Recent high-profile demonstrations of organisational culture failures have reinforced the knowledge that the behaviour of an organisation’s leaders is a key contributor to the culture of that organisation. What leaders do, say, and permit matters. And when an organisation wants – or needs – to evolve to a new culture, changing the behaviours of the leaders can have a significant impact on the success or failure of that culture to take hold.
Leadership development programs that are well-designed, integrated with supporting activities, and that appropriately challenge the old ways while providing space for the creation of the new can make a significant difference in the realisation of changes in organisational culture. Such programs can challenge how leaders think and equip them to act in ways that will enact and reinforce the desired culture.
Assuming that the content and structure of the leadership development program are appropriate for the effect that an organisation is seeking – which can be a courageous assumption if the program is neither tailored nor sufficiently ambitious – here are six considerations for program design that can help organisations to create the conditions for accelerated culture development:
- Think outside of the training room
Relying on theoretical ‘classroom’ sessions alone to effect the change in behaviour is almost guaranteed to result in disappointment. An effective leadership development program integrates social learning – with other participants and/or non-participant colleagues – and curated workplace experiences designed to expose participants to opportunities for learning through application. In each of those non-classroom learning modes, an effective program ensures participants have appropriate support to explicitly identify and learn the lessons as they are encountered.
- Be willing to adapt, using what works for the organisation
Changing the behaviours of multiple leaders across an organisation will almost certainly be a complex endeavour, likely to result in unexpected individual and organisational responses. A leadership development program that anticipates and allows for adaptation to embrace those elements that work for the organisation, and to dial down those that experience shows do not, stands a far better chance of successfully contributing to the creation of the desired culture. A properly-designed (and resourced) evaluation approach will yield the evidence required to accurately discern what works from what doesn’t.
- Create clusters of behavioural change
Forming leadership development participant cohorts from across an organisation is fantastic for developing networks and overcoming silos, and is especially important as leaders move from roles with a functional focus to those with a cross-functional remit. In seeking to effect cultural change, however, traction and momentum within teams are potentially more important than the networking on offer with the widespread enrolment approach.
A more targeted participant selection process can create a cluster of leaders who are adopting the new leadership behaviours at the same time, providing an immediate peer support network and creating for the teams they lead a palpable sense of change. Depending on the organisation’s approach to the culture change, this clustering might be done to reinforce those areas of the organisation that are already leading the way with desirable behaviours, or it might be done to kickstart change in the parts of the organisation that most need to change. Combining targeted leadership development cohort selection with programs to support behavioural change in those leaders’ teams offers an even more powerful clustering effect as whole teams shift their behaviour and thinking.
- Harmonise development activities across the organisation
If leadership behaviours are to be an effective driver of cultural change, those behaviours must be adopted and displayed by leaders at all levels in the organisation. While each individual will hopefully choose to manifest those behaviours in a way that is authentic to who they are, it is not helpful if senior managers and mid-level managers, as example cohorts, are operating with non-complementary leadership philosophies. Leadership development programs and activities across the organisation need to, at the very least, be checked for contradictory content and thinking. More powerfully, these programs and activities would all be aligned to ensure that managers across the organisation are being encouraged to display the same leadership behaviours.
- Create a receptive environment for the new behaviours
Related to the issue of aligned leadership development programs and activities is the reception participants will receive as they start to apply their learning from their program. Efforts to encourage new leadership behaviours will stall, if not fail outright, if program participants are shown by the example of their leaders that what was addressed in the program is not valued ‘in the real world.’ Where leadership development programs are being used to initiate and support culture change, the architects of the change must not forget the generally much larger cohort of managers who are not going to participate in the formal program and must create supporting activities that assist all managers to understand the evolving culture and to take on the desired behaviours. This is particularly important for the most senior leaders in the organisation whose non-aligned actions and words can undermine – or destroy completely – significant effort to establish a new way of leading in the organisation.
- Create belief in the organisation’s ability to change
Participants in a leadership development program are unlikely to commit to the new behaviours and thought processes that they are being encouraged to adopt if they do not believe that the organisation is capable of making the desired change. The program design should acknowledge this and include a component of creating the participants’ belief both in the organisation’s ability to change and in their ability to lead that change. This cannot be a Pollyannaish “everything will be fine, just you wait and see” approach, especially if the desired culture is significantly different to that which prevailed before. The creation of belief needs to be grounded in honest appraisal of the current state, identify and accept the reality of challenges and risks to the change, and, critically, be led by the most senior people in the organisation. In cases of extreme change, the organisation may initially need to look beyond itself for examples of other organisations that undertook and survived similar transformative change; as parts of the organisation start to change, their examples can be drawn on to demonstrate that change is possible in the organisation.
A final consideration for the use of leadership development programs as a lever for culture change is to remember the role of the organisational ‘system’ in creating the culture. How and why activities such as hiring, managing performance, reward and recognition, and selection and promotion are done all contribute to the shared values, assumptions, and beliefs of the people who make up the organisation. Seeking to change culture by conducting even the greatest leadership development program without the complementary and reinforcing reform of organisational processes would be a losing proposition as the early participant cohorts would quickly realise that there was no organisational commitment to the new culture.
Creating a new culture, whether by choice or of necessity, is a significant undertaking for any organisation, and the success of the undertaking depends in large part on the ability of leaders to change their behaviour to embody the new culture. Leadership development is, therefore, a key component of an integrated, comprehensive, and well-resourced organisational culture change program. Deliberate, considered design according to principles such as those outlined above will help create a program that develops the leaders and, through them, the teams required to make the new organisational culture a reality.
This article was written by David Schofield, Principal Consultant, Canberra