Why Culture Should be Central to your Leadership Development Programme

Posted by Gemma Glover on Jul 22, 2022 12:07:13 PM
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‘Organizations with healthy cultures outperform organizations with lesser cultures in virtually every measure: revenue growth, market share, profitability and customer satisfaction.’ – Kevin Oakes, Page xxi

When you think of words that start with C, you can be forgiven for thinking about Covid. It’s been on our lips far too much in recent years. That C-word had a massive effect on another: culture. Particularly since it closed all the art galleries, theatres and even the majority of our beloved heritage sites. Still, at least we could stream Tiger King to stop us from going completely loopy.

But there’s a different type of culture too. In the workplace, they call it ‘the way we do things here’. And it has a monumental effect on everything else we care about in organisations, like retention, performance, and innovation (to name a few). But as a much less tangible and more elusive relative, it’s often trickier to address or even know where to start.

The power of culture in leadership development

‘Culture’ is often seen as too incomprehensible to tackle, there’s a lack of words and metrics available to bring it into the light. Thankfully, as research that highlights the strong connection between a healthy culture and business success is rising, so too is our language, understanding and ability in this space.

You might not be surprised to hear that your workplace culture stems from your leadership team – their visible actions and behaviours. Official communications, policies and procedures all have a role to play in setting the tone in an organisation, but nothing can kill or cure a culture quite like what is seen and experienced. And we all look to those above us in the hierarchy to see what’s acceptable and valued.

How many times have you heard a leader say, ‘I’m sure everyone’s fine / happy / engaged / comfortable.’? ‘Sure’ being the operative word there! Too often, it’s the reigning perspective.

In most leadership development programmes, the word ‘culture’ isn’t even present or fleetingly mentioned. It’s expressed as a nice-to-have or worse, assumed-to-have. What we’re slowly but surely realising is that culture has been integral this whole time, sitting in the background subtly tinkering with everything.

It all starts with leadership development

‘Is our culture providing a competitive advantage? Is it enabling us to execute our strategy?’ Bob Herz p103

In L&D, we’ve got an opportunity to bring culture into the conversation and take a systemic view. If culture starts with our leaders, then let’s start with our leadership development (and onboarding) programmes. Makes sense, right?

Ask yourself, are we enabling leaders to listen and question, to lift the lid off the organisation and take a good, long look? To go beyond the numbers and interrogate the role of the leader in modern business? Or is the ‘everything is hunky dory’ assumption standing in the way of opportunities and growth?

Your leadership development programmes might be firing on all cylinders when it comes to the day-to-day and status quo, but do they zoom out to the holistic picture? Is the connection between what leaders say and what they do, and how successful the business is singing through? Are leaders inspired to challenge what’s gone before and what’s no longer good enough?

Renovating your company culture

Here I share three themes inspired by Kevin Oakes’s incredibly insightful book, Cultural Renovation – 18 Leadership actions to build an unshakeable company’, to kick start your thinking.

Caveat: I’ve applied my own experience and interpretation on top.

1. Change – friend or foe?

‘How an organisation perceives change is an indication of their performance: 44% of high-performing organisations see change as normal, expected, and manageable. 23% see it as an opportunity – they like things shaken up. 17% see it as part of their business model, to be the disrupter.’

How does your leadership team view change? As all hell breaking loose? Or something expected and embraced that continually evolves the business?

The suggestion here isn’t that the pandemic should have been met by cheers and applause or that the champagne is popped after every resignation - far from it. It boils down to anticipating, mindset, communication, and adaptability.

In a crisis, we wait for our leaders to comment and steer the ship, alleviate the panic, and answer our pressing questions. We don’t need them to be perfect, just present. I’ve worked with leaders who stuck their heads firmly in the sand at the first whiff of change, hoping everything would return to normal before they needed to act. And others who announced they had everything under control and didn’t need help; but behind the scenes, they were without a clue or a plan. You can imagine the impact these reactions had on the business: wild gossip, anxiety, a drop in performance and, understandably, an increasing lack of faith in leadership.

Non-existent or false information during a time of change can be paralysing for individuals, especially if they’re able to peek behind the curtain and see the true mayhem. Leaders often underestimate how quickly speculation travels through teams and takes root as the truth.

So, how can our leadership development programmes come to the rescue here?

