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6 Defining Values of a Leadership Culture

Twelve years after launching culture change consulting services, I am finally sitting down to write about six defining values of a leadership culture. These are factors I’ve learned that define whether an organization can improve their Culture or not. No surprise that all six values rise and fall on leadership.

Before I unpack the six values, let me paint the backdrop of how it all began. In 2006, one of my CEO clients in Sarasota, FL shared with me his annual employee engagement survey. Most Type A leaders are charming, demanding, and unlovable, but not Steve. He had a caring heart just below the surface of his Type A layer. Even in his frustration, he oozed care and concern for people. We sat in his office while he shared his most recent employee engagement survey, and because he cared so much, he was frustrated. He didn’t like the pre-formulated questions, and he didn’t know what to do with the report results. He was delivered a canned report with no clear direction. “David,” he asked, “can you build me an employee engagement survey that we can customize around the kind of culture I want to create?” Like all good consultants, I said, “probably, let me do a little research and get back to you.” After I flew home from my monthly trip to sunny Sarasota, I did as I said and began to research and evaluate his request. As I dug around the internet, three data points came to light.

The first data point revealed that most employee engagement surveys were un-customizable. Surveys were built for mass production, not carefully and strategically customized for unique cultures. Why should the 8-year old, first generation, 88-person software development company in San Diego expect to have the same desired culture as the 48-year old, 3rd generation, 268-person manufacturing company in Rochester, NY? To me, that made no sense for the client, but all the sense to the vendors who mass-produced their expertise to increase profit over quality. Their research determined that one of the most important questions that define a good corporate culture is “Do you have a best friend at work.” Really? How does that define one’s culture? I am quite blessed to have had many best friends over the years, but none of them worked with me. Whether my best friend worked in Chicago or with me in Allentown never impacted my like or dislike of corporate culture.

The second data point was that most employee engagement surveys and the firms that employed them were extremely heavy on reporting data overload, but weak on meaningful implementation. Before starting Walton Consulting, Inc. in 2001, I worked for a boutique strategy consulting firm out of Princeton, NJ that developed and delivered high-cost elaborate strategic plans. The client would outwardly applaud the mountain-sized strategic planning document full of analysis, logic, and recommendations. However, inside I am sure they were asking themselves, “what the hell do I do now, and why did I pay so much for something I don’t know what to do with…maybe I should hide it on the bookshelf and refer to it in ‘name’ whenever I want to drive a random point home to my employees.” It is the same way with employee engagement surveys. The client gets a pretty report, but without the creator of the report, the expert on the topic to help with implementation, the report becomes an article of affection or dissatisfaction (depending on the results of course). As with many consultants, the implementation phase becomes an afterthought, a monumental chore that gets swept under the carpet and ignored.

The third data point was an epiphany that corporate culture was the missing cog. At this juncture of Walton, I had been focused on delivering consulting services to CEOs and business owners to help them grow healthy organizations. I was already delivering strategic planning, sales and marketing strategy and leadership recruiting services, all of which helped grow organizations, but the culture cog was missing. As I pondered on the importance of corporate culture, I intuitively understood that the culture cog acted as a fuel valve that could either spur on growth or squelch it. I reflected on how much corporate culture was really the vineyard soil that determined the environment’s capability and capacity for growing good fruit and producing a rich yield.

Wow, I must build this tool for my client I thought. It is not only critical as a foundation for successful organizational growth, but it also fits neatly into my core service offerings focused on “healthy” growth. In 2006 I launched the Culture offering. Now, 13 years later, with over 3,000 employees surveyed, and a marketplace foaming at the mouth about culture with quotes like Peter Drucker’s, “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast,” I am ready to share six values that leadership needs to employ if they plan on truly Changing Culture.

Here are six leadership values that impact culture:

  1. Leadership Cares
  2. Leadership Alignment
  3. Leadership Listens
  4. Leadership Commitment
  5. Leadership Implementation
  6. Leadership Flexibility

For the purposes of this article, leadership is defined as the CEO and his or her executive team. Let’s deep dive into each factor…

LEADERSHIP CARES

There are different reasons why leaders care.  I had one client who cared because he was experiencing an employee revolt.  He was truly concerned that if he did not get his arms wrapped around his dysfunctional corporate culture that he would have a mass exodus on his hands.  Some leaders care because they understand that improved culture leads to improved profitability.  Other leaders care because they want to enrich the lives of their employees.  Bottom line, the leadership needs to care.  A friend and colleague of mine who was the President of a mid-market global firm told me flat out; he just didn’t care.  The employees to him were a means to an end.  Another human resource colleague of mine cares deeply about changing their culture, but she isn’t the CEO, and without the CEO caring, it will never get the attention it needs.

LEADERSHIP ALIGNMENT

When beginning a culture change endeavor, the likelihood that the CEO and all of the executive team really cares, views culture impact with the same gravity, and has the same cultural values is rare.  For successful culture change to occur, leadership needs to be aligned.  This is not an easy task, but my pill for the cure is training.  With each culture change engagement I deliver, I interview and train the leadership team together.  We review how it impacts their business, and we talk about what kind of culture they have and want.  We even design the employee engagement survey together for aligned executive level buy-in.  People own what they help to create, so in this manner, the leadership team owns their culture and shifts into alignment.

LEADERSHIP LISTENS

One of the most important messages you can send to people that follow you is that you listen.  That means you ask for opinions and give others an opportunity to influence.  When you incorporate a strong feedback mechanism in your employee engagement survey, you create a pathway for communication that fuels employees’ personal value.  The key though is to listen.  The biggest mistake to corporate culture change is to ask and not act.  Essentially communicating that you are not listening.  I encourage my clients to respond to culture change feedback even if the ideas cannot be adopted—this reinforces that you have listened.

LEADERSHIP COMMITMENT

As a leader of your organization, if you are not ready to commit to the adventure of change, then don’t get off the porch.  I mean that—do not start unless you are committed to finish!  I have seen firsthand companies that have turned culture change into an organizational minefield.  The CEO will tell me it didn’t work, and unfortunately, I have to remind them that they weren’t committed to change and that the entire initiative turned into a hollow promise.  Yes, it will backfire if there is a lack of commitment.

LEADERSHIP IMPLEMENTATION

As a 20-year consultant veteran, I differentiate myself by emphasizing implementation.  When an organization begins culture change, the transformation will only occur through implementation.  I do not stop with a report and recommendations. I help my clients build actionable implementation plans.  I work with the leadership team to identify and select employees who can play a role in helping the execution of those plans.  This spreads the implementation buy-in throughout the company and ensures greater success of implementation.  Leadership’s role is to coach and facilitate implementation.

LEADERSHIP FLEXIBILITY

When a company embarks on transforming their corporate culture, they are embarking on a journey into the unknown.  Culture is fluid, ever-changing, impacted by the daily weather, disruptive, moody and explosive.  During culture change implementation, leaders need to be flexible, understanding that the environment will shift actions and initiative throughout the process.  Leaders need to use their corporate values as the compass, to ensure they are going in the right direction, yet be flexible to allow deviations.

The bottom line is simple. Culture change rises and falls on leadership, but a strong culture can make the difference between winning and losing, so I encourage leaders to embrace the challenge and lead their organizations toward a healthy corporate culture.

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