This is part one of a series of interviews with leaders who consistently build inclusive cultures that last.

Peter Drucker once said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."

Your organization’s culture determines whether it can sustain itself, retain employees, be a hub of innovation and provide amazing service. Your reputation is built on how people feel about its culture and their ability to succeed.

With everyone and their dog touting their organizational culture and how inclusive and innovative it is, it would seem like no one has a reason to dislike their job or be looking for a new one.

But there is often a disconnect between PR and marketing campaigns and what employees have to say on Yelp, Glassdoor or to their friends.

It’s the culture of an organization that motivates people to want to jump out of bed and get to work every day. It’s the culture of an organization that makes employees want to do their best work over and over. And it’s the leaders of organizations that envision, enact and engage people at every level to contribute to that culture.

Having worked with more than 100 organizations and spoken to thousands of employees, I’ve seen the difference between organizations that are really inclusive and those that are just good with slogans. I’ve seen leaders who abdicate company culture to human resources, and leaders who have vision and consistently create cultures where people thrive.

Niki Leondakis is one of those leaders with vision who knows how to support a diverse workforce and make everyone feel like they belong.

Niki Leondakis is currently the CEO of Equinox Fitness Clubs and is formerly COO of Kimpton Hotels, CEO of Commune Hotels and CEO of Hotels and Resorts for Two Roads Hospitality.

In all four organizations, Niki Leondakis had a reputation for being an inclusive leader who brought out the best in all of her employees.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with her about her experiences and how she consistently creates inclusive cultures that last.

How Niki Leondakis defines a great culture

When I asked her, "What is your definition of a great workplace culture?"

Her answer was, "A great workplace culture is where all team members are honored for who they are. They feel empowered to be their whole self, and not fit into a mold. It’s essential that employees at all levels including housekeeping and maintenance staff are empowered to activate random acts of kindness towards each other and our guests."

How to empower employees

"How do you empower employees to want to take initiative?" I asked.

She responded by saying, "I realized early on that I can’t assume what I think they want. I need to talk to them. Every company has a different culture, and employees have different needs. I went on a listening tour to find out what they needed to do their best work, and what I could do to support them. If there was something in the culture that wasn’t working or supporting people, we need to change that."

Leondakis told me that she also does what she can to instill confidence in everyone, so they feel confident and don’t hesitate to do what’s necessary as quickly as possible to meet the needs of the people they serve.

"When I worked in the hotel industry, we not only celebrated and valued differences, we took the time to talk and learn from each other. Every employee was given opportunities to learn about different cultures and to share their culture. We made them feel special which enabled them to act and take initiative. Diversity and inclusion have always been a key to my leadership style. Each person adds value to the organization, and no one is exactly the same."

In more than 20 years of consulting and advising leaders in inclusive leadership and culture, I’ve found that the most successful people have had at least one experience that has made inclusion personal. I asked Niki about hers. She told me about growing up with two parents who were Greek immigrants.

"People made fun of us because we were different. They called me 'Greeko the freako' and said horrible things about us. I tried to hide being Greek to be accepted and didn’t appreciate my background and our values until I was in my mid-30s."

She went on to say, "When I first entered the workforce, I thought equality meant sameness and that I needed to be just like the men. I tried to compensate for being a woman by dressing more like men because I thought that’s what was required to be seen as a business person. I didn’t want to be seen as soft and often overcompensated. But I didn’t feel natural that way."

She continued, "I had a pivotal moment when I was supposed to fire an employee, but I couldn’t. It was unfair, and she didn’t deserve to be fired. When I talked to my boss, he told me to use my natural instinct and handle it the way I thought right, as opposed to trying to be a man and show how tough I was. I suggested a week suspension instead, which was the right thing to do. I realized that I needed to trust who I was and be myself. I stopped trying to be anyone else and started focusing on being comfortable being myself and shared the need for other people to do the same. This became part of my leadership style and continues to this day.”

I first met Niki when she was COO at Kimpton and have followed her career for longer than 10 years.

What makes Niki Leondakis and other leaders like her so effective is that she knows herself, is comfortable with who she is, and is not afraid to admit mistakes and learn from people at every level from other members of the C-suite to front-line hourly employees.

Inclusive leaders are willing to be flexible, change when necessary and give other people in their organization credit for excellent work. No matter where Niki or any other great leaders works, they take their inclusive practices and empathy with them. They are also not afraid to fail or succeed, and they encourage their employees to do the same.