Tone at the Top: Why Board Member Values Matter

No matter how many policies and guidelines a corporation issues regarding standards of behavior, the lessons that matter are not expressed through writing. Tone at the top tier management level is all about trust, and trust is earned through actions. People on all rungs of the corporate ladder notice on a daily basis the attitude of their leaders and talk about it at the water cooler. If leaders do not act in a trustworthy and ethical manner that upholds consistent company values, its effects will be amplified throughout the organization. This can generate a detrimental cascade of morale loss and productivity plummets whose effects extend beyond the company to its shareholders, ultimately hurting one of every firm’s most important intangible assets— public goodwill.

It won’t be long before these effects are reflected financially as earnings per share begin to drop and the company’s reputation falls apart. Not to mention, the loyal employees of the company will also lose respect for its management, causing efficiency to decline and structural organization to weaken. Employees value the sense of pride and integrity that comes with working for a company, beyond simply turning a profit. When choosing where to work, employees look for companies exhibiting strong, cohesive values that resonate with the public. 

Hence, establishing and exercising core values in the boardroom early on is imperative to ensuring a company’s credibility and unity.

Strategies Proven to Improve “Tone at the Top”

  1. Establish clear values and expected standards of behavior. The CEO and upper management should design and publish operating principles that reflect the company’s principles as well as provide stringent operational and ethical expectations for its workforce.
  2. Strive for consistency between standards and actions. When dealing with corruption cases, companies must issue a swift response and honor its guidelines. It is important for board members to focus on enforcing company principles rather than depart from them during high pressure situations to mitigate the damage of such cases. Failing to comply with company standards or trying to slide the problem under the rug will result in a larger scandal down the road and risk a major breach of corporate trust. 
  3. Stay vigilant for internal dissatisfaction. Monitoring corporate buzz and internal affairs will afford a richer understanding of company culture from the perspective of different stakeholders. This gives management a better idea of what’s working and what isn’t in striving to achieve greater employee satisfaction levels and productivity.
  4. Reward principled performance. Successful companies develop a framework for recognizing and rewarding ethical performance, especially in ambiguous or difficult circumstances. Spotlighting and rewarding good behavior throughout the company, regardless of status, will incentivize others to follow that same model.
  5. Manage upward paths carefully. Management should be careful not to promote anyone with blemishes on their ethics or compliance track record. Negligent promotions feed the belief that poor compliance records are overlooked and acceptable, leading to future nonconformism should ethical issues re-arise.
  6. Genuine networking to spread company ideology. Businesses are all about connections, so it is well-recommended for the CEO and board to establish connections with key stakeholders both within and outside of the organization. Leaders must openly communicate their values on an ongoing and transparent basis, using different platforms and dissemination systems. 
  7. Communicate with top management. While the behavior of all members of an organization carries a weight, remember that the CEO’s behavior is the most publicized when it comes to telling the company story and holding responsibility for a company’s growth or mishaps. Behind the scenes, boards hold a direct responsibility in overseeing and understanding how management’s actions are perceived by the public. Establishing collaborative communication between the two parties will keep company performance in check and boost the company’s public standing.

Key Takeaways

Setting the right company tone is pivotal to ensuring company success and reputability. Communicating the right values to both internal and external players will facilitate healthy corporate relations with investors, employees, suppliers, regulators, and other constituents. Many corporate failures can be linked to CEOs and governance boards who have neglected to develop a cohesive company culture grounded in integrity, leaving room for scandals to arise. Sometimes, all it takes is a single rumor of impropriety and inefficient conflict management to turn a company’s reputation on its head. Ultimately, the moral fiber of an enterprise rests upon the collective effort of its board members and management to monitor these rumors, deliver judicious consequences, and enforce strict company regulations.