Design Team Planning and coloring on a Project

Mention the words “Top-down” and employees, organizations, and leaders start to cringe. Organizations are now designed to be flatter, leaner, less siloed, and more idea-driven. These are not a bad thing and certainly go a long way in promoting employee engagement, stronger retention, more creative ideas, and a more collaborative workplace.

However, even as we call for less hierarchy, the demands for leadership development are growing rapidly. Organizations are pushing to create leaders who can both inspire others and perform work in an exacting, ROI driven manner. This isn’t at odds obviously—leaders are needed to steer the ship and no organization can be truly flat—but the question is how to imbue the atmosphere of collegiality and relationships that empower employees while ensuring accountability is firmly intact.

In this case, top-down leadership can actually be the solution (not the hindrance that it is in other cases). I heard a great speech last night at an event in New York City put on by the local ATD chapter. It was entitled “Social Learning in Action” and the presenter, Nabeel Ahmad, from IBM and Columbia University, walked through the constantly shifting arena of social media and its role in the organization.

There were stats that stuck out—Facebook users would outnumber nearly every country’s population short of China, India and a few others; babies born have already been named Twitter, Like and Tweet—but what really stood out was a story he related that ties directly into corporate culture and engaging employees.

When IBM’s new CEO, Ginni Rometty, first took office in early 2012, she took not to email, but rather to her own blog page on the company’s vast social intranet, to welcome the 400,000+ employees. It was the first time that any high-level executive at the company had not used email or more traditional means to address the workforce and it signaled a strong commitment to pursuing collaborative, social media that the company was pushing.

And it worked…according to Ahmad, employee engagement to the video hit all-time highs and it propelled usage of employee social media at the company. In this case, top down leadership created employee buy-in, drove employee adoption and advanced the corporate culture.

This goes beyond social media and technology of course. When your company is looking at how to develop corporate culture, do the following:

  1. Start at the Top – Ensure leadership is behind any initiative and that they demonstrate support for it.
  2. Put it into Action – Leaders who actually walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk are the most effective for developing strong corporate culture.
  3. Recognize Success – Leadership that recognizes how employees are embodying the culture will stoke more adoption and greater infusion of culture into the day-to-day work that drives performance.

Organizations shouldn’t shy away from being top-down as long as leaders are pushing the right ideas in the right ways.

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