Well let’s not kid ourselves - no stand-alone programme is a silver bullet. But there are some skills and behaviours which can really support leaders face the unprecedented:

Future-focus – staying ahead of the curve is an overused phrase, but for a reason. By exploring what competitors are doing and tracking shifts in the industry and market, you can keep your finger on the pulse. What channels are being utilised and whose responsibility is it to get this intel to the leaders (if not theirs)? Enable your leaders with the skills to highlight threats and opportunities and know whom to collaborate with to ensure the business remains relevant and agile.

Page 99: ‘A crisis illuminates leadership.’

Business continuity planning – perhaps an underground bunker is overkill but having an action plan in place for the most likely and high-risk scenarios helps to stem the impact of leftfield change. This could be understanding single points of failure - where if one person leaves or one system should be unavailable, there’s a detrimental effect on business function. Or formulating a plan for challenging times like cyber security attacks and power outages. Just knowing who the key individuals are and ensuring they’re fully aware of the plan and their responsibilities can speed up time, money, and life-saving reactions. How and when things are communicated throughout the business is also paramount.

I’ve been part of large-scale continuity dry runs where leaders and employees work together to react to a hypothetical threat in real-time as if it were actually happening. I know the idea of role-playing often gets a groan but by doing this not only does it highlight previous blind spots and creative solutions, but it also builds teamwork, and reassures individuals that the business is prepared to successfully pivot in adversity. It generates a sense of unity and trust. There’s no reason why this approach couldn’t be taken on a smaller scale too – leaders working together on the business SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats), understanding where they’re integral to change, and what can be done now.

Resilience – often misconstrued as the ability to weather any storm without flinching, resilience is more about understanding yourself and those close to you well enough to form effective strategies in tough times. You’ll likely still experience stress - that’s a completely normal emotion when things get tricky - but you’ll be equipped to look after yourself.

Leader reflection is, therefore, an essential part of a development programme – taking the time to think about how they’ve responded to challenges in the past, what happens when they’re thrown from their comfort zone, and what or who they need around them to feel more capable. This should extend beyond change to criticism, bad news, pressure, difficult conversations etc. These exercises will likely throw up important growth areas. A programme featuring prompts and room for leaders to discover things about themselves and personalise will deliver way more benefit than a rigid one-size-fits-all itinerary ever will.

Network building – this underpins everything we’ve talked about so far, and everything to come. Any kind of sustained progress in business involves social capital and politics – leveraging relationships to generate momentum. And once you’re in a global, large-scale realm, requiring followers and advocates to spread the word on your behalf, becomes even more important.

You can support leaders who are new to the business to do this well by mapping the landscape, acclimatising them to how work gets done, who’s responsible for what and how communication happens. This can also form part of cultural orientation – research suggests that we often forget the significance of culture as part of onboarding and focus too much on the practical side of the job. But there’s a strong link between awareness of how things happen, building connections and increased speed to competency and retention.

Influence is a huge part of business, as is negotiating and persuading. Upskilling leaders in these areas will help them achieve buy-in to their strategy. It’s a good idea to make experiential learning front and centre here – knowing what ‘negotiating’ means (specifically within your business) is the first step but you must provide opportunities to practice it with other leaders and generally out and about in the business, and then review those exchange. This is the route to real behavioural change.

2. Practice what you preach

Page 44: ‘Transparency top hallmark of high-performance companies, and effective leaders.’ 

We’ve asked a lot from our leaders of late – be authentic, bring your whole self to work, own and admit your mistakes, be transparent – the buzzy terms continue to fly around. It’s not that these aren’t valid requests and possibly beneficial all-round, but it can be hard to see beyond the trending phrases to how they should show up in the workplace.

In terms of the development programme, a great place to start is the why. Ask your leaders why they think it’s important that they’re authentic at work. Ideally, you can help them join the dots between the behaviours you seek from your leaders to the company’s values, and finally, the company's purpose. Perhaps authenticity in daily practice matters because integrity (a core value) is vital to your business upholding its purpose as the “UK’s most compassionate and trusted care facility”, for example.

I wouldn’t advise being that formulaic about it – but it’s good to encourage conversations in that vein. Someone understanding why they should do something is crucial to them wanting to do something – they need to connect to the meaning.

