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What is our leadership culture really like? Why turning it around is so difficult

By Sarah Babb –

Something does not match up; something does not line up. Companies espouse a leadership culture and values, and yet the experience of leadership in the company does not align with this.

The stated leadership values do not match the existing leadership behaviours.  Why is this? And how do we turn it around, if at all?

 

By way of example I shall share a brief vignette of a hugely successful financial services firm that I have been working with recently. This highlights how the espoused leadership culture does not match the actual existing culture and how one intervention will not change it. And this company is not unique as I see this across companies and countries- a stark contrast between the existing leadership culture and the desired leadership.  In this case, the existing culture is fiercely competitive and rewards individual success and status. But now the company is a victim of their own success as they have grown successfully and the downside of these behaviours is being felt through the company. The impact of these behaviours is now of a ‘silo mentality’, poor communication, weak strategy execution, self-protectionism, fear of making (alternate) decisions, disjuncture between head office and the field; lack of engagement of lower levels of staff, increase in staff turnover.

 

So a strategy for leadership development has been devised in response to this trend. Firstly a team developed a new framework for leadership behaviours including collaboration, teamwork, values-based around trust, accountability and accessibility.  This sounds logical, not so, to start here by defining what it is you do want? Yet it appears that what is desired is the very opposite of the existing strong, very strong, leadership culture. What is now being advocated runs counter to the very fabric, the very being, the ‘soul’ of the company as it stands currently. And then in an attempt to turn the leadership culture around leadership development programmes are implemented often in isolation which means they have very little impact and change in the organisation. If anything it often ironically highlights those dynamics that are not working in the company and introduces leaders to alternate ways of operating, which leaves the very same leaders now feeling more isolated and disgruntled.

 

This is of course not always the case. But what do we understand of leadership, leadership culture and leadership identity before we can propose to change it?

 

Personal Leader Identity

Firstly we understand from research and our own personal experience that each of us holds many personal identities. We are parents, leaders, team members, friends, and different ‘personas’ come to the fore depending on our context. We also align with many different social identities which are groups or organisations which we find allegiance such as companies, social groups, friends or sports teams, religious affiliations etc. Within these identities we align with the norms, practices and cultures of the groups, and so do we assert our personal identities, values and preferences.

 

Working identities are constant moving pieces of a puzzle and they too change over our different life stages. We are different as adolescents than we are as parents – different values come to the fore at different stages. Our working identities are constant works in progress too as we shift through different roles and leadership levels of a company- moving from managing self, to managing teams to leading divisions or departments.  Each time coming to terms with our new roles, values and responsibilities, and become comfortable with how we fit into these new identities.

 

It helps if we personally can relate to this as we realise that we are constantly in liminality – at a threshold of being ‘betwixt and between’ identities, that our identity is never fixed or static.  We are not chasing one elusive authentic self, that when we finally reach we can sigh a huge sigh of relief and believe we have reached our destination.  The more we can embrace our constantly evolving personal change, the more we can embrace the constantly shifting change in our companies and world today. The stakes become less threatening to experiment and try on different roles. This is the first capacity we could inculcate in our leaders – an awareness of their own capacity and prowess to see and embrace their own internal changes, battles and challenges to help them step up as leaders of change. Then we can better understand our environment and how to begin to change things across our companies.

 

Leadership Identity and Culture

With all these moving parts it is fascinating to come to terms with the leadership identity of a company, too as a complex interface of many agendas and pressures. Most often the ‘leadership rules’ of how you are expected to be as a leader are the unwritten rules- the most powerful kind, that you pick up subtle (or not so subtle) cues from every daily engagement which indicate how you are supposed to be as a leader in this organisation. How you greet, how to chat, how you meet, how decisions are made, how you disagree, how you get things done, how you get ahead are all being communicated informally each and every day. On a lighter note, have you ever wondered how leaders even seem to dress the same after a while? Leadership culture is the way leadership is ‘done around here’, how we experience it every day.

 

Leaders sometimes experience an authenticity paradox as Herminia Ibarra recently put it in a Harvard Business Review article (January – February 2015). Either leaders experience dilemmas in not fully adopting the existing leadership culture and values, or they change and then don’t feel authentic to their traditional selves. We experience tension or paradox of our own authenticity.

 

So just as our personal identities are constantly evolving so do to company leadership cultures shift, as people change, as circumstances change, as different pressures come to bear on the future direction of a company. A retail company I am working with has recently appointed a new CEO and without fail this will impact leadership culture.  Another company is retrenching staff, and so too will this affect leadership. We need to be alert to our own changes, and we need to be alert to the actual leadership practices in our businesses.

 

And if it is that personal and organisational leadership culture is shifting, it is easier to understand why our interventions often fail to achieve the impact we desire. We are working with a ‘moving target’ so a traditional linear plan will not work.

 

Can we direct leadership culture change?

I often say that the leadership culture is like a ‘jello- mould’ that it is a fixed shape even if the matter is translucent we often don’t realise how strong the hold is. But when you try to change it by prodding a finger into one side of it, it will always wobble back into shape.  The leadership culture is greater than the individual leader.

 

A leadership culture is informed by the senior executives, by the systems evolved over time, by the successes and failures, by the different power dynamics of the time. So how do we change it, if at all?

 

The first step is to understand clearly what the existing predominant and influential leadership culture is. That is not how you want to see it, but to see it as it is, warts and all. Understand how and why that leadership culture is in place, and what purpose it serves. For example a fiercely competitive environment has produced results and attracted a ‘go-get-em’ characteristic of taking on bigger and better challenges. So there are behaviours, values, and identities which are deeply entrenched and a part of the culture, that are sometimes transparent and subconscious. Truly see it from multiple perspectives first, then you have choices as to where to intervene, or not.

 

The entrenched leadership culture cannot simply be weeded out nor will it simply disappear as you change leaders. So see then how these very characteristics can be reframed into positive effects. For example in our financial services firm – what if the competitiveness could be turned into a team competitiveness with a competitiveness in the market focus, instead of a competitiveness of individuals? So the identity remains of being top class, of being ‘winners’, of making things happen. And this is not attempted to be transformed into the extreme opposite such as trying to turn competitiveness into collaboration. Albeit collaboration is one of the outcomes, it is not the focus of changing individual leaders to behave in a manner which runs counter to their nature as well.

 

Have an overarching and shared perspective of the existing leadership culture, and what is working, what is not working, what is emerging and what is desired. You could even run some scenarios of what might evolve in different leadership culture trajectories.  Then focus on nurturing those existing behaviours and cultural norms that are working and support those struggling to emerge. One company has many cultures within it, and as such you could reinforce and give recognition to those that are already working in line with your proposed trajectory. One division for example could have already transformed into a collaborative competitive teamwork culture and you could bring this to the fore, share the story and recognise achievements already made.

 

Foster the emerging trends and leadership in line with your chosen or preferred future. We do this in our lives too, reinforce the habits and practices we want to take us into our futures. Our futures start now, and our interventions need to be iterative and emergent themselves. Start implementing today, this is how change is achieved. Start being the change you want today and it will become the new way, the new norm. Start in the small interactions, and these grow into the larger ones.

 

Second understand all the systems which reinforce leadership behaviour and culture.  One development programme will not change leadership culture in a company. It may be a part of it, but start with the holistic view of the change. Then ask the tough question: Can it change? What will it take to change? Are you willing or even prepared to put in what it takes to change? Is the company willing to live with the consequences? For example the organisation structure, the decision making processes, the recruitment and rewards practices etc. Then when you do coach and develop individual leaders there is a framework to support the changes. And of course individual leaders have agency and will influence these changing structures as well. Do these simultaneously and even craft the company interventions as a part of the leadership development and coaching programmes. By way of simple example, the leadership programme could introduce projects which implement changes in the company. Action learning in practice, with approved budget and buy in upfront! If the organisation is simply not willing to make the changes required to achieve the proposed future leadership then quite simply, don’t do it.

 

Re-craft the leadership vision so that these questions are firmly addressed. It will not work otherwise. In one company there was a global take over and this meant a change in global leadership culture, which quite frankly meant that the local changes would not fly.  Facing up to this reality early on can save a lot of heartache down the road. As long as we are aware of what is really going on, we have choices we can make- as to what changes we choose to take on.

Many companies do have holistic perspective of change in mind, but what is often missing is the alignment and integration of these. The interventions are often delegated to different teams between Human resources, the C-suite, and learning and development and somehow the overall messages and intent is lost. Keep an eye on the overall goal and be open to changing routes along the way. Keep in touch with the leaders involved.  Individuals are not blank slates waiting to be worked on, but themselves will interact, shift, adopt or reject that which comes their way. Find the stories and changes that are bringing the changes you want and ride the wave. Work with those areas working with you. And most of all, be the leader you desire to see across the organisation.
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Sarah has over 23 years experience in leadership and organization identity change. She has consulted, trained, and coached in global organisations and in emerging markets most recently working in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and India.

sarah@tt.co.za

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