Over the past several years, much work has been done to help leaders successfully navigate their organizations through periods of radical change, reorganization, acquisitions, joint ventures or entry into new markets.
While this approach has generated significant benefits for heads of companies, we have also benefited by being able to step back and reassess the principles underlying successful leadership. John Kotter, in his book, A Force for Change, describes leadership as a set of sub-processes, where energy is directed at:
• Establishing priorities
• Aligning people
• Motivating and inspiring others
These processes are very different from what we generally refer to when we describe effective management - planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling and problem solving. And this difference is helping us better understand the nature of those companies that are taking important steps to become market leaders. What stands out is that the leaders of the rapidly growing companies:
• Embrace change
• Actively promote and protect the organization’s values
• Are discontent with the status quo
• Believe in the impossible
• Are committed to listen and learn
• Demonstrate incredible consistency around one or two core values
• Share power with others
And more than anything else, they pay particular attention to the culture of their organizations. Culture can be defined as a pattern of beliefs and expectations shared by the organization’s members. These beliefs and expectations produce norms, or rules of the road, that can powerfully shape the behaviors of individuals and groups. Or as Geoffrey Colvin, of Fortune Magazine states, culture represents what people do when no one is telling them what to do. What we see among those leaders who are monitoring and acting on cultural cues is that they describe leadership as intentional symbolism. This dynamic asks the leader to:
1. Signal what is important through visible actions. Doing is believing!
2. Demonstrate consistency and repetition in signaling.
So what is going through the leader’s mind? How is he/she remaining focused? How do they pay attention to institutional symbolism to shape an energized organization? A set of questions helps us understand their approach.
• Where does the person spend time? What gets on his/her calendar?
• What questions should be frequently asked? What questions are never asked?
• What is followed up on? What is forgotten?
• What is referred to in public statements? What are the themes in speeches?
• What is important enough to call a meeting about? What is not?
• What gets on the agenda? What’s most important? What is not?
• At the end of meetings, what do people leave believing? What are they committed to do?
• What gets celebrated? What symbols are used? What language is used?
• What signals does the physical setting convey?
Emerging from this “questions framework” is a suggestion that the best leaders may not lead in the classic sense, but instead set the context, a context that creates a set of cultural expectations where people:
• Are clear on what is important to accomplish
• Experience the degree to which their contributions impact the company’s success
• Can describe what their roles are across a wide array of situations
• Experience feelings of autonomy, focus and responsibility
During a recent project working with the president of a growing manufacturing firm, it was discovered that a number of cultural characteristics were creating obstacles as employees worked hard to maximize their contribution.
• Clarity suffered; people were focused more on activity than performance outcomes.
• Roles and responsibilities were confusing; accurate and timely communication needed to be enhanced.
• Empowerment was a concept, not a reality.
• Performance feedback was sporadic, general in nature and directed more at shortfalls versus accomplishments.
As the president began to look closely at his leadership behavior and the degree to which it was signaling and reinforcing a number of cultural characteristics, it became apparent that if performance was to change, he needed to adapt his approach.
Stepping back and asking the tough questions helped create an intentional symbolism strategy, where the president:
• Introduced a competency-based approach to selection and talent development.
• Took personal responsibility to demonstrate how the company could work together toward a common goal - the theme became focus, focus, focus.
• Challenged and inspired employees to take responsibility to identify opportunities for process improvements and breakthroughs.
• Introduced and sustained quarterly performance discussions, then ensured the process was implemented among all levels of the firm.
CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS
Culture is important to companies for two important reasons:
1. It plays a significant role in helping or hindering the implementation of strategy.
2. It can promote motivation and commitment among team or organization members.
And to this end, we are discovering that the real job of the leader is to create and sustain an energized culture so that organization members know what tradeoffs and judgment calls to make without constant supervision.
No one expresses the power of culture better than Herb Kelleher, founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, famed for its strong culture of customer service and individual responsibility:
“I feel that your have to be with your employees through out all their difficulties, that you have to be interested in them personally. They may be disappointed in their country. Even their family might not be working out the way they wish it would. But I want them to know that Southwest will always be there for them…and, our competitors can copy everything we do, and they have. But they can’t copy our culture, and they know it…that’s why we continue to beat them.”
Therefore, culture is becoming a more and more distinguishing factor that helps create employee value - paying attention to those cultural characteristics that will enhance employees’ willingness to maximize their contributions. And as leaders take steps to develop and build an energized organization, they are taking steps to further understand that:
• Organizational culture is a powerful force that clarifies what is important and coordinates employees’ efforts without the costs and inefficiencies of close supervision.
• Managing culture requires the leader to create a context in which people are encouraged and empowered to do their best.
• Identifying opportunities for intentional symbolism conveys what is most important among all levels of their organizations.
• One thing is guaranteed…a culture will form in their organizations. The question is whether it is one that helps or hinders their organization’s ability to execute their strategic objectives.
• Organizational culture is too important to leave to chance!
Donald Payne is Vice President Executive Development at EASI Consult LLC. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.