Many leaders would agree that personal character provides a guardrail for an individual’s career path. However, few recognize that there’s something just as important to the individual and the company they choose to work for: upstanding character.

Upstanding character is a modern framework for decision-making. It’s informed by the values an organization and its leadership and teams commit to that define their behavior. It is the foundation of trust companies need to build for strong and lasting relationships with others within and outside their work environment.

People expect businesses they buy from or work for to be good citizens — to value and respect diverse experiences and perspectives and to work for the greater collective good of the communities in which they serve. These expectations are critical to the management, growth, and overall success of an organization. An article by Robert Ludke, executive vice president in Hilton+Knowlton Strategies’ corporate advisory practice, says there are three primary filters by which the public views and evaluates companies:

    • Brand: What the company says it is.
    • Reputation: What the public thinks about the company.
    • Behavior: How the company acts in the communities in which it serves.

Character lies at the intersection of these three filters, and it determines whether someone—a prospective employee, a vendor, an investor, a customer, a member of the community—will be willing to enter a relationship with a company. While brand derives from a company’s culture and values, behavior and character are reflected in its leaders’ and employees’ decisions. As such, it is in the best interest of leaders to ensure that there is little to no disparity between the two.

Leaders are in the unique position to mobilize and align people around a collective purpose by way of company values, and to make their organizations more purpose driven. Start by defining a clear purpose statement and creating a character-led culture where people are empowered to bring their best selves into work every day. Having a strong set of values and culture gives workers a sense of belonging, while purpose helps them align their work to their company’s overall goal.

When purpose is communicated openly and with intention, people understand what’s expected of them and that their contributions matter. Moreover, when people feel like they belong and that their contributions add to the company’s overall culture, they offer their best performance.

Employee satisfaction and engagement are huge drivers of employment and retention. According to a 2019 report by Glassdoor Economic Research, the top three drivers of employee satisfaction are the organization’s culture and values, the quality of senior leadership and access to career opportunities.

A coinciding Glassdoor survey of 5,000 adults across four countries — the U.S., the UK, France and Germany — found that:

    • Over half (56%) of employees and job seekers say company culture is more important than salary when it comes to job satisfaction.
    • Almost 73% of people surveyed would not apply to a company unless its values aligned with their own.
    • Nearly four in five people consider a company’s mission and culture before applying to work there.
    • Almost two in three employees (65%) say that company culture is one of the main reasons for staying at a job.

Building Character-led Leaders

Clearly, culture matters. For an engaged and productive workforce, organizations must embrace a character-based leadership strategy. Often, leaders who embody upstanding character have deep personal convictions. They are accountable, they foster inclusivity and they have a growth mindset. Most importantly, however, they are in touch with their core value system. Leadership development programs should address core soft skills like empathy and self-awareness to help leaders tap into their true character and become more effective as a result.

Upstanding character prioritizes inclusion and collaboration, and leaders have a responsibility to translate their values into an inclusive work and learning environment for those who work for them.

At the core of upstanding character are two simple truths: trust and respect. Fostering an environment of psychological safety will help employees feel comfortable speaking up, disagreeing openly, or even offering a completely new, innovative idea without fear of repercussions.

When leaders respect, trust and encourage their teams to grow and learn, their true character shines through, improving employees’ commitment to both the organization and the people it serves. Now more than ever, companies must embrace character-led leadership to attract, train and retain their most valuable asset: their people.