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Analysis: Corporate Leaders, It's Not About Them. It's About You.

An executive must win the respect of those around him every day to be effective. Failure to do so undermines his or her success.

May 29, 2012

It's your first day in your new office at your new job. You call a meeting with your top manager and announce, "I want to change the culture here."

"OK," the manager says. "What do you want it to be?"

"Better."

Every new leader wants to put his or her stamp on the culture. The new CEO shows a flashy PowerPoint deck proposing a complicated performance review process, better food in the cafeteria, foosball tables in the break room and contemporary sofas in the lobby. If the goal is to increase performance and achieve greater results, these kinds of "cultural" changes won't get it done.

Perhaps no other industry provides such vivid examples of organizational culture than professional football. Who wouldn't want to work for the New England Patriots, which seem to win every year? Even the New York Giants, this year's Super Bowl champs, have created a culture that's seen success over a long period of time. The Giants and the Patriots have won five of the past 12 Super Bowls. If Fortune had an annual "Best NFL Teams to Work For" list, there's little doubt the Giants and Patriots would be near the top every year. They are the Google and Zappos of professional football.

More illuminating, though, is what has happened in San Francisco, where culture change has occurred in seismic proportions. The 49ers have had one of the worst records in the National Football League over the previous decade. The 2010 season was one of the low points with just six wins. Cash-strapped and reeling, the 49ers made a major change after that season—hiring Jim Harbaugh as their new head coach.

Harbaugh was a decent quarterback during his NFL playing days, but has thrived as a head coach. In his first shot leading a college team, he turned around the University of San Diego, winning two consecutive league championships in just three years there.

He then took over a Stanford University program in 2007 that was 1-11 the prior year. In Harbaugh's four years in Palo Alto, Stanford steadily improved from just four wins in his first season to a record of 12-1 in his final season.

Meanwhile, the 49ers were desperate for wins when they handed the team to local hero Harbaugh last year. The team that went 6-10 a year before finished this past season 13-3, won its division, and took the championship-bound Giants to overtime, falling just short of the Super Bowl.

The lobby furniture is the same. The food is the same. No PowerPoint deck was necessary, yet the culture in the 49ers locker room and around the offices is vastly different.

An executive must win the respect of those around him every day to be effective. Failure to do so undermines his or her success.

Matt Doyle, Stanford's director of football operations, who once worked with Harbaugh every day, said, "He once told me that every decision he made was going to be for the good of the team, said that I might not agree with some of the decisions or staff members might not agree, but it was going to be for the good of the team. And he was right."

Harbaugh preaches team unity. His players say they know he has their backs. He reportedly eats in the cafeteria with the team and sits in coach class with the players on team flights, leaving his first-class seat empty.

Try to remember the last time you saw your CEO in the cafeteria, or sitting in coach. Never mind meals or travel--when is the last time you saw the CEO at all?

When a highly respected corporate turnaround expert was hired as CEO of a flailing technology giant a few years ago, he announced to the employees that his door was open and he was ready and willing to have a dialogue with employees—that he was one of them. Soon after, he had the executive office suite gutted and renovated as a protective bunker, complete with blast-proof walls, bulletproof glass, a private entrance, and a gated, walled-in parking lot. Any credibility and trust he was given by the employees coming in, was undermined.

A quick Internet search will turn up dozens of companies that have announced layoffs, restructuring and downsizing within weeks of handing the CEO a hefty performance bonus. Levels of trust in leadership? Gone.

Too many corporate leaders don't understand that changing the culture isn't about parties or PowerPoint. Culture is shaped by every decision they make. The tone is set by their words and cemented with their actions, every day—when the CEO establishes a strategy and follows it, sets rules and abides by them, not only says he or she is "one of us," but acts like one of us.

Harbaugh has been with the 49ers for just more than a year and regardless of what happens next season, his leadership has turned around a once-struggling organization. He's proven that the culture of an organization changes when every decision made by the leaders is in the best interests of the organization, even if it's not in the best interests of the leaders.

Christopher Otto is senior vice president of strategic communications at advisory firm FTI Consulting. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.