The importance of values as the guiding light of successful companies keeps coming up in business literature. Any successful organization must have a value system that touches employees' hearts and enables them to achieve a shared vision.

At my organization, Wells Fargo & Co., and at its predecessor, Norwest Corp., leadership and vision, values and goals have long been paramount. It was recognized that certain ingredients are necessary to make the leap from being a good to a great company, and the first one is great leadership.

Among those who paid attention to these issues and set the course in Norwest's strong culture was its chairman, Lloyd P. Johnson, now retired, who collaborated on and contributed to the thoughts that follow.

Employees perform best when they are well informed about their company. The more they understand, the easier it is for them to buy into the company's goals. Making the effort to communicate says you care about them. Giving managers advance word of selected corporate initiatives makes them more effective communicators with their teams.

A leader must be decisive, and right more often than wrong. But in business, few decisions are totally right - many are shaded in gray. That can make executing decisions more important than the decisions themselves. Good execution can transform a borderline decision into a right one.

One of today's "in" terms is "customer-centric." It is a characteristic of successful companies and has everything to do with leadership-with leaders who take time to visit with and listen to customers. They also spend time with employees, to lead by example, to hear from their points of view what is working and what needs to be changed, and to communicate the vision.

Companies get bigger, but leaders must not lose sight of the need to be visible and encouraging, watchful and supportive to teams at all levels. They can do this by keeping priorities straight and few. To get it right and derive the best first-hand feedback, you must make sure employees know that you are 100% behind them and behind the higher standards you expect them to achieve.

Growth and flexibility are keys. It is essential that we continually learn and try out management and leadership approaches, to learn which ones work best for us, under what circumstances, and with what types of people and groups.

Trust is built through consistent communication. Without trust, people may toe the party line, but their motivation will be limited. An individual's needs must be fulfilled for that person to be stimulated and motivated, and that requires an atmosphere of mutual trust. When that is achieved, people and organizations are truly transformed. They care for each other. Questioning and risk-taking become encouraged, and that leads to creativity.

When a shared vision, aggressive goal-setting, and reciprocal trust are added together, managing through a maze of conflicting interests becomes more rational, consistent, easier, and less stressful. Understanding what you are and what you are not, through that vision consistently communicated, it becomes clear that what is good for other companies may not necessarily be good for yours.

When the climate is right, you have a value system that respects the thinking process of others. When you must make a decision that will harm one or more constituencies and favor others, you must be honest in explaining it. When you make difficult decisions, expect that those who do not agree will take time to understand your thinking and respect your candor.

Amid integrity and trust, other things take care of themselves- creativity, innovation, empowerment, staff dedication, service levels, confidence, and risk-taking. These are natural products of organizations with character and trust. Managers and leaders must nurture these qualities if they are to thrive and spread. Ms. Bird, an executive vice president at Wells Fargo Bank, is based in Sacramento, Calif.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.