“You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly live long enough to make them all yourself.” – Samuel Levenson

CEOs can have a significant influence upon their company’s leadership style and culture.

Let’s start by looking at 3 CEOs who created positive company cultures that continue to drive these thriving organizations.

1. John Legere

John Legere

John Legere (pronounced “Ledger”) is perhaps the world’s most eccentric, and often controversial CEOs. Loved by his employees, and hated by his competitors, Legere took a failing cookie cutter mobile carrier and doubled its customer base to over 67M in less than five years. He branded T-Mobile as the uncarrier, further committing to this (un)carrier’s customer-centric focus.

From the beginning, Legere’s strategy was to radically overhaul both T-Mobile’s product and company climate. He created a culture of passion and bidirectional communication.

Regarding the latter, he stated:

“When I go to retail stores, I jokingly tell the employees that everybody between me and them is the enemy. In effect, what I mean is that in my paramilitary hierarchy, if I can hear them and they can hear me, everything will be fine. All we need to do is make sure the entire company understands that it’s their job to pass information between us. And so far so good.”

According to Business Insider when Legere began his mission at T-Mobile in 2012, he demanded that every time he spoke publicly to the company, all employees at every level of T-Mobile across the entire country would be invited to watch him speak. He also accepts live interactive text and voice questions from any of T-Mobile’s 50K or so employees throughout these meetings.

He gives every employee stock in the company and consistently lets them know he respects them as owner and partner.

He makes it his habit to visit their 18 major call centers in the US, and was the only T-Mobile CEO to have physically visited any of them.

He takes selfies with his call center agents and personally thanks them for their work in driving the culture of the company that has forced the entire mobile industry to adapt a more pro-consumer model.

His long hair, quirky attire, and casual tone set him apart from many other CEOs—and so does his 98% Glassdoor employee approval rating.

Most importantly, his employee- and customer-centric culture is responsible for overtaking Sprint as the 3rd largest mobile carrier, expanding T-Mobile’s coverage area to rival Verizon’s and ATT’s, and more than doubling its own customer base. All of this while signups for new mobile service across the country are on the decline.

Legere’s advice to business school students:

“Listen to your employees, listen to your customers, shut the f*** up, and do what they tell you.”

Listen to your employees, listen to your customers, shut the f*** up, and do what they tell you. Click To Tweet

2. Cheryl Bachelder

Cheryl Bachelder

Cheryl Bachelder took a franchise model company that everyone “knew” was going to fail and made it successful.

She transformed the culture to one of collaboration, relationship building and most notably, servant leadership. Under Cheryl’s watch, this style of leadership permeated throughout the organization, and led to the company regaining the trust of its franchisees.

Bachelder was appointed CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. in 2007.

Popeyes is the second largest fast food chicken franchise, with more than 1700 locations in 47 states.

At the start of her tenure as CEO, sales had been trending downward and profits were in the negative. Popeyes had seen four CEOs walk out their doors in the seven years prior to Bachelder’s appointment. In 2007, the company’s stock price was a mere $13 a share, down from $42 in 2002.

The culture was mostly negative. Bachelder’s team had long ago accepted the idea that “nothing ever changes,” and tensions were high between corporate executives and franchise owners.

Two others were offered the CEO position prior to Bachelder, and turned it down. Bachelder would turn everything around.

During her ten year stint, Bachelder and her team created a workplace where people were treated with respect and dignity, while being challenged to perform at their best.

Self-interest was set aside in favor of collaboration and team play. Bachelder wanted to make the Popeye’s brand highly attractive for the customer experience, and equally, for the the employee experience.

During an interview with Harvard Business Review, she disclosed the following:

“The Popeyes turnaround has become a case study in what happens when leaders think about serving others—in this case, our franchisees. Leadership is an act of stewardship, not a practice that’s solely for your personal benefit. The test of our leadership is simple: Are the people entrusted to our care better off? That lesson is not discussed much in business schools, and it’s not the model that many leaders of my generation have demonstrated.”

