Initially released in 31 weekly installments,
Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities concluded 160 Novembers ago yet
offers crucial lessons for today’s leaders.
The story alternates between Paris before and during
the French Revolution and London and its period of prosperity and unprecedented
“It was the best of times and the worst of times…it
was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”
Dickens recounts how the French monarchy’s failure
to address basic human needs incites an increasing number of uprisings which in
turn prompt increasingly draconian measures by the rulers—a vicious cycle erupting
as the “Reign of Terror.”
Like the divide between French monarchs and the
people the rulers were intended to serve, today’s leaders may struggle to provide
a desirable workplace experience for employees, resulting in a clash between
the two groups’ ideas and expectations of leadership and corporate culture.
Today’s employees rightly expect a lot from their leaders,
while employers may find themselves wondering what more they can do to attract,
develop and retain top talent.
Just as the characters in Dickens’ novel oscillate
between two cities with varying political climates, today’s struggling businesses
find themselves trapped within A Tale of Two Cultures.
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
Dickens’ novel was inspired by true events, and this blog was inspired by my interviews with dozens of leaders for my book Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture.
These leaders described the characteristics of a great culture, and they also described the effects of two competing cultures following the acquisition of one company by another. Their experiences were similar to my experience where the acquisition of one company that appeared to be a good fit proved to be an utter failure.
Which culture becomes the dominant one? Does the best culture always triumph? What’s the impact of culture on a company’s performance?
Leaders at these “most
admired” companies emphasized that the foundation of high performance is leadership and corporate culture.
It is not a technique. In describing their approach to culture, performance and
accountability, they used phrases such as, “It’s not rocket science,” “It’s
really pretty simple,” and “You’ve heard this before.”
The key, of course, is
bringing together these principles and then acting on them with consistency and
urgency. Here are three factors essential to nurturing and
sustaining a high-performing culture.
It’s Up to You
I’m asked regularly, “How do I get a corporate
Every organization has a culture. If you think you don’t
have one, it likely means you don’t like the one you have.
The reality is that leadership and corporate culture are linked. Culture
starts at the top.
When the behavior you observe in the workplace differs from the core values you’ve articulated to describe your colleagues’ noblest traits and your organization’s most significant achievements, ask:
- Are our values cheap words or do they accurately reflect how things get done in our organization?
- How does the way I think affect the organization’s culture?
- What story can I tell this week that connects an employee action to one of our core values?
Leadership and corporate
culture are the same thing. The French Revolution proved yet again that the
burden of leadership is heaviest at the top. For Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette,
their burdens were lightened by the removal of their heads.
Can’t Motivate Them
Believe it or not, you can’t motivate your
You can incent behavior, but you cannot incent
Motivation comes from within and is driven by an
individual’s passion. Yes, you can motivate someone for short periods of time
through fear or near-term rewards, but sustaining motivation in another person
is a difficult proposition.
Seek instead to inspire. Ask:
- Is our vision big enough to include everyone in our organization?
- Is it bold enough to excite everyone?
- What’s my inspiring vision for the organization? (You can include financial targets, but your vision must give people something to cheer for.)
Good leaders understand what motivates
top talent—hint: it’s not always money—and offer their support so that top
talent is energized, effective and fulfilled.
That means leadership and corporate culture intersect as you nurture
an environment where your employees’ passions are unleashed in their workplace activities
in pursuit of a shared goal.
the “A” Word
Stop wishing for a better corporate culture and
start creating one.
The difference between high-performing organizations
and all the others is the mindset leaders bring to accountability.
The absence of accountability creates a culture of friction,
confusion and under-performance that saps morale, drains profits, and disenfranchises
Accountability is a choice—it’s not punishment. When things don’t
get done, remember that underperformers have made a choice and now you must
choose whether you will address their behavior or tolerate it.
When underperformance occurs in your organization, ask:
- What contract am I willing to make with myself to honor my commitments? What steps will I take to be accountable to myself?
- How consistently do I address behavior that fails to match the expectations I’ve established?
- How would my colleagues rate my fairness and consistency when evaluating performance?
How you address underperformance says as much about you as it does
the person not meeting expectations. In other words, how you address underperformance
is a defining factor of leadership
and corporate culture.
A Tale of Two Cities ends with an execution. The state of your corporate culture needn’t end
in the death of relationships between employees and leadership.
When leaders are intentional about developing, nurturing and sustaining a healthy culture, a high-performing organization with effective leadership and corporate culture will grow and flourish.