What people don’t talk about when they talk about the tone at the bottom

“Tone at the bottom” is often used to talk about how messages from leadership gets translated into action. This “action” includes attitudes.

I was talking to a friend of mine who went to a Christian-Business talk. It was given by Chick-Fil-A‘s current CFO.

I love the fact that my friend is really into finding advice from senior leaders. But she and I often get defends indefensible positions. This time was no different.

The CFO touched on a number of topics, one of which is how the corporation inspires employees in their restaurant. (Chick-Fil-A is a franchise, so, in this case, “employees” also refers to employees of franchisees.) The Corporation does this through communicating its value and hiring only those who believe in that value. Then she went on to contrast that by presenting her own company, an accounting firm, and despite its efforts to do the same thing, it fails to instill such values in its employees. She felt that it was because Chick-Fil-A puts money where their mouth is. Among the examples she provided to support this was the fact that Chick-Fil-A gives away 30% of its income to charity, it has even thwarted two efforts by Warren Buffett to buy the shareholders out in order to make it a public corporation.

As an amateur economist, I had to point out to her that her professional services company and the CFO’s food products company are materially different in economic terms in ways that would make Chick-Fil-A’s business model would not work in her organization. Chick-Fil-A’s success, in this case, is not replicable in her organization and it would also fail.

Here’s why: Chick-Fil-A is in an industry with a classic pyramid shaped power structure. The number of employees it would take to undo it would proportionally increase as the span of control of managers increases. Her accounting firm is in an industry with a matrixed power structure. While she might not be able to negotiate very well with her superiors, she has the ability to go into the labor market for better opportunities if she wishes because the organization relies on her not just to make the product but to create it from scratch. Most functions of at Chick-Fil-A does not require expert decision-making skills, while most functions in accounting firms do.

The tone at the bottom is far easier to manage in industries where employees have little bargaining power. The reason is because tone is not free either. One submits to the successful tone existing successful tones if one cannot create her own music. If she could, she would become a concert soloist, so to speak.


Marcus Maltempo is a compliance professional with more than a decade of experience helping banks, law firms and clients manage investigations and regulatory responses. He is a member of ACAMS and ACFE. 

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