"A leadership culture exists when leaders are routinely and systematically developed, and you have a surplus of leaders ready for the next opportunity or challenge."
Mark Miller’s Leaders Made Here explores the importance of succession planning as a non-negotiable and foundational component of successful organizations. Sadly, many organizations are so preoccupied with the here-and-now issues of launching a new product, hitting quarterly sales targets and polishing their company image that they leave leadership development to chance. Without a strong pipeline of leaders to draw on, organizations become vulnerable to drifting, stagnation and uncertainty when an inevitable leadership vacancy arises.
Stop and think about your organization. Can you honestly say you have a surplus of leaders ready to step into your next leadership opportunity and prepared to tackle unanticipated challenges? If you can confidently answer yes, then congratulations. You are fortunate to work at a company that values leadership development and walks its talk. If you answered no or not sure, then you may want to keep reading to pick up a couple of ideas that you can implement to get the ball rolling in the right direction.
The Big Idea
Culture is What People Do
"A culture is nothing more than the sum of the habits of the people. Culture is not what you want it to be – it is what people do on a regular basis."
Culture is what people do on a regular basis. I’ve added the extra emphasis to this statement to underscore both the simplicity and the power of this observation. Sometimes I think people lose sight of this truth. They envy the amazing culture of high performing companies like Amazon and Southwest Airlines and bemoan the soul-sucking culture of their own organization like it was the by-product of the air molecules surrounding them or an additive to the water source. This disconnect between personal behavioural choices and collective attitudes needs to be rectified for so many reasons it may well warrant a book all its own.
In Leaders Made Here, Miller reintroduces us to Blake (whom we first met in Chess Not Checkers) who has just accepted a new CEO position at a mid-size firm. An unanticipated leadership vacancy on the senior leadership team, and no apparent internal candidates, motivates Blake to make developing a leadership culture in his organization a strategic priority. The first step of that journey focuses on developing a common definition of leadership. The remaining steps are all about taking action – doing things regularly as an integral part of your job.
Does everyone in your organization share and act on a common definition of leadership? Randomly ask five people what leadership looks like in your company. If you get conflicting definitions, you know where you need to start.
Leaders SERVE (and Serve is a Verb)
"When we consider what leaders do, we believe they all serve."
Robert Greenleaf first coined the term “servant leadership” in an essay written in 1970 and which later morphed into numerous books exploring the concept. The philosophy developed from a strong belief that individuals who grounded their actions in service to others earned the respect and loyalty of those served, and naturally cultivated opportunities for greater influence as a leader. Contrast this approach with the positional, command and control leadership paradigm prevalent in much of the corporate world today. It’s no wonder a significant proportion of the workforce is disengaged and operating from an ‘us versus them’ mentality.
Miller clearly believes in servant leadership. Blake’s team eventually adopts “Leaders SERVE” as their shared vision and definition of leadership with SERVE representing five actionable behaviours:
See the Future.
Engage and develop others.
Value results and relationships.
Embody the values.
Notice that these five responsibilities are not exclusive to individuals with formal leadership positions. Anyone, regardless of their job title within an organization, who aligns their actions and their communications with these five commitments will be demonstrating servant leadership and fostering the development of a leadership culture. Which SERVE behaviour can you begin to demonstrate more deliberately in your job?
Five Steps to Building Culture
"To create a leadership culture…Define it. Teach it. Practice it. Measure it. Model it."
Whether you are trying to instill a culture of leadership, innovation, philanthropy or teamwork, the steps are the same… Define it. Teach it. Practice it. Measure it. Model it. This makes intuitive sense. Tell people what you want them to do. Show them how to do it and provide them with opportunities to practice it in the workplace. Monitor and measure the quality and quantity of the behavioural outputs so you can provide feedback and additional learning opportunities. Finally, walk your talk. Act the way you want others to act and visibly reward them for adopting the desired behaviours. Do these five things consistently and…abracadabra, presto! You will have produced a living, breathing, self-sustaining culture within your organization.
However, there is a caveat you should be aware of: these five steps are equally effective in establishing toxic, undesirable cultures like silo-thinking, self-preservation, apathy, back-stabbing and a myriad of other problematic organizational practices. Quite often, these five steps occur subliminally; they are not overtly labelled and rolled out as part of a ‘corporate program’. They are learned over time by observation, water cooler gossip and first-hand experience.
One of the biggest mistakes any leader can make is believing something has to be officially labelled as ‘required’ in order for it to become part of the corporate culture. Recall our The Big Idea: Culture is not what you want it to be – it is what people do on a regular basis. Employees watch and take their cues from their leaders and those around them. “Do what I say, not what I do” rarely works. Behaviours are a visible manifestation of individual and corporate values. Seeing becomes believing, which in turn becomes behaving!
In an era where many organizations focus predominantly on improving their products, services and profit-margins, companies that deliberately concentrate on growing leaders, at all levels of the company, stand to cultivate a distinct competitive advantage in the marketplace. Organizations with leaders who SERVE are likely to be more agile and responsive to the changing needs of their customers and the marketplace. Leaders who SERVE create organizations where people enjoy their work and are fully engaged in fulfilling the company’s mission with passion and excellence. Leaders who SERVE inspire others to do the same, ensuring a ready supply of qualified leaders for emerging opportunities within and outside of the company.
Leaders Made Here describes a philosophy and a process that anyone can implement anywhere to develop a more rewarding workplace culture. Transforming an organizational culture is possible yet rarely easy. It will take time, persuasion, perseverance and an unwavering belief that the benefits of developing your people into leaders will outweigh the familiarity of the status quo.
The journey to high performance begins with leadership. As Gandhi exhorted his followers, “Be the change you want to see.” Are you ready to SERVE?