or better top-line growth and had just been ranked No. 17 on LinkedIn’s “2016 Top Attractors” list of places in the U.S. where people most wanted to work.

The reason? Culture, Plank said.

“I firmly believe that people don’t work for companies, they work for people,” Plank told her. “And being on this (Top Attractors) list is affirmation that our people are on fire. We’re winning, and they’re feeling loved and cared for, and they’re loving and caring for each other.”

Fast-forward to November 2018. Once again Plank was commenting on the culture of Under Armour. This time, however, it was in a statement to employees in response to an article in The Wall Street Journal about practices current and former UA employees felt were demeaning. The article noted, for instance, that for years the company routinely had allowed executives and other employees to expense their visits to strip clubs, had covered up the misconduct of executives, and had invited female employees to events based on their attractiveness.

Plank responded with an email letter that told employees the article was hard to read but that, “At Under Armour, we own our truth.” He went on to say, “Our teammates deserve to work in a respectful and empowering environment. We believe that there is systemic inequality in the global workplace and we will embrace this moment to accelerate the ongoing meaningful cultural transformation that is already under way at Under Armour. We can and will do better.”

In the letter, Plank also pointed out that Under Amour has “designed and delivered a number of signature programs including our onboarding and leadership development courses, unconscious bias training, Culture Clubs, and our Diversity Driving Innovation platform.” And he talked about the leadership team’s commitment to building a better environment.

Let’s hope he and his leadership team follow through on all of those nice words, but Plank’s already off to a rough start in 2019. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that the Under Armour board had questioned Plank’s ties to MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle, who often travelled with Plank and his staff on the company’s private jet. Plank, who is married, has denied allegations that he and Ruhle were having an affair, that he spent company funds on the relationship, or that Ruhle has had any undue influence over his decision-making as CEO. Regardless, the perception alone has damaged Plank’s reputation and his ability to lead.

Here’s the thing: words, policies and programs will never be enough. They are part of the solution, but ultimately mean little if leaders aren’t following the advice many of us got from our parents when we were kids: Make good choices. When leaders throughout an organization make good choices – in everything they do and especially in the face of temptations – they exemplify the behaviors that create a safe, trusting environment. Only then can a culture live up to the values it preaches in its policies and teaches in its programs. Only then can a great culture truly thrive.

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