Photograph by Jamie Betts

Too often, the way we speak or write shifts ownership or blame. Kevin Eastman, R’77 and G’89, of the NBA focused on changing a culture of “no” to a culture of “know.”

When Eastman  arrived in Los Angeles, the Clippers were a disaster. As he made the move from coaching to the front office, he conducted a listening tour and discovered an environment where the word “no” dominated and people were afraid to ask questions. The culture was unhealthy. By shifting the organization to a culture of “know,” he learned where the problems were and how to address them. Transparency and openness were key.

The same held true for Michael Dan, former chairman, CEO, and president of Brinks. He required that incidents involving trucks be described as “crashes,” not “accidents” to better understand the role that systems played in each crash. By shifting the terminology, he shifted the conversation and made it more possible to identify and solve the problems leading to crashes.

Loyalty isn’t about blindly following a company or CEO. It is about shared values and voluntary adherence to them.

When Matt Williams was with the Martin Agency, an advertising firm, he screened for talent but hired for heart. He did so because he knew that when the company experienced setbacks, those hired for heart would help the company through the setbacks productively. They rolled up their sleeves and pushed through.

Beto Guajardo of Starbucks believes culture trumps strategy. He said it’s important for leaders to define corporate values through their eyes and share with others what the values mean to them.

Insurance companies typically have a chief risk officer. Markel doesn’t. Executive vice president and COO Anne Waleski, GB’96, said the company wants every employee to feel responsible for risk, no matter where in the organization the person sits.

Hiter Harris, a university trustee and co-founder of Harris Williams and Co., learned early that grades he earned in college were not passing marks in the mergers-and-acquisitions industry. A mentor told him, “A+ is the only acceptable grade.”

Leaders must be committed to being in touch with the business and the people inside it. They need to know their people and what drives them.

Bill Nash, CEO at CarMax, often makes the rounds at the end of the workday, encouraging employees who are still in the office to finish work, enjoy their personal lives, and maintain an appropriate work-life balance.

Other approaches can work, too. Joe Gibbs of Joe Gibbs Racing sometimes looks over his team members’ shoulders, but it’s not intimidating. It signals to his team that he wants to know they have everything they need to succeed.

An underlying theme of all of these conversations is having the humility to know you need to ask questions. Leaders don’t need to have all the answers. Their success comes because they recognize the things they don’t know and ask appropriate questions.

They also surround themselves with talented individuals. As an assistant coach in the NBA, Eastman visited other clubs in the offseason and explored the new things they were doing.

Joe Gibbs Racing went beyond thinking of sponsorship as a sticker on the car. Instead, leaders asked what motivated sponsors and then determined how to make the connections that would lead to success for both the sponsors and the racing team.