Three Leadership Essentials to Create and Maintain a Great Workplace

Three elements, combined with passion and wisdom, are critical to a workplace where employees willingly exert discretionary effort to help the organization succeed.

Aug 1, 2019 | BLOG POST

by Valorie Waldon, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, human resource consultant, Employers Council

This post is the third part of a three-part blog series titled 'A Great Workplace Is Great for Your Local Government'.

In parts one and two of this three-part series, we discussed how creating a great workplace is important to organizational success. There are three components of creating a workplace where people want to do their best work and they center on the people, the communication, and the leadership within the organization. Today we will look at leadership.

It’s about great leaders.

While the need for great leadership may seem obvious, it is not always easy to satisfy. Organizations cannot be great places to work without leaders that intentionally exemplify the characteristics and behaviors that people want to follow. According to Gallup, managers alone determine if you have a “lousy, good, or great” culture. In other words, 70 percent of the variance between the “lousy, good, or great” workplace cultures is found in the capabilities of the team leader.

In addition to credibility, three leadership essentials to creating and maintaining a great workplace include a future focus, prioritization of employee engagement, and creating a culture of accountability. These three elements, combined with passion and wisdom, are critical to a workplace where employees willingly exert discretionary effort to help the organization succeed.

Embrace “Future Focus.”

“Future focus” requires leaders to concentrate on more than the day-to-day tactical transactions that so easily bog us down. Engaging leaders have the ability to imagine and communicate the possibilities of the future in an exciting and captivating way. These leaders not only help others see what is possible, they help them believe that it can become real, for both the organization and the individual. This can only be accomplished if the leader has credibility and passion. Once the leader is clear about the direction that the organization is headed and has articulated that vision, it is important to take stock of where the organization is now, develop a plan to address any gaps, and execute the plan. This requires the leader to capitalize on two important competencies, strategy and execution, in order to shape the future and to make things happen toward achieving that future.

Gallup research tells us that great leaders communicate where the organization has been and where it is going in a clear manner and on a consistent basis. In his book, The Invisible Organization, Mitch Russo explains that having a clear vision is critical for a leader who wants to achieve great things.

Prioritize employee engagement as an organizational strategy.

This does not mean that management determines the engagement program from behind the closed doors of an executive team meeting. The best engagement strategy begins at the front lines, i.e., from the bottom up, not the top down. First, find out how engaged your employees are. Since team leaders are the great variable in engagement, break the results down by manager so that each one has his or her own “team score.” Managers should demonstrate transparency and share the results with the team. Then, with input from the team, develop a plan of action to move forward with team members.

Factors to work on within the context of engagement as a strategy include:

  • Building employee trust in leadership. This is dependent upon manager credibility and being transparent and honest with employees, as well as being inspirational and passionate about the future.
  • Ensuring growth and development opportunities. Development and growth are not synonymous with promotions. They have everything to do with listening to what your employees value and seek in their work lives and then, together, discovering opportunities for them.
  • Making work meaningful. By creating alignment between the employee’s role and the goals and objectives of the organization, employees are able to see how their individual work ties into the important work of the organization.
  • Thinking in terms of the employee experience. Consider adopting a more holistic view of the workplace. This requires actively seeking and providing feedback, taking action on that feedback, and monitoring the results of your actions.
Create a culture of accountability from the top down.

Accountability is not just about identifying someone to take the blame when things go wrong. It is about fulfilling a commitment and delivering on a promise. It is about making sure employees clearly understand what is expected of them and that they understand the impact of either fulfilling their commitment or failing to do so. The impact of meeting the commitment might be positive for the organization and for the individual, whereas failure will have less desirable outcomes.

Pulling it all together.

To make this culture a part of everyday life, the first step is to make sure that there is clarity about what is expected. Often, employees have a more stringent expectation of themselves than leaders might have of them. The more collaborative this part of the process is, the more likely the employee will be willing to commit and, moreover, will be successful in meeting that commitment. Also be sure to explicitly ask the employee to commit to meeting the expectation.

In establishing expectations, it is important to make sure that the employee has the skills, ability, and resources to meet those expectations. If one of those elements is missing, it needs to be addressed early on. Otherwise, we are setting the individual up for failure.

Determine how you will know whether the commitment has been met. What are the measures of success?  Are there deadlines, milestones, or other measurable results?  What is the plan for regular check-ins and feedback regarding progress? Lay these things out at the beginning when expectations are being established.

Be clear about what the impact of successfully meeting the commitment will be on the organization. You also want the individual to understand how failing to meet the commitment will affect not only them, but also the organization, the team, or the customer.

Ask for the employee’s commitment to the expectation. If they aren’t able to commit, return to previous parts of the process. Is there a clear understanding about the desired outcomes? Does the employee have the needed resources and skills to be successful? Do the measurements make sense to the employee and are they realistic?  Once these questions are cleared up, ask again for the employee’s commitment.

Provide feedback regularly, and ask the employee for feedback regarding progress toward meeting the expectations.

Follow through with the employee whether they meet or fail to meet the commitment. If they met the commitment, reward them appropriately. If they have not, address the reasons why. It might mean they need additional training or that the assignment was not appropriate for their role. This is not punishment. It is recalibration.

Without a doubt, leaders make the difference in whether a workplace is great, good, or lousy. Credible leaders demonstrate passion, look to the future, and prioritize creating a workplace where employees want to contribute and make a difference. Employees are watching their leaders and listening to the messages that they send. Take time to make sure that the actions that you take drive the culture that you desire.

Established in 1939, Employers Council provides professional services to over 4,000 employers, helping them develop and maintain effective, successful organizations.

About the author

Valorie Waldon has been an HR consultant with Employers Council since 2007. In her role she consults with and advises members regarding the full spectrum of employee issues and trains on a variety of topics such as HR metrics and analytics, effective performance management, recruitment and selection, employee development and employee relations. Prior to coming to the Council, Valorie had over 20 years of human resource management experience.  In addition to owning and operating an HR firm, she has served as the top HR executive, providing strategic direction and advising executive leadership for organizations in both the public and private sectors.  Her passion has always been to help organizations fully engage their workforce by making the most of the skills, talents, and gifts that their employees bring to the table. She is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder and holds SPHR and SHRM-SCP certifications


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