Behind every successful leader is a vibrant culture that engages and energizes employees. In almost every case, that culture has been defined, shaped and personified by the leader. The CEO of a company in what is arguably the most competitive industry, financial services, describes the steps that he took, and that other leaders can take, to build a distinctive, dynamic culture.

Business schools spend a lot of time training students to become leaders, teaching skills and increasing knowledge aimed at turning smart, young people into effective leaders. Company training programs pick up where the schools leave off. Consider, for example, programs on workplace diversity, with their emphasis on communication and team building. A critical component of team building is culture, because if teams are to work effectively all employees must understand and embrace the culture of the particular group and business. There’s no doubt that today, a leader’s success depends on how he or she molds and develops that culture.

Shaping a culture is a formidable task, since many of the valuable qualities a leader might have are never taught in a classroom. They can be learned, but only from life experiences. Emotional maturity, authenticity, and a strong character are all essential if leadership in a culture-driven company is to be effective. So is an alignment among the leader’s passion, the company’s mission, and the corporate culture in which everything transpires. But these characteristics are developed through life experience.

My goal in this article is to lay out how to lead a culture-driven company. It is based on my experience running the consumer bank, ING DIRECT. First, I will discuss the relationship between a successful leader and corporate culture today. I will next explain how to define a company’s mission, which is central to visionary leadership, and which management professor Glenn Rowe defines as leaders who “base their decisions and actions on their beliefs and values, and try to share their understanding of a desired vision with others in the organization.”i Finally, I will lay out how to shape the culture you want at your organization.

Leading the cause

Leadership folklore has always idolized the individual who is seen as larger than life. From the heroes of ancient Greece to the corporate raiders of the 1980s, we mythologize the chiefs who appear to be lone wolves or outsiders. Today, though, a new type of leadership is emerging — and it’s just as effective as the old kind.

Today, it’s possible to be in touch with anyone, anywhere, anytime. This development has had a profound impact on leadership. No one boss can be the central conduit for information about a particular company, because employees across the world are talking to colleagues and customers all the time. No one boss has all the answers, because the Internet has given us instant access to experts on any subject. The way we look at leaders has changed, and who we follow has become ever more situational. In fact, one of the reasons it seems so challenging to find successful political leaders today may be that the cultural dimensions of society have become too complex.

The great information highway has also brought us vivid images of every scandal and embarrassment that embroils our leaders in the political, corporate, and entertainment realms. The result is that society has become more cynical and much less tolerant and admiring of leaders. That’s not necessarily fair. Most leaders today genuinely try to get things done for good and even altruistic reasons. They are nonetheless often perceived as being driven by money, materialism, and self-interest. That perception is something leaders have to deal with, by redoubling their efforts to shake off the stigma of egocentric leadership and earn trust. No one is above it all. No leader can escape this reality.

To have an impact in this new environment, a leader must be closely aligned with the culture he or she hopes to lead. That culture might be particular to one corporation, or it could be much broader, reflecting the language and nationality, or ages and interests, of employees. The leader who parachutes in from the outside is a thing of the past. A leader whose own culture is inseparable from a company’s culture is likely to be much more effective.

One popular concept of the corporation paints it as a money-making machine. But when employers and employees alike see the company this way, no one is very happy or productive. When everyone is just putting in hours for a paycheck, one has to ultimately ask, “What is the point?” Who gets what share of the profit? A successful company must have a cause that is bigger and broader than the organization itself. A successful leader must truly believe in a vision and a mission that can be combined to form a cause. He or she must be identified with the cause. “Walk the talk” is the most important criteria. The best leaders are those who derive their authority from having a genuine, inspiring sense of purpose.

An effective leader of a culture-driven organization will be recognizable by several traits. When others try to describe him or her, they think of the vision first. The leader is thought of more as a person devoted to a cause than as a manager running a company. He or she articulates and spreads the values of the organization in a way that is explicit rather than implicit, and his or her personal commitment to success is obvious and frequently verbalized. The culture-driven leader constantly demonstrates passion and energy for the work to be done and is not alone in doing so. In a culture-driven company, the style of leadership itself is emulated at all levels of the company.

So, what type of individual is cut out to lead a company that is first defined by culture and a cause? He or she possesses six fundamental attributes.

  1. A calling.
    The leader must have a sense of purpose that is in aligned with the company’s vision. At ING DIRECT, our calling is to lead Americans back to saving.
  2. The guts to make the calling personal.
    It must come from a real place. Otherwise, authenticity is missing and no one sees the leader “walking the talk.” The leader can’t be an invention of the marketing department or the face of carefully scripted talking points. The leader has to be the author of the mission and feel a passion for it.
  3. A powerful enemy.
    If there’s no one to fight, there’s no job for the white knight. For ING DIRECT, the enemy was the credit card companies pushing spending, with no consideration for the costs to the consumer. Having a dark force against which to fight creates a highly effective leadership goal. The thought or image of an enemy transforms competitors into dragons to be slain by all employees. You believe that you are one of the “good guys.” For workers, this makes coming to work every day more heroic and more of an adventure.
  4. An inner circle.
    Picking a core team is one of a leader’s most fundamental responsibilities. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find and select people who would join a mission. The normal recruitment process does not work nor does the personal address book of colleagues. You network and search for the right people, many of whom are found in unusual places and circumstances. Character and motivation are the two qualities that separate loyal, enthusiastic, workers from mere jobholders. Lots of people can put together good-looking curriculum vitae. Often, though, the best hire is someone who has experienced failure and has something to prove to themselves and the world.
  5. The possibility of failure.
    Working in a constant state of imminent crisis is not for the faint of heart. It can, however, create a company-wide sense that the organization and everyone in it are potential prey for an outside force. Without the risk of failure, everyone will grow complacent and corporate ego will become the silent killer. A sense of crisis keeps the enterprise in an energetic, startup frame of mind.
  6. An aura of mystery.
    A leader can’t make everything appear too mechanical. To drive the passion of your company, you have to create some mystery around you. You need to appear in some small, humble way as different as those that look to you. Team members want to follow, but they need a reason. It has to work like pixie dust.

The mission

The most important question to ask about corporate culture is whether workers think they’re in a job — or on a mission. A visionary leader is on a mission, and inspires his or her employees to feel that way, too.

How do you begin to define the cause? It’s a shame that the corporate mission statement went out of fashion, though it’s easy to see why it happened. Too many such statements failed at their task. An effective vision has to be one that shakes up the status quo and starts a revolution. No one will ever be inspired by a puddle of ambiguity. Too many corporate mission statements were diluted into dullness by consensus and multiple levels of approval, making them utterly ineffective for rallying the troops. A mission statement, though, is the best leadership tool you can ever invent. In grassroots political organizations, the sense of being on a mission develops almost spontaneously, without central leadership, because enough people believe in the cause. A team with a purpose beats a team with a process any day.

So what makes the difference between a forgettable mission statement and one that turns workers into devotees? There are five key qualities to consider.

  1. A mission statement must advocate for someone.
    At ING DIRECT, we set out to champion Americans who were being preyed upon by the spending culture of consumer finance — one that encouraged high-interest debt and imposed onerous banking fees. We offered these customers a way to save, which gave them hope and confidence, and a feeling of being in control of their lives.
  2. The goal in the mission statement should be nearly impossible to achieve.
    At ING DIRECT we’re not likely to actually turn everyone on the planet into a saver. Reaching for the goal is the inspiring and satisfying part. It’s a journey. The horizon should always remain just out of reach.
  3. A mission statement should read like poetry.
    It should be sonorous and simple, and catchy enough that people won’t be able to get it out of their heads.
  4. A mission statement should be written with the leader and the most loyal followers in mind.
    It should not try to please everyone. It has to matter to the people who show up every day.
  5. The leader must come up with the mission statement him- or herself.
    Defining the company’s purpose is a leader’s – and only a leader’s — responsibility. Collaborating on its development or delegating the task goes against the very nature of visionary leadership. The leader must embody the company’s cause and that includes being responsible for defining it.

Getting the culture right

It is necessary to implement a feedback loop between the leader and the rest of the company as it grows. In a start up, the culture is a blank page in need of material. The leader must be aligned with the culture of the organization. At the same time, he or she is also responsible for shaping it. At ING DIRECT, we create the culture through the Orange Code. The Code and the culture it creates attract new workers who share the vision and the mission. Simplifying financial products was our tactic for helping Americans save their money. If ING DIRECT were a nation, the Code would be its constitution. If we were a political organization, it would be our manifesto.

The Orange Code doesn’t measure performance. Rather, it sets out cultural principles like “We will be fair” and “We will constantly learn.” The Code isn’t everything, of course — job skills matter too. As a company grows it becomes harder to ensure every hire is a cultural fit. So at ING DIRECT, we like to measure both job performance and cultural behavior. As you can see in the graph below, an individual can fall into any one of four categories, plotted here along two axes. The vertical line measures job skills, while the horizontal line measures fidelity to the Code, or culture.

Someone with topnotch job skills who fully embodies the Orange Code would fall in the top right corner of the graph. These people are the role models for the rest of the organization. They are looked to as leaders. In practice we tend to look at culture first and job skills second. We’ve found that someone who is a good cultural fit can learn and develop any missing job skills. The reverse is not true. Someone with great job skills but a poor cultural fit is unlikely to really embrace the Code.

It is a fact that a corporate culture will be created with or without the involvement of the leader. But it is also a fact that creating and sustaining a healthy corporate culture requires constant attention and active involvement. Therefore, a leader should actively shape and direct the development of the culture.

Of course, a key part of shaping the culture is hiring the right people. It may sound counterintuitive, but I believe in hiring people who have made honest mistakes, because they most likely will have learned from them. We are all the products of our experiences, good and bad. However, successful people wish to remain successful, while others will do anything to become successful. The way we weather the storms shows true character.

General Norman Schwarzkopf once said, “Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without the strategy.”

When recruiting, I tend to look outside of the banking industry, and for people with broad and unusual backgrounds. People who are too narrowly educated will make the right decisions some of the time, but they won’t have the breadth of knowledge and experience to make the right decisions most of the time.

Once you’ve made the right hire, it’s essential to try to understand the personality of the person working for you. “Understanding personality has become essential for leaders of the complex, knowledge-based companies operating in the global marketplace,” writes Michael Maccoby, a leadership consultant and an anthropologist.ii Go beyond the slogans. It’s the fireside chat versus the office chat. We team up for the right reason. We believe in the vision and will behave by the code that defines the company’s culture. This is where a leader’s true nature comes into play. If I am prepared to be completely open and honest with you, I am inviting you to be the same. That’s the best chance I have as a leader to empower the culture of the organization and accomplish our mission.

  1. Glenn Rowe and Mehdi Hossein Nejad, “Strategic Leadership: Short-Term Stability and Long-Term Viability,” The Ivey Business Journal, September/October 2009.
  2. Michael Maccoby, “To Win the Respect of Followers, Leaders Need Personality Intelligence,” The Ivey Business Journal, January/February 2009.