We’ve all worked in businesses which publicly profess to be something which doesn’t ring true for those working there. The website and social media posts proclaim a very shiny brand identity which falls away at the company door. We need our leaders to lead by example, therefore their development should inspire them to think about the culture they want to emit and endorse.

Page 62: ‘We’re a science company. The experience of hypothesising, iterating, learning, and improving – we need to be willing to do that with the processes, policies, and practices that support our culture. We think of this as wiring our culture into our organisation, and it’s an ongoing evolution.’

3. Respect the past

New leadership can be very invigorating – a fresh pair of eyes, a different take, the sense that things are about to be shaken up. Leaders might charge forth with the best of intentions, keen to demonstrate initiative by replacing processes and tech all over the place. Occasionally, some of this innovation is at the expense of what was working.

Those who’ve been internally promoted to a leadership role might also feel this pressure, or expectation, that they need to move quickly and drastically modify to prove they were the right choice. We can all be guilty of some version of this – you’ve been in a new job a few days and you think, ‘I know a better way of doing that’ or ‘I’ve got to prove my worth here by changing things up’. Voice too many of those early criticisms and you run the risk of irritating a lot of people who don’t feel like you respect how things are, or know enough yet to comment.

This risk is magnified for leaders because of their reach. Leadership programmes can exacerbate it too as there’s often an almost exclusive focus on leaders building a dynamic, competitive future, without looking at what needs to be protected alongside. Why people enjoy working at the business or what motivates them to work hard can be uprooted with a few well-meaning tweaks to, on the surface, seemingly unrelated things.

‘When everything changes, don’t change everything.’ Sara Tate

People need anchors – familiar and comfortable things to hold onto that they can rely on, which help them to accept some upheaval. So new leaders need to familiarise themselves with the status quo so they can remind people of the constants whilst they’re remodelling other things.

It’s beneficial for leadership programmes to instil regard for the things that positively contribute to the culture and consider the impact change will have on them. Share the experiences in the organisation which make people proud to be part of it – whether anecdotal or responses from engagement surveys, exit interviews etc. Help them see that what they might view as problems or inefficiencies are also projects or ideas that people may have worked tirelessly on. At the risk of mangling some advice I heard recently: if you want to bring people along with you into change, you must move at the pace they’re comfortable with.

Walking leaders through the company’s journey thus far can help them understand the related people experience. Perhaps there were redundancies a few years ago and the underlying anxiety is still felt, or a previous leader was known for overpromising and underdelivering so confidence in leadership has suffered. Help them to get close to the context before they decide it’s ‘out with the old and in with the new’. Prime them for winning people over, not ostracising entire teams.

Putting culture at the heart of leadership development programmes

Great leadership programmes meet the need – they deliver what the individual requires to excel at leadership in that specific business. They’re formed by analysis, by understanding the individuals who’ll be part of them. They iteratively evolve thanks to conversations with leaders who’ve been on them before. They’re impacted and modified in line with the big stuff: company strategy, change, technology, and competitors. Leadership programmes travel way beyond a few days or a few weeks, and they don’t stand still.

Putting culture at the heart of leadership programmes will help them work symbiotically with the rhythms of the business they’re designed to help people thrive in.

As a reminder and a quick checklist for interrogating your leadership programme, consider, does it enable leaders to:

  • Move from confidently assuming to confidently informed?
  • Perceive change as something which delivers opportunities?
  • Understand the significance of the business' past and the future in forming the strategy
  • Recognise where they feel uncomfortable and challenged and take charge of their own development
  • Know what their role is in a crisis and how to uphold business as usual
  • See the Golden Thread – why what they do, and how, matters and contributes to the culture
  • Understand that sustainable change can’t happen in isolation – you don’t get leaders without followers
  • Think holistically and systemically

Page 39: ‘…we’re always trying to close the gap between our aspired culture and the daily experience of our employees.’ Kathleen Hogan (Microsoft)

If you’re looking to build an effective leadership learning development programme in your business, why not take a look at our new Leadership and People Management Collection which is chock-full of animated courses and agile resources? Or if you’d like help designing a learning pathway for your leaders, get in touch with our L&D Manager, Gemma Glover, who will be happy to walk you through it.


Topics: Learner Engagement, Leadership