If you’ve been with us here at Leading Thoughts for very long, then you know that I believe in the idea that leadership is primarily about creating a culture. Culture, of course, is a product of whatever is encouraged to grow. It is a leader’s job to make sure the right things are growing in his or her firm and thus that the right culture is prevailing.
Part of every healthy, thriving business culture must be, as my southern grandmother used to say, that “the cream can rise to the top.”
When it comes to leadership, these words have three distinct applications for me. The first is very much on our minds as we watch the tragic unfolding of the Harvey Weinstein revelations in Hollywood. Clearly, this man abused women for years. Apparently, those who knew about it were either too cowardly to confront it or did not know who to turn to for help.
It is essential—hear me on this, please—that you make sure everyone in your firm knows that all misconduct will be dealt with swiftly, that anyone who reports it is heard, protected, and honored, and that doing the right thing is always the right thing. I cannot describe here what devastation has visited organizations of every kind because they merely offered suggestion boxes to employees rather than building a noble, valiant culture in which right conduct was expected, wrong conduct was never tolerated, and the truth was always welcomed at the top.
The second application of this truth of cream being able to rise to the top has to do with good ideas. You hire good people. You train them. You help them care about what they do. It is natural that they are going to be creative, that inventions and new procedures and ways to improve will come to them. Be sure you create a culture in which these brilliant ideas can surface and be rewarded. Make sure your culture isn’t competitive and self-protective in the sense that good ideas are quashed because someone with a little authority might be embarrassed. Create a culture in which the cream of every type can rise to the top.
Finally, make sure your culture encourages the human cream to rise to the top. I love the stories about the kid in the mailroom rising through skill and hard work and one day becoming the CEO of that same company. I love the tales about the administrative assistant having surprising abilities and the company investing in her so she one day becomes the CFO.
Create an upward draw in your firm. Create a magnetic pull on talent. Reward your managers for finding talent. Design incentives. Fashion programs for rewarding innovation. Make education available at every level. Celebrate courageous upward movement passionately.
I’ll close with my favorite story about this last application of the cream rising to the top. A firm I work with offered a programing class for everyone interested. The usual suspects took the course, but so did an older maintenance worker. He used to call himself simply “a janitor.” This man took the first programing class, then a half dozen more. He had game. Serious game. Now, he’s a programmer for the company and makes five times what he was. And he is really good. He makes everyone laugh by saying, “It ain’t much different from trimming bushes.”