In any organization, the tone of the culture is set at the top. This truth is as old as organizations themselves. And like a fish that begins to rot from the head down, a company's culture can deteriorate in a similar way. You say a fish rots from the head down, right? Well, the same is true for corporate cultures. It's really naive to think otherwise. And you should think of the "head" not only as a matter of formal power, but also as a matter of influence.

Here's the thing: leaders and senior people in a company are not just decision-makers. They're tone setters.

Executives and senior managers don't just run operations; they set the boundaries for your actions. Their decisions, behaviors, and attitudes create ripples that touch every corner of the organization. When I write about people in "power," I include not only management, but also senior leaders who serve as implicit role models through social capital and soft power.

Your boss, your boss's boss, that senior engineer—they're not just colleagues. They're your professional role models, for better or for worse. People look up to them or exist in a framework where they are judged by them. So one of the things to think about in a workplace is whether you look up to your seniors.

It's not just about what those role models do on purpose. The little things, the offhand comments, the habits—they all add up. They shape the air everyone breathes at work. Leaders and executives are not just influences; they shape the behaviors and attitudes of their teams.

It's similar to the concept that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. In a professional setting, this idea takes on a more intense form.

Now here's a common trap: thinking that new hires, especially those without power, can turn around a sour culture. That's like asking someone to clean up the ocean with a teaspoon.

Sure, they may make tiny ripples, but the tide is against them. The ability of these employees to effect meaningful change is often drastically limited. While they can make a difference, the energy and emotional toll required to initiate company-wide behavioral change is enormous. Many burn out after making a small improvement, becoming expendable change agents.

The only viable strategy for them is often to create a small bubble of influence where they can exert some control. Ultimately, however, it is the managers and senior leaders who have the final say.

The structure of the organization, hierarchical or not, doesn't change this dynamic in any meaningful way. I will leave the false promises of "flat hierarchies" for another time. Hierarchies exist, visible or invisible, codified or implicit. Power is in influence, not in titles.

In addressing these challenges, leaders should seek feedback on how they are doing. They should create frameworks that encourage more frequent exchanges. They should provide not only autonomy but also support for individual contributors. However, it's important to recognize that management is often a bottleneck in these processes. Management is hard. It's about striking a balance between guiding and letting go.

There's no magic solution. It's hard to fix a situation where your management class is bad. You need to have a solid process for promoting people into leadership positions.

But promoting the right people is more art than science. It's about having a holistic ability to understand who you have in front of you and their potential. It's not easy.

Ultimately, if management and senior staff are not aligned with your vision and work ethic, and do not possess the qualities of good coaches, there is little room for change. So, just remember that before you jump ship to a new company, you should do your homework. Talk to the people in charge where you want to land if you can. And if you find a good environment, cherish it.

Good cultures are rare. Remember, “the fish becomes stinky from the head.” Don't wait until you smell the rot to realize what's going on.