May 7, 2020 | watsimp

Show me your leaders and I will describe your culture

A friend of mine talked to me recently about a call he had received from a search firm. It was for a senior leadership position reporting to the CEO in a well known start-up that had raised a lot of money and was growing fast. My friend was in a dilemma. The role was exciting and something he had wanted for a while. However, he had deep reservations about the company’s culture. Turns out that all the reservations were linked to what he had heard about the founder-CEO and the leadership team.

As leaders, we are focused on doing what is right for the company, growing the business and creating value. Focusing on things that are tangible and measurable. Along the way, we lose sight of “how” we are doing it. This “how” defines the way people see us and directly impacts the culture we create in our organizations.

Organizational culture is not the result of what we say and hope people understand. It is the result of what we do.  This is the single biggest reason why leaders are the most critical piece of the organizational culture puzzle!

Many years ago, a big IT services company in India wanted to become more of a product company. They set up a separate product division. The head of the division reported to the CEO. They allocated funds to build the product- on paper they did all the right things. But this attempt to build a product business failed spectacularly.

Why? Because while the optics were all set up, no attempt was made to build a culture where a product mindset would thrive. The “language” and “processes” of the leadership team were still that of a services company. Metrics were still about “utilization” and “bench”. Managers assigned to this division, still derived their power from the size of teams that they led instead of products they had shipped. As a result, they were unable to attract top product talent and the idea was soon buried.

Employees are very perceptive and adaptive to what is valued and rewarded in the organization. They mirror their leaders’ behaviors and the cascade effect of this through the organization can be very rapid. Once entrenched, culture is hard to change.

As leaders it is critical for us to always remember that “how” we are doing things is as important as the “why”. The “why” gives the core purpose and the “how” creates the kind of culture that sustains long term organization performance.

The “why” is easily explained. But the “how” is only experienced. And it’s the single biggest way in which leaders create cultures that are a true reflection of themselves.

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