Leading by example in company culture

Steve Tappin speaks to CEOs about company culture

It was personal tragedy that spurred Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Allan Zeman to take an interest in business.

"My father died when I was eight years old," he says. "I don't really remember him."

The loss forced him to become self-sufficient from an early age while he was growing up in Canada with his mother and older sister.

"I think that, sure, you become a product of your existence," he says.

Mr Zeman's independent spirit has led him to believe strongly in the importance of leading by example in creating his company's culture.

Starting with a newspaper round at the age of 10, he quickly supplemented his income with a weekend job as a waiter.

By now, he was earning a third more than his school teachers.

A visitor looks at jellyfish Ocean Park has been revitalised since Mr Zeman became chairman

"I grew up thinking that if you didn't work, you kind of didn't eat," Mr Zeman says.

At the age of 19, he made his first million, in Canadian dollars, from his own business importing women's sweatshirts made in Hong Kong. He moved to the region soon afterwards.

Leading by example

In Hong Kong, Mr Zeman founded the Lan Kwai Fong Group, which gave a boost to the nightlife in the territory's district of the same name.

In 2003, he was appointed chairman of the government-owned Ocean Park theme resort, turning its fortunes around.

He says that since a company's culture is established at the helm, it is important for the boss to set a strong example.

Start Quote

People watch much more than they listen”

End Quote Rupert Soames Chief executive, Aggreko

"It's usually top-down," he says. "If the boss is good, a company is good. If the boss is bad, the company is bad."

That sentiment is shared by Rupert Soames, chief executive of energy supplier Aggreko.

"People watch much more than they listen," he says.

Mr Soames warns against bosses who say everything is going well when they are laying off workers at the same time. This is damaging for the culture within a company, he says.

"You have to have consistency between what you say and what you do," he says.

Mr Soames believes that ultimately, everyone in a company must set an example to everyone else.

"People pay much more attention to the perceived behaviour of their colleagues and of their boss than they do to management propaganda," he says.

Empower through responsibility
Customer tasting a sample at Whole Foods Company culture is very important at Whole Foods

Whole Foods joint chief executive Walter Robb goes one step further, saying that workers also need to be given more responsibility if the aim is to create a strong culture.

Agreeing that bosses lead by example, he feels they must shape the company's culture through their decisions.

"When leaders give power away to others, they create space for those people to flourish," he says.

"I think our job as leaders, particularly as the company gets larger, is to make sure that holding vessel is vibrant and alive."

An approachable boss

Mr Zeman thinks the company culture needs to be like a family, otherwise it risks becoming mechanical. To this end, the boss should both be approachable and be held accountable by his staff.

He thinks his employees need to have "expectations" of him.

"Once you paint that picture, people then can get together within the company and realise where they fit in and how they can benefit the company," he says.

The chief executive of social networking site Renren, Joe Chen, agrees.

The site has more than 170 million active users and is the most widely used social network in mainland China.

Mr Chen says Renren works hard to create the right corporate culture.

Renren chief executive Joe Chen Renren chief executive Joe Chen thinks titles for colleagues can hinder creativity

The firm communicates its plans for the next two quarters with its workers, discussing what needs to be done and which decisions have to be taken. "We try to be open with our employees," he says.

Mr Chen says that part of creating an open culture is for bosses to be approachable, so at Renren, people are not addressed by formal titles.

For his staff, he is simply Joe, rather than being addressed by a more conventional Chinese way as Joetsung Chentsung. He explains that "tsung" means general.

"By addressing your superiors in that way, you automatically lose 50% of the firepower in your creativity," Mr Chen says. "So we try to do away with all that."

Love the job

Ultimately, Mr Zeman believes that it is essential to care about what you are doing. He says people work hardest and achieve the best results when they take pride in what they are doing.

"Just because somebody delivers the tea, let them do it with style," he says.

"I tell my people if you don't love this company, if you don't love what you do, don't stay."

Again, he stresses that the boss needs to lead by example.

"I love everything I do," he says.

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