Why treating people like family is the key to effective leadership

In Fortune Magazine's 100 Best Companies to Work For, Hilton, Salesforce, and Wegmans Food Markets claimed the top three spots. But what is it about the leadership style within these companies that makes them such a great place to work? And what can we learn from them? We think the biggest learning is about the importance of treating people like family.


What makes a company great to work for? Is it having an inspiring place to work? Free perks? A good holiday allowance?

Really, we know it’s about more than that. It goes deeper. It often comes down to the leadership style and the culture that is borne out of that.

Over the last decade a powerful lesson has emerged: employees who are more satisfied clearly drive better financial performance for companies. These are those employees who feel like they have a “great place to work” where they feel like their job is rewarding, they see an upward career path, and they believe that they have great managers. Glassdoor research shows that investing in an engaged and inspired workforce can also be a solid financial investment for business leaders.

We looked at the three companies sitting at the top of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. What can they teach us about leadership? What can they teach us about the impact leadership has on how satisfied and fulfilled people are at work?

One thing that these companies - Hilton, Salesforce, and Wegmans Food Markets - have in common, is that they all have leaders who have created a culture where people feel like family.

Let's take a look.

Families show us the way, then trust us to follow the right path

Sometimes your family are those you're born with, and sometimes it is the people you choose.

Hilton is one of the most respected brands in the world. They have built a culture that’s all about “filling the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality”. This culture doesn’t just extend to its customers, but its employees too. People have been choosing Hilton for 100 years.

Founded by Conrad Hilton in 1919, Hilton is now led by Christopher J. Nassetta. When Nassetta took over in 2007, Hilton was in need of a revival, and that meant significant change. Nassetta knew that the people within the organisation would be the key agents for change, and by removing layers of management, he empowered everybody to play their part in revitalising the company.

Talking about leading the organisation through this turnaround, Nassetta said: “It’s really about developing a culture and creating an environment where people feel like they are part of something bigger than they are, where you are able to empower people to operate with freedom, within a framework. My job is to make sure I set that framework, so that we set out a clear vision mission, the values of the company, the key priorities of the company. And last, but not least, and most importantly, that I lead by example.”

Another way Nassetta talks about leading his team is by “having steady hands on the wheel”. He says: “In a tumultuous world, with so many things going on around you, you have to know who you are, what you stand for and where you are going, and keep everyone pointed in the same direction and have the discipline to stick with it.”

For Hilton, treating people like family means demonstrating the core values of the business, and empowering and trusting people to pick a path that aligns with those values, while giving them the freedom to be themselves, to innovate, and to be creative.

Isn’t that what family is all about? Guiding the younger generations and then allowing them the freedom to grow and flourish?

Families want the best for each other

Salesforce is committed to creating a sustainable future for all. The cloud-based software company, was co-founded by Marc Benioff in 1999, and has grown exponentially to become the world’s number one customer relationship management (CRM) platform.

At Salesforce, customers and employees are openly treated as family. In the San Francisco office, Benioff has set aside the “Ohana” floor (which means “family” in Hawaiian) as a place for everyone in the company to hang out.

The Ohana floor is also a space for non-profits to use in the evenings and at weekends, which is part of Benioff’s commitment to a wider family - the communities in which they operate. The Salesforce 1-1-1 model, where 1% of equity, 1% of product and 1% of employee time is dedicated to non-profits in the community, has been in place since the company began and has won great acclaim.

Having employees spend 1% of their time volunteering in non-profits not only makes people feel good but also gives them a stronger sense of purpose. Benioff cites this as one of the biggest reasons for Salesforce's high levels of employee satisfaction. In an interview with Fast Company he said: “Salesforce gives guidance to our employees to get out there and volunteer. And I think that’s why we have high levels of satisfaction in our employees. And why we can attract people. We are creating an environment that gives them satisfaction in their work, not just financial gains.”

Families want the best for each other. They want each other to find fulfilment in what they do. And this is exactly what leaders are trying to do at Salesforce: helping them find that fulfilment by giving them opportunities to do more.

How are you, as a leader, showing your family the way? Have you experienced this level of trust yourself from your own managers?

Family puts family first

American company Wegmans Food Markets has been on the Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list every year since the list began in 1998.

The family-owned company was founded over a century ago in 1916, and remarkably, is still under the leadership of members of the Wegman family. The focus on family extends to all employees, and like Hilton and Salesforce, Wegmans puts a significant emphasis on fulfilling the needs of their own people:

“At Wegmans, we believe that good people, working toward a common goal, can accomplish anything they set out to do. In this spirit, we set our goal to be the very best at serving the needs of our customers. Every action we take should be made with this in mind. We also believe that we can achieve our goal only if we fulfill the needs of our own people. To our customers and our people we pledge continuous improvement, and we make the commitment: ‘EVERY DAY YOU GET OUR BEST.”

Proving this commitment to their workforce, Wegmans puts a significant investment into the training and development of its workforce. They set aside money for scholarships, with more than half of their store managers having worked with Wegmans from school or college. By taking care of their employees first and foremost, the company has satisfied a legion of customers for over a hundred years.

At Wegmans, everyone is family, and they put family first. Just like a family would seek all members’ opinions on family matters, everyone is encouraged to join meetings about issues to do with the company. just like listening to others makes for a functional family unit, the willingness of Wegmans’ leaders to listen to employees makes for a positive environment for people to work in.

Investing in your family makes good business sense

So, what can you take away from these stories? What is the most important thing we can learn from how the leaders in these “best companies to work for” operate?

Ultimately, it's this:

We need to treat our people like family. We need to trust them like we trust our family. We need to empower them to learn, to act, and to be part of the story. This is how we create teams of people who feel motivated, driven, and fulfilled in what they do. This is how we attract and retain our staff. Only then, can we succeed as a business.

What about your company? Have your leaders created a family that people choose to work with or a culture that people leave behind? What do you do to make the people around you feel trusted, feel like you want the best for them, or feel like you put them first?

What do you want for your work family and how can you make it make good business sense?

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