Top leaders set the tone at fulfilling workplaces

It’s not an accident that companies in this annual survey — and in many others — repeat as one of the top places to work in metro Atlanta.

In this year’s AJC survey, organizations like Virtual Properties Realty,, Alston & Bird and Woodward Academy either won for a second time or ranked very high again.

Creating a culture where employees feel valued is hard work that has to be driven by the top leaders. Even then, it can take years to develop.

By contrast, organizations that never make it on these lists are often led by tone deaf CEOs who think they have more important things to do. After all, they reason, if they pay decent salaries and benefits, the rest will take care of itself.

Only it doesn’t.

In survey after survey, it’s not the money paid in salaries that separates the well-respected employers from the rest of the pack. And it’s not the corporate gym, fancy employee lounge, free food and coffee, or holiday party, either.

Instead, it’s the feeling workers get — day in and day out — when they have a real stake in the success of an organization.

Does what I do matter?

Does my boss treat me like a human being?

Do I dread getting into stop-and-go Atlanta traffic in the morning to drive to work, or am I anxious to tackle the next task when I get there?

Work is a relationship — with your boss and your fellow workers — that requires nurturing every day, like any other relationship. A rotten spouse who brings home flowers on Valentine’s Day is still a rotten spouse. The same goes for a boss or a company.

I’ve had the opportunity, as a business editor who writes the “5 Questions for the Boss” column, to interview dozens of CEOs over the last few years. When I sit down with them, I often can tell who cares about creating a fulfilling workplace and who doesn’t.

One CEO told me that time is the currency company leaders trade in. They are constantly in demand, so how they decide to spend their days sets key priorities that reverberate throughout an organization.

Some leaders allocate time every week to meet individually or in small groups with employees — where no issue is off the table.

Some write weekly messages — in emails or on internal blogs — about the latest business developments or what they've been up to. They believe it's impossible to over-communicate with employees — and it is.

Some make it a point in senior leadership meetings to solicit the opinions of everyone else in the room before giving their own. They want to hear opposing views, not use their power to suppress them. They know the limitations of surrounding themselves with just “yes” people.

When top leaders concretely demonstrate how others should be treated, managers below them tend to act similarly. Some end up holding quick daily “huddles” with their departments. Over time, a “we’re-in-this-together” attitude can permeate the entire company, increasing workers’ affinity for it.

Do these types of efforts help the bottom line?

Again, study after study has indicated productivity increases when employees feel valued. Why would any leader think otherwise?

Almost every CEO I’ve interviewed stressed the importance of delivering high-quality customer service for their companies to be successful. The best way to do that, as far as I know, is by treating workers with respect.