Making Sense of Tone at the Top
In my last blog entry, I began a discussion of the question of the extent to which the right “tone at top” contributes to a company’s success. I began by exploring just what we mean by ‘tone” in this context, and what kinds of activities and behaviours by leaders should be seen as constituting setting the right tone.
Next, what does it mean to focus on tone specifically at the top?
The “top” can’t be thought to mean the CEO, or even the entire executive team. “Top” should be interpreted as meaning whomever is at the top, for you, ethically: whomever you regard as a moral leader. Because leadership isn’t a job title. Anyone who embodies the key leadership values of trustworthiness, insight, humility and enthusiasm is likely to be seen as a leader, regardless of job title.
So let’s talk for a moment about not just the tone at the literal “top”, but also the tone at the middle. Average tenure of a CEO these days is, what, 4 or 5 years? This means that the tone at the literal top of the organization is likewise liable to change every 4 to 5 years. But lower down, every organization has a larger class of middle managers who come and go much less frequently.
And from the point of view of ethics, that has to be important. Don’t forget, in most large organizations, most people never get to meet the CEO, or for that matter any C-suite executive. For them, someone in middle management is effectively “the top” – the top of the relevant chain of command. So the right tone has to be set at many managerial levels.
Finally, we need to ask what “success” is. When we assert that positive tone at the top “ensures success,” what do we mean?
“Success” here has to be taken to mean “ethical success,” because “ethical success” means doing justice to the full range of ethical obligations that obtain within an organization. That means doing your best to earn a decent return for investors, while at the same time treating people with respect and playing by the rules. Success in this regard means achieving a reasonable level of compliance with not just the letter but also with the spirit of the law, and with the unwritten rules of the game, and with reasonable social expectations.
Now, no one can ever reasonably expect to turn a tough, competitive business environment into a love-in, or expect that any organization with hundreds or thousands of employees will be able to guarantee that no one ever breaks a rule. But if an organization is going to come even close to meeting reasonable expectations, meeting the capitalist ideal of playing fair while trying to earn a decent living by selling a decent product, it is going to have to do that in large part through the force of effective leadership.
A positive tone at the top is the closest thing there is to a guarantee of success, as long as you think critically about what those words must mean for a complex organization in a competitive environment.