Leadership e-Tip 9: Why Is Workplace Culture So Important?

As an associate of Integro Leadership Institute, I would like to share with you these thoughts about leadership.

Why Is Workplace Culture So Important? 

Today’s leaders are recognizing that their organization’s culture has a strong impact on their ability to attracting and retaining good people. An organization’s culture is an expression of the prevailing values, beliefs and behaviors that people operate by. And when the top executives are committed to, live by and breathe a common set of values it permeates the entire organization.

So how do you create a great culture?

  1. Identify what kind of people you need working with you to achieve your strategic objectives – When asked most leaders / managers say they are looking for people who are self-starters, creative, open to change, passionate, committed, competent and responsible or demonstrate a good work ethic.
  2. Measure your existing culture / work environment – Is it control-based or a responsibility based culture?Organizations with an “us” vs. “them” culture indications that employees are operating on the belief that management is against them, not for them. Cultures where people do not accept responsibility for their work and always blame someone or something else when things go wrong is not a responsibility-based work culture. And nothing will change until everyone changes their belief about who is responsible.

Starbucks and Southwest Airlines are some well known companies that understand the importance of workplace culture and know how to maintain it. You may know of some other organizations that have a great work culture and are very successful.  However some of you may feel your culture is not where it should be. So today I will share with you how CEO Ralph Stayer of Johnsonville Foods, Sheboygan WI. changed his company’s culture and the effect it has had on it success for almost 25 years.

During his early days as CEO, which was a time of rapid growth, Stayer transformed the culture of his organization, as he puts it, from a “herd of buffalo to a flock of geese”. He saw the similarity between his situation and that of a buffalo herd in which the herd simply follows the lead buffalo anywhere…even over a cliff. In contrast to the buffalo, in a flock of geese, each goose is responsible for getting itself to the flock’s destination, and they work as a team to get there. When the lead goose gets tired, another goose moves to the forward position ensuring they all arrive at their destination. Stayer stopped merely delegating work and instead transferred ownership of the customer relationships to the organizational members. Yes they are called members not employees.

Stayer had to change his belief about people. The turning point for him was when he realized ” …people want to be great. If they aren’t, it’s because management won’t let them be.” Only then could he “let his workers lead” and actually expect that they would start to take responsibility for their performance and the quality of the products they produced. He created a culture on the bedrock of trust, shared vision, and a common set of values. He not only created a great place to work, the quality of their products and customer service relationships also produced great financial results.  Their culture is still strong today, almost 25 year later as demonstrated on their website, “Johnsonville has approximately 1,300 employees – referred to within the company as “members”. Each member takes ownership of product quality to ensure the excellence and the “Big Flavor” of Johnsonville Sausage.”


If you  would like to learn more about how Ralph Stayer transformed the Johnsonville culture read his article in Harvard Business Review (November 1990) How I Learned to Let My Workers Lead.

I also encourage you to reflect on the following questions:

  1. What kind of workers does your organization need to succeed?
  2. How are you as an organization behaving in regards to personal responsibility?
  3. What do your leaders / mangers believe about your workforce and how is that demonstrated at work?
  4. Do we need to improve / change  or culture?

Wishing you success in the days ahead,

Pinky McPherson