Leaders, Logics and Transformation

22 June 2009 Gary Rhodes

In an extract from their book Transforming Your Leadership Culture, authors Gary Rhodes and John McGuire examine how leaders can change an organisation's culture.

There is a logic to any persisting culture. A culture’s collection of beliefs and norms fits together in a meaningful way. For example, one system of leadership logic, which we call Dependent - Conformer, centres on the idea that a leader gives an order for someone else to carry out. This type of culture excludes non-official leaders from participating in the leadership collective. It leaves them and their potential waiting indefinitely to emerge.

What potential could you add by tapping the talent of unofficial leadership, allowing it to join and add value to the leadership culture? It’s often useful to think of leaders as including people whose titles may not suggest 'leader'. This idea of non-titled leaders and their potential for joining in and advancing leadership logics raises the question of how to think of and define what all kinds of leaders have in common. We believe that the best way to do this is to talk about outcomes.

The outcomes of leadership: direction, alignment and commitment

We define leadership in terms of outