Some “How To’s” of Culture Forward Leadership

In today’s fast changing work environment, it is difficult to be a consistently effective leader. It requires the ability to juggle many competing priorities simultaneously — faster than ever. In our last leadership post, we laid out a case for why culture is critically important and why senior executives must shift their leadership line of sight.

The shift we suggest is a pivot from relying primarily on financial and technical abilities to being a talent first leader; a leader who focuses much more attention on building an engaging work culture.

Multiple data points suggest that approximately 70% of employees are either not engaged or actively disengaged. In addition, an Accor study determined that while 90% of senior executives surveyed believe culture has a direct impact on performance, only 25% of organizations have a clear culture/engagement strategy.

We believe there is intellectual buy-in for the notion that work culture has a direct impact on results. The disconnect we see is around execution — the how to’s of translating this concept into practical actions.

Leadership How-To’s

To this end, here are 10 practical actions executives can take to make progress on this important issue:

  1. Create A Personal Leadership Plan: Pivots in leadership behavior don’t happen by osmosis. If a “plan” is important to articulate strategic objectives, it makes sense to have a plan about your leadership objectives. Who do you want to be as a leader?  To answer this question, you must carve out time to candidly assess your current leadership strengths and weaknesses. Brainstorm actions you are committed to trying that leverage your current strengths and shore up your weaknesses; then seek feedback on your plan.
  1. Culture Impact Research: While it makes intuitive sense that work culture has a major impact on performance, having concrete facts that support this idea can boost your motivation to take action. A simple Google search on “why is corporate culture important?” will deliver concrete information that can help solidify your commitment to take meaningful action and help potential doubters understand your POV.
  1. Leadership Peer Group: Trying to make a major leadership pivot by yourself is no easy trick. It’s much easier to succeed if you find like-minded executives interested in shifting their leadership line of sight as well. One way to do this is to involve a group of your peers who see a payoff for growing their leadership skills. You can organize this much like an ongoing book club. You meet on a regular basis, create a learning agenda and provide each other with feedback, ideas, and support for trying new behaviors.
  1. Conduct A Culture Survey: Be bold — take the temperature of your current department culture. There are many culture surveys that can provide meaningful insights. And there’s always Survey Monkey where you can create your own. Just the act of asking people to complete a survey offers employees a glimmer of hope that improvement is possible. Collect the data — believe the data — act on the data!
  1. Hold A Culture Summit: Invite a small group of high potentials (no more than 10) to attend a working session that focuses on culture. The senior leader sets the tone of safety and candor so attendees will talk freely about what currently works and what doesn’t work in the culture.   Once the issues are identified ask participants to brainstorm potential actions to improve the current culture. You can facilitate this session, however to ensure a safe environment, we typically advise the use of an internal or external facilitator. This allows you to act as a member of the group and really listen to what participants say.
  1. Skip Level Coffees: Conduct a series of coffees with people below you. This gives you an opportunity to interact with individuals in an informal setting and hear how people who do the day-to-day work see the current culture. It’s amazing how coffee and a few donuts can make it safer for people to talk candidly about their work experience.
  1. Culture/Process Brainstorm: You bring together intact groups by department, set the objectives and then leave the room. For 2 hours the group identifies process and culture issues that get in the way of working effectively. Once the issues are identified, they brainstorm potential action plans to deal with these issues. At the end of the 2 hours you return and the groups present the issues and “pitch” their best potential solutions. You provide feedback in three buckets: 1) great idea let’s implement it; 2) an idea has potential but needs more work — and a group is assigned for a deeper dive; 3) not happening! After the session the ideas that are designated as “implement immediately” move forward and the “have potential” ideas get worked on and presented again within a short time frame. Facilitation recommended.
  1. Millennial Summit: Since engaging this work cohort is critically important, conduct a 2-hour working session over lunch where senior leaders get to hear how individuals in this group perceive their work, the current work environment, and what individuals aspire to. This is a very powerful first step in engaging this group of important contributors in their work.
  1. Innovation Hackathon: Identify a group of high potentials from across your department and invite them to a half-day session to explore new innovative approaches to products, processes, and/or procedures. We recommend this event be facilitated to ensure the environment is safe and the agenda is clearly engaging. Besides the specific output of the session, the grapevine will help communicate that something new is happening around here.
  1. Lunch and Learns: A brown bag lunch series where: 1) respected internal individuals discuss their strategic priorities and/or interesting projects; 2) external experts bring an outside perspective on relevant topics; or 3) short professional development training sessions give individuals an opportunity to grow their skill sets.

The 10 actions we are recommending are ways to jump-start a culture change process.   They aren’t magic and as always the “proof is in the pudding”. The true measure of success for leading with a culture forward perspective is that it creates positive momentum that results in improved performance.

Authors — Joe Collins, former Group Head of HR for Fidelity Investments and Gary Schuman, President of CDL Consulting work with organizations on practical approaches to Culture Change and Senior Executive Leadership

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