Popeye’s stock quadrupled since Bachelder’s initial appointment, and they added more than $1 billion in US system sales over the last 10 years, according to Nation’s Restaurant News Top 100 data. The company also upped its franchisee satisfaction rating from 76% to 93%!

No doubt that transforming the management team from a leader first model to a servant leadership model, while creating a collaborative company culture focused on building and maintaining relationships were key to her success.

Earlier this year Ms. Bachelder stepped away from her role as CEO of Popeyes after they were purchased by Restaurant Brands International, the corporation that owns Burger King.

She has written a book on servant leadership entitled, Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others.

Leadership is an act of stewardship, not a practice that’s solely for your personal benefit. Click To Tweet

3. Elon Musk

Elon Musk

If you were to ever research the possibility of interning or working at SpaceX, one of Elon Musk’s companies, you’ll find a few recurring themes: fast paced, hard work, and long hours.

These are words that often scare people away, yet employees are saying these things about SpaceX on Glassdoor and still submitting 4 and 5 star reviews.

The environment at SpaceX isn’t about comfort and ease, the company culture is one of being mission driven.

Everyone at the company believes they are responsible for getting humans to Mars. Their ultimate goal is to help humanity become a multi-planetary species. They set aggressive, arguably unrealistic goals, yet the people of SpaceX keep getting the work done because their mindset is on the mission.

The general working assumption at SpaceX is that everything is possible. In an interview with news site space.com, Brian Bjelde, VP of Human Resources stated:

“We try not to limit our thinking except by the limits imposed by physics. If someone says something can’t be done, whether it’s a business decision or an engineering one, they better have Einstein and Newton backing them up. Otherwise it’s ripe for discussion.”

Bjelde went on further to say that their organizational structure is fairly flat when it comes to hierarchy and the generation of ideas. The best idea always wins, not just the idea of the most senior person in the room, or the highest ranking personnel.

Described as “awesome to work with” Elon Musk is the 8th best rated CEO, with an approval rating of a whopping 98 percent of his company, according to Glassdoor reviews.

Musk literally encourages his staff to tell him when he’s wrong. Musk has fostered an environment where it is safe to speak up, and would rather his employees were more afraid to not speak up.

There you have it. This year’s top 3 CEOs in terms of their influence on creating awesome company cultures, and how these cultures drive their success.

As promised we also picked 3 CEOs with the worst company cultures. These toxic cultures, if left unchecked, may eventually lead to their downfall. Let’s take a look at them.

4. Travis Kalanick

Travis Kalanick Worst CEO of 2017

While in the back of an Uber driver’s vehicle, one of Travis Kalanick’s traveling companions appears to say that she’s heard Uber is having a hard year.

To this, Kalanick retorted:

“I make sure every year is a hard year. That’s kind of how I roll. I make sure every year is a hard year. If it’s easy I’m not pushing hard enough.”

Unlike SpaceX where working hard is part of an overarching, well-communicated companywide mission, Uber’s culture sends the message that employees should work hard, just because they should work hard. If for some reason they don’t appear to be working hard enough, then they need to be pushed to work harder.

You know, just because.

Uber might be a culture of working hard, but some of its executives might be partying even harder. An email known internally at Uber as the “Miami Letter,” was evidently intended to outline some rules of conduct for an upcoming celebration event in the Florida city.

A snippet from the letter reads:

“Do not have sex with another employee UNLESS a) you have asked that person for that privilege and they have responded with an emphatic ‘YES! I will have sex with you’ AND b) the two (or more) of you do not work in the same chain of command. Yes, that means that Travis will be celibate on this trip. #CEOLife #FML.”

That was the mild part. You can read the rest of the letter here.

Many believe letters like these contributed to their culture of partying, sexism, and widespread unprofessionalism. At this same event one of the top executives got in trouble for his inappropriate sexual behavior, and later resigned.

No doubt that the corporate ideals for appearance, language and presentation have become increasingly more casual across the U.S. in the past few decades, and we say this is mostly a good thing.

Nevertheless, some areas of conduct and professionalism that must always be maintained in order to create a welcoming work culture where the majority of employees can thrive.

We praised John Legere earlier for his down-to-earth style, and his pushing of occasional boundaries. The distinction is that T-Mobile still seems to know that boundaries exist, and maintains a healthy degree of human decency in its communications—something we cannot confidently say about Uber.

Uber has since changed its leadership and is working diligently to change its culture. Perhaps their new CEO will make it to our top category in the future. Let’s wait and see.

5. Eddie Lampert

Eddie Lampert

Whether or not you’ve heard the name Eddie Lampert, you’ve heard of the formerly successful retailers Sears, and Kmart.

Lampert is the CEO of Sears Holdings, which owns both.

Likely your parents’ or grandparents’ favorite store before they discovered Walmart, Sears survived both world wars and the great depression.

However, it might not withstand the trials of Lampert’s leadership.

While many brick and mortar retailers struggle with the rise of online shopping, what sets Sears apart from the others are the steps that Lampert took when he first acquired the company, according to Business Insider.

He used a shareholders first approach, and ignored what his customers and employees were saying. Instead of investing in capital improvements such as brand revitalization, he used Sears’s available cash to buy back shares. This increased the price of the shares for the short term, serving only the interests of the shareholders (and himself).

In the same article, Business Insider, quotes Robin Lewis, a 40-year retail consultant and CEO of The Robin Report:

“The retail industry is predicated on serving the customer, valuing the customer, listening to the customer, and ultimately giving the customer what she wants — and it’s the employees who deliver this. Anything less is a recipe for terminal illness, if not suicide. Clearly, in the case of Sears, Eddie Lampert has turned a completely blind eye to this truism, and has been bleeding the company to a long and slow but well-managed death for the sole benefit of major investors and himself.”

Lampert’s ideology is nearly opposite of how our top CEO picks choose to operate.

According to employee reviews and other online sources, company executives visited stores and told workers they were no longer allowed to discuss any issues about where they worked.

It’s also claimed that upper management stopped seeking employee buy-in once Lampert took over, and began dictating how the stores should be run according to “corporate standards.”

Whether these things were stated by executives as overtly as the reviews claim, this does appear to be the prevailing perception of their workforce.

(For the record, Sears denies that employees are discouraged from giving feedback, and hosts a blog featuring only positive employee reviews.)

Culture University points out a similarity between employee reviews of Sears and those of successful online retailer Amazon, suggesting both have an equally toxic work environment. They also establish, however, that the primary cultural differentiator between the two is how the opportunity is presented to employees.

One can apply to Amazon, a company that presents itself as “pioneers” on a mission, who “invent,” while Sears wants to “achieve operational excellence to drive profitable sales.

Perhaps the lesson is that if you’re going to have a poor company climate, at least have an awesome shelter where people can escape from it. It seems that employees can tolerate less than ideal working conditions if the company can provide them with a greater sense of mission and purpose.

6. Bernardo Hees

Bernardo Hees

photo via Bloomberg

Another company to be considered more shareholder-friendly, than consumer— or employee-friendly is The Kraft Heinz Company.

Heinz and Kraft Foods merged in 2015, becoming the third largest food and beverage corporation in North America.

After a disappointing quarterly earnings report this year, the cost-cutting, culture changing CEO Bernardo Hees might be ready to rethink his company’s philosophy.

Perhaps this marks the beginning of its cut-throat culture of winning paradoxically achieving the opposite.

Hees’s entry as CEO came with mass layoffs, extreme cost-cutting measures, and unwelcome changes to the culture.

Some of these changes include insane policies such as prohibiting employees from bringing rival food products to work, or having more than two personal items on their desks (to reduce detractions).

Despite being one of the worst ranked companies to work for (according to Glassdoor), and Bernardo Hees himself receiving a 24% approval rating, their promise of rapid advancement and lucrative rewards for those willing to work hard keep the applicants pouring in.

According to the Chicago Tribune, The Kraft Heinz Company received 17,000 applications for its 170 available management positions available in the U.S. in 2016.

The company’s executives readily admit that working at Kraft Heinz isn’t for everyone. Their Glassdoor profile and policies would lead us to believe that Kraft Heinz isn’t for most people.

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By | September 7th, 2017|Leadership|

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