Setting The Tone For Strong Management

There is a clear link between a company’s bottom line and the “tone at the top” (TATT) set by its managers and supervisors. Here are suggestions on how to recognize and foster good TATT at your company.

If I could prove to you that investing time and resources to ensure you have the best possible management staff is an activity that moves the needle, would it change your approach to employee evaluations?

There is a clear link between a company’s bottom line and the “tone at the top” set by its managers and supervisors. Consider these findings from two organizational studies summarized in a recent article appearing in HR Morning:

  • The one factor that most affects how satisfied, engaged and committed your employees is their immediate supervisor.
  • In the “top 10” list for why employees leave an organization, lack of respect/support from supervisor ranks second, ahead of money, which takes the bronze and just behind the No. 1 reason of limited career opportunities.

Bill Keenan, managing partner of Keen CFOs, which provides interim CFOs for media and entertainment companies, sees the effects of poor tone at the top, or what he refers to as “bad TATT,” all too often. Keenan, who currently serves on MFM’s board of directors, co-authored a Last Word column in the current issues of MFM/BCCA’s The Financial Manager magazine. He observes that while we understand the importance of good TATT, it’s typically last on the list of things receiving our attention.

“The notion that TATT is important seems so obvious that we all briefly nod our heads in TATT’s direction and then move on to more complex subjects. That is, until we must deal with the impact of bad TATT,” says Keenan and his co-author Don McLellan, executive vice president, business and finance at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services.

Too help us think a little more about TATT, the authors go on to describe some similarities with “tat” a shortened and now acceptable word for tattoo. For example, while “nice tat” is a commonly heard compliment among younger workers, “nice TATT” isn’t something we hear “uttered in the C-level crowd.”

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One striking difference between tat and TATT is a tat can be easily and quickly obtained while organizational TATT takes many months or years to develop. However, as Keenan and McLellan point out, removing either of them can be a long, slow, painful and expensive process.


That’s what makes it so important for us to recognize and foster good TATT among our managers and supervisors. The co-authors say that a productive TATT is set by a leader who:

  • Encourages daily intra- and inter-departmental communication and discourages finger pointing when a hiccup occurs (best defense against silos developing).
  • Welcomes a certain amount of criticism and honest feedback because of its value in improving the organization.
  • Recognizes there’s more to life than “work” and seeks ways to praise others for their non-work accomplishments (including his or her own children’s accomplishments).
  • Sets the proper tone when dealing with all constituent groups.

While “Do as I say” might work briefly when it comes to leadership, “Do as I do” is inevitable in the longer term, Keenan and McLellan remind us.

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Once we have identified those individuals in leadership positions who are setting the wrong tone at the top, the challenge becomes how we address it. “The presence of bad TATT almost always requires the removal of the person(s) who created the tone over all that time. Coaches and classes exist for ‘improving’ leaders that cause bad TATT, but sadly laser removal of flawed character traits doesn’t exist yet,” they say.

Of course, the ideal situation is one where we recruited or promoted what the authors describe as “tone-sensitive” managers and supervisors as well as make positive tone a part of their performance goals.

In our industry, many companies have been faced with deciding which managers or supervisors to offer continued employment as part of a consolidation or restructuring. In light of the key role that TATT plays in creating a productive and prosperous work environment, identifying leaders who will set the right TATT should be an important part of that decision process. Keenan and McLellan offer the following tips on how to test for tone:

  • The interview process should include the candidates interacting with some lower level employees and then a senior manager circling back to those employees to get impressions of their “feel” for the candidates. (“Did their ‘jerk’ radar beep?”)
  • Take each candidate to lunch and pay particular attention to how they interact with the servers, especially if the servers make mistakes.
  • Also, when checking references, they suggest throwing in a couple of seemingly oddball questions, such as: “What does Joe look like when he gets mad?” and “Is Kate a workaholic?” If the answers require a pregnant pause, probe a little deeper.
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In situations where morale has fallen as a result of poor tone at that top, restoring it is going to take some time. “The new person you hire who sets the proper tone will find open communication slow to develop, but within a few months of better TATT, the overall mood/morale of the survivors should get much better and productivity and cooperation will improve as a result,” the authors advise.

The authors closed their piece with a reminder for each of us to conduct a reality check on our own TATT by examining whether our employees are productive, and if they seem to work well as a team and with other teams. “If you were to leave your position, what would be your TATT legacy?” they ask. “Hopefully it’s as attractive as a well-designed, and well-placed, tattoo.”

What’s your experience with the correlation between TATT and the bottom line? I hope you will take a minute to share them by commenting below, or by contributing to the discussion on MFM’s LinkedIn site or tweeting with hashtag #TATT.

Mary M. Collins is president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary. Her column appears in TVNewsCheck every other week. You can read her earlier columns here.

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