On a recent cross-country flight, I was pleased to see that the in-flight entertainment included a fireside chat with Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn.
Weiner is a CEO I greatly admire for his authenticity, clear communication and the fact that he values mindfulness and compassion in the workplace. So I was excited to hear more about what LinkedIn is doing to create an irresistible place to work where people learn and thrive.
Weiner’s perspective is that building a strong company culture comes down to three main components:
Authentic leadership means the company leaders make decisions based on the values of the company culture. It means that the CEO can get asked, “What’s our culture?” and answer the question both in words, and by example. Employees start rolling their eyes when they hear about company culture if they don’t believe the leaders actually mean it. Leading by example is critical because it means that C-level executives will get called out if they don’t embody the principles of the company.
To create a great culture, you have to be clear about what matters. This is where values come in. It’s important to note that culture and values are not the same thing. Values are part of the culture. More specifically, values are the operating principles upon which a company’s leadership make day-to-day decisions.
Make sure you codify your values and that leaders are using these values to make decisions.
“If the company doesn’t have a codified culture, employees and managers will manifest whatever culture they’ve learned in the past and are coming in with,” Weiner explains. “You want to make sure the leadership that’s setting up new offices in different locations are good cultural actors. Because, if that’s not the case, they will set up the office with their own culture and where the want to take the company, and that’s a very good way of leading to a bad outcome.”
The third aspect of creating great culture is aspirational. It’s important to have a sense of what kind of company you aspire to be, because it “gives the company permission to not necessarily constantly be doing everything that it ultimately wants to do,” as Weiner puts it.
Without having an aspirational component, employees quickly become cynical when they see a gap between the company vision and reality. Factoring in aspiration means that people know that the company is headed in the right direction, so they are more inclined to be patient and understanding when the company isn’t 100% perfect at living up to its values.
The Common Characteristics of Top Leaders
Weiner believes that thriving cultures require outstanding leaders, and he feels that all top-notch leaders have three characteristics.
Top leaders are coaches
When you’re at a 15-person startup, everyone needs to be able to get stuff done fast. So, startups default to the skill set of “get it done quickly.”
As you hire people and grow to a 50 or 100 person company, they see you, one of the founders, as a leader, and they come to you for advice. If you help them solve their problem once, that’s only once – they’ll still keep coming to you for help. But if you coach them on how they can problem-solve, that’s much better.
The most advanced coaches realize that they can coach others to coach their teams. That’s how you get to scale. It’s the difference between giving someone a fish, teaching them to fish, and teaching them how to teach others to fish. After all, in order to grow a company to scale, you need to grow the leadership team around you.
Top leaders carve out time for being proactive and strategic
This is important but difficult, because it requires time. Checking off a giant to-do list is something teams get good at as they are achieving success. But it’s hard to lead if you can’t think proactively; if you’re constantly reacting or fighting fires, or playing catch-up to competitors, you’ll always feel like you’re behind. It’s important to “carve out cycles” – such as 90 minutes a day – to “catch your breath, connect the dots, and synthesize.”
Top leaders inspire people to “act like an owner”
The most successful companies are where individual employees talk about challenges the company faces as “we” and not “the company.”
“As soon as you start to not think like a victim, and instead think like someone who can influence the outcomes, that’s who you become,” Weiner notes. The victim mentality unfortunately often takes root at large companies where employees feel that their opinions don’t matter because it’s someone else’s job to fix a problem.
Acting like an owner means that employees are empowered to voice their suggestions and that there is a way for the company to respond to feedback. When everyone at the company sees the company as a “we” and not a “they,” people can express frustration and share solutions, and then they’ll work to make those solutions happen.
Bringing out the Best in Top Employees
While managers tell people what to do, leaders inspire them to make good decisions. This comes back to authentic leadership – it’s important for leaders to embody the values they espouse because most people are very good BS detectors.
More specifically, great leaders find alignment between what employees want to accomplish and what they want employees to accomplish, and explain why it’s such a strong fit. Weiner encourages managers to let employees have autonomy and purpose, and develop mastery along the way. Let employees leverage their intelligence, passion, compassion, resourcefulness and show them how their strengths can create value on a global basis; now that’s inspiring.
Orienting Around a Sense of Purpose
It’s noteworthy that LinkedIn hosts monthly InDays, where teams come together for activities that often include volunteering together. So managers make a practice of bringing in a sense of social purpose to the company on a regular basis, which I’m sure impacts LinkedIn’s culture in a positive way.
It also makes sense that LinkedIn is committed to social impact because one of the words Weiner kept mentioning in his fireside chat was “compassion.” Weiner recognizes that despite the fact that humans by default are egocentric – we see the world through our own lens – he sees the value of people who recognize others’ perspectives. That sensibility makes for a great culture, and a great company.
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