Blogs & Comment

Making sense of 'tone at the top'

Tone is for middle managers, too.


In my previous blog entry, I talked about the extent to which the right “tone at top” contributes to a company’s success. But what does it mean to focus on tone specifically “at the top”?

What it can’t be thought to mean is just the CEO, or even the entire executive team. “Top” should be interpreted as meaning whomever you regard as a moral leader. Anyone who embodies the key leadership values of trustworthiness, insight, humility and enthusiasm is likely to be seen as a leader, regardless of job title.

So we need to talk about not just the tone at the literal “top”, but also at the middle. Note that the average tenure of a CEO these days is something like four or five years. This means that the tone at the literal top of the organization is likewise liable to change every four to five years. Moreover, in most large organizations, most people never get to meet the CEO, or for that matter any C-suite executive. By contrast, lower down every organization has a larger class of middle managers who come and go much less frequently. For most employees someone in middle management is effectively “the top” (of the relevant chain of command). So the right tone has to be set at many managerial levels.

Finally, we need to ask what “success” is. When we assert that positive tone at the top “ensures success,” what do we mean?

Here it has to be taken to mean “ethical success,” because “ethical success” means doing justice to the full range of ethical obligations that obtain within an organization. That means doing your best to earn a decent return for investors, while at the same time treating people with respect and playing by the rules, not just in law but also in spirit.

Now no one can ever reasonably expect to turn a tough, competitive business environment into a love-in, or that any organization with hundreds or thousands of employees will be able to guarantee that no one ever breaks a rule. But if an organization is going to come even close to meeting reasonable expectations—reaching the capitalist ideal of playing fair while trying to earn a decent living by selling a decent product—it is going to have to do that in large part through the force of effective leadership.

A positive tone at the top is the closest thing there is to a guarantee of success, as long as you think critically about what those words must mean for a complex organization in a competitive environment.

Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management