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March 13, 2016 Article 2 min read
Spoiler alert: It’s trust. Trust cascades throughout an organization, creating a positive tone and culture. It all starts with relationships at the top — which isn’t hard to understand, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.

What’s the secret to becoming a great place to work? An on-site day care center? A dog-friendly environment? How about a beach volleyball court?

I believe the single most important factor can be summed up in one word: trust. A high level of trust that cascades throughout an organization creates the basis of collaboration and communication, instills a feeling of community, promotes teamwork and acceptance, and allows staff members to be themselves. Staff can trust leaders when they’re transparent, and leaders can trust staff because they know they’re working with a sense of purpose. If your company’s leaders aren’t equipped to build trust and relationships, it shows up in culture deterioration.

Staff must have a shared sense of purpose, inspiration, and reward, and that’s tied to much more than the success of one dynamic CEO or president.  

Closely related to trust is leaders who set the right tone, day after day. The way that leaders interact with their teams can build or erode their cultures. When we looked across our multinational list of great workplaces, the No. 1 key driver of success was recognition for a job well done. It’s critical that staff have a shared sense of purpose, inspiration, and reward, and that’s tied to much more than the success of one dynamic CEO or president.

For example, there’s a Michigan-based global advertising agency that builds its successor programs around this principle. It has a strategic mentoring program that takes culture as seriously as technical skills. Those at the top and on their way to the top are encouraged to carefully consider how they interact with people — every day. Each interaction is an opportunity to develop trust or to inhibit it. Being a great place to work is embedded in the company and in the relationships among its workers — it’s not hidden in a single person.

Finally, a company can never become complacent. If you’re not consciously questioning how you’ll maintain your culture, you’ll lose your edge. Consider the need for larger and more advanced technology departments in companies that didn’t have to think about that in the past. How do they blend those new elements together when the times are changing, when the makeup of the workforce is evolving, when there are clashes with the traditional ways of doing business as usual?

A company is doing well if its staff members feel positively about the culture, and that starts with relationships at the top. This isn’t complicated to understand, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. You must identify and confront the things that can chip away at your culture. Believe in continuous improvement, and remember that the journey is never over.

Tony Bond is an executive vice president and chief innovation officer with the Great Place to Work’s® Advisory Services Practice. He specializes in change management and coaching executives on how to align their organizations with culture initiatives and achieve business results. The Great Place to Work® has spent 25 years identifying and studying great workplaces around the world, and it’s responsible for conducting the confidential surveys comprising FORTUNE’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list.