Culture and leadership: Why effective, lasting change has to start with the CEO

Culture and leadership: Why effective, lasting change has to start with the CEO

Ashton Ward, managing partner of Eton Bridge Partners believes that culture within a business is the key to success.

Directing the strategy and satisfying shareholders are essential responsibilities of any CEO, however in my experience the culture, driven by the right values and behaviours should be at the top of the list.

“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. Look after your employees and they will look after your clients.” Richard Branson.

Change cultures through changing behaviours

Not all CEOs see it as part of their job description to set the tone for the organisation they lead. We believe that their role is, in fact, to guide the direction of their business – and to do so by example. A CEO should embody the culture of the organisation they head. In reality, they are an ambassador whose behaviour will set the tone that will cascade through every level of their team.

Most people know what it’s like to work for an organisation that displays its ethos on the wall. We have gazed at lists of values, mission statements and visions that the company in question wants to instil or achieve.

However, people don’t follow words, whether they are in a speech or written on a wall. They follow, and are influenced by, behaviours.

Who causes the most damage to an organisation?

One question every CEO should ask when assessing the importance of culture to the success of an organisation, is this:

What is more damaging to your business – the people who quit and leave, or the people who quit and stay?

It’s not uncommon in business to come across well-established operatives who have their own way of doing things and, when the time comes to change, simply dig themselves into a corner and refuse to buy into the new reality.

In such circumstances, the presence of a CEO who truly lives and breathes the cultural values in a way that permeates every level of an organisation is vital to a line manager’s ability to persuade hesitant personalities. They should move with the times and join their colleagues on the same page.

Dedicated leadership drives lasting change

All too often, businesses roll out significant changes to their culture without ensuring the momentum and dedication are there to make sure those changes take hold and become second nature.

If you do something different for a week, it will feel strange. Do it for 30, 60 or 90 days, however, and it starts to become a habit.

Cultural change must not be a flavour of the month, a book of the week, today’s fad that is forgotten by tomorrow.

The success of any organisation is heavily dependent on the quality and impact of its leadership. Every leader in every department has an impact on those they lead, for better or worse. They have the most direct impact on the day-to-day lives of employees and their roles within an organisation.

Effective leadership leads to discretionary effort

If leaders demonstrate the correct cultural values in a way that ensures their employees buy into them, they become commonplace. People offer a superlative, memorable service not because they are told to, but because they want to.

When you look after your employees and make them feel respected and recognised, they will in turn look after your customers and deliver a level of service that makes a real difference to your bottom line.

When employees are asked to contribute their best effort, those who have a better relationship or rapport with their leader are more likely to do so, thus leading to an engaged workforce.

Every one of us knows the feeling of being surprised and delighted by a moment of customer service that goes above and beyond our expectations.

Excellent service in a restaurant, the team that works late into the night to hit a deadline, the individual who offers a discount on their own initiative when a company’s technology suffers a glitch. All are examples of people going the extra mile on behalf of their colleagues and superiors.

The four factors in employee engagement

When you look as closely at engagement as we have, you’ll see that there are four factors that influence the engagement of your workforce:

1/ The strength of your culture

2/ The contribution of teams

3/ The impact of leadership

4/ The power of the individual

Any number of things – from how the organisation is doing, to problems in the team, to the manager’s leadership style – can significantly affect how engaged employees are and the level of effort they are willing to give their organisation.

Employees want to feel good about the work their organisation does, and they want to have the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to it.

While it might not be realistic to change the core work of the organisation, it is possible to highlight the meaningful work that is already happening and bring it to the forefront.

Many employees also want to know that what they do has a larger impact on the world outside. This is particularly important because 85 per cent of employees say they are more likely to stay longer with an employer that shows a high level of social responsibility.

Lead the way and your people will follow

Working closely with Simon Percival at Eagle’s Flight, a world leader in training senior executives through experiential learning, we believe excellent leadership must answer four key descriptions: authentic, trusting, inspired and inclusive.

How much time do good CEOs spend on the culture of their organisation? It varies. What does not change, however, is their commitment to making it happen.

As the managing partner at Eton Bridge Partners I see my role as to work on the business, rather than work in the business. To focus on my colleagues, to lead with the correct values and behaviours (setting the tone), and to work with the management team setting the strategy and direction.  As a result, we have created a unique culture based on the values of Spirit, Trust and Excellence, which sets us apart.

Focusing on your employees rather than your shareholders is central to driving a successful culture that leads to improved performance – and the CEO, by definition, is key to that process.

Key points for CEOs

The focal points for CEOs to remember when trying to build a peak-performing business through culture and leadership are:

  • Culture is key to excellent business performance
  • The CEO must live an organisation’s cultural values
  • People follow behaviours, not words
  • The cultural message must be relentlessly reinforced
  • Buy-in at all levels leads to discretionary effort
  • Focus on employees, not shareholders

In our second blog we’ll provide you with more insight from Simon at Eagle’s Flight on how to implement effective, lasting cultural change in your organisation.

Ashton Ward

Managing Partner


Ashton is Eton Bridge Partner’s Managing Partner. His vision for the business has always been clear; to be the most trusted partner in executive search and interim management. He is dedicated to building a strong team to fulfil this aim and in 2017 Eton Bridge Partners maintained it’s independent ranking as a top five UK firm. His earlier career was spent in London and Hong Kong in investment banking executive search, before returning to the UK to help establish a highly regarded Windsor based executive recruitment firm, which was sold to a publicly quoted group in 2007.  Ashton co-founded Eton Bridge Partners in 2010. Swimming is Ashton’s exercise of choice, and when able he swims every day. He also enjoys shooting, scuba diving, skiing, walking on the beaches of north Norfolk, spending time with his children, and supporting the Leicester Tigers and England rugby teams.