Beyond the Boardroom: A Guide to Cultural Change in the C-Suite

Creating a healthy, inviting, and dynamic company culture requires more than just hosting an employee pizza party or offering free company swag. Changing workplace culture requires monumental effort — and it all starts at the top, with the C-suite.

Blinkist for Business — November 7, 2023

Why does workplace culture matter, and how can the C-suite’s core values shape it? 

Workplace culture is more than just a buzzword. Cultivating a value-aligned, supportive, transparent, and authentic workplace — fueled by C-suite values — has real, tangible impact. According to research from Gallup, a connection to workplace culture can improve engagement and performance, and employee retention, and can even turn employees into passionate company advocates. 

But creating this workplace culture doesn’t just come from witty company slogans or mission statements. Sure, those elements might help enforce company culture, but they won’t turn the tide. The real influence lies in the C-suite’s ability (or inability) to lead by example, encouraging collaboration, practicing radical transparency, and even taking the hard steps to address messy and uncomfortable conversations.

7 ways C-suite executives can change their mindsets to create a better company culture 

While changing a company’s culture might seem like a herculean task, it can be accomplished by embracing a few key core practices and values.

1. Commit to “contrarian” collaboration

C-suite executives should seek input from various sources by adopting an unlikely kind of workplace mentoring: leaders pair up with other professionals — inside or outside of the company — who have vastly different skill sets or backgrounds. 

Not only will these other professionals, or unexpected mentors offer fresh insight and advice and challenge existing values and beliefs, but doing so signals to employees that they should do the same: seek out diverse opinions, embrace innovative thinking, and value collaboration.

2. Practice radical transparency

It’s common in the workplace for employees to feel like the top of an organization is holding the keys to the company vault: C-suite executives are clued into information that other employees will never be privy to. 

While it’s expected that C-suite executives have access to confidential information, that doesn’t mean that leaders shouldn’t be transparent where they can by:

  • Sharing vulnerabilities
  • Admitting failure
  • Being open about decision-making processes
  • Bringing honesty to conversations about setbacks and challenges

Radical transparency from C-suite executives will make employees feel respected, trusting of leadership, and more motivated — plus, it invites employees to do the same with their immediate work peers.

This is something we embrace heavily at Blinkist, holding company-wide all-hands meetings where our CEO, Holger Seim, will speak openly about financials, areas to work on, risks, and growth areas. We then hold an Ask Me Anything (AMA) where the leadership team answers any and all questions that come up. These questions can be asked anonymously if preferred.

3. Get comfortable with “below the table” conversations 

The truth is, every workplace has two kinds of conversations: below the table and above the table. According to Michelle Brody, author of Own Your Armor, above-the-table conversations include everything that employees and executives say out loud.  And below-the-table conversations are everything that’s unsaid: tension, complaints, opinions. As Michelle Brody notes, most executives, understandably, don’t ever want to look under the table; it’s messy, hard to navigate, and often difficult to look at. 

But by facing them head-on, C-suite executives will signal to employees that they value their concerns and feelings, and aren’t afraid to address challenges with grace and confidence, no matter how uncomfortable they are. 

To address these conversations, try:

  • Offering an anonymous forum or survey for complaints and concerns, like we mentioned we do at Blinkist 
  • Asking the Human Resources or People department to hold specific “office hours” and encourage employees to attend to discuss any underlying issues or grievances
  • Encouraging team leaders to talk openly and honestly with their direct reports about their specific worries or annoyances. 

4. Own your armor

Everyone has an instinctive “fight, flight, or freeze” response to stress  — we’re all human. Brody calls this “armoring up.”  By owning these protective measures, C-suite executives will encourage employees to practice their own accountability. 

Step 1: To own your armor, you’ll first need to own your threats. To do this, answer a few important questions:

  • What behaviors really bother you at work?
  •  Is there a particular person you find to be the most threatening? 
  • What is it about them that frustrates you the most?

Step 2: Take a moment to think about how you react to stressful situations at work:

  • Do you react by fight, flight, freeze, or a combination of all three? 
  • What actions might you take on your very worst day at work?
  • Where does that reaction come from?

Step 3: The third step is about owning your impact. To do so, consider questions like:

  • How do you think your armor affects the people around you?
  • If you’re really honest with yourself, what problems have your armor caused the team in the past?
  • How might your actions influence company morale and direction?

5. Bring your whole self to work

At work, blurring the boundaries means showing up to work as a human being, not a robot.

Minter Dial, author of You Lead, for example, suggests talking about personal priorities and ethics in order to bridge the professional and personal gap. Additionally, C-suite execs should practice getting curious about work peers’ personal lives: celebrate personal milestones like anniversaries or birthdays, or ask about new hobbies or interests. 

Making these personal connections and mental notes will encourage employees to value their peers for more than their workplace performance, embrace empathy, and lead with compassion.

6. Tap into vertical learning

To influence company culture through a set of values, it’s crucial to actually understand what your values are (easier said than done). To do so requires something Heather Hanson Wickman, author of The Evolved Executive, calls “vertical learning.” It’s the process of becoming more emotionally intelligent and self-aware so that you can adjust your core beliefs.

To engage in vertical learning, leaders should adopt daily mindfulness practices and get clear on their purpose by recounting key events in their lives (both good and bad), paying attention to feedback, and creating a personal guiding statement like “Embrace every challenge as an opportunity for growth.”

7. Ditch the hierarchy 

Performance reviews are a staple in the workforce. But in truth, performance reviews often do more harm than good: they can reinforce hierarchies, provide a biased view of performance, and can ultimately make employees feel fearful, on edge, and uninspired to take risks and challenge the status quo.

Instead, embrace two-way conversations, accountability, and evaluation, as Samuel A. Culbert, in his book Good People, Bad Managers, calls it. This way, managers are given feedback, too. By adopting a non-hierarchical value system, and getting rid of outdated standards like performance reviews, your workforce will feel more at ease, supported, and egalitarian.

Using C-suite core values to fuel company culture 

Changing an outdated mindset at the top of an organization is not merely an option; it’s a necessity for driving meaningful and lasting change throughout the entire company. By practicing radical transparency, owning your armor, and addressing the often-difficult “under the table” conversations, C-suite executives have the ability to set the tone and shape the culture of an entire organization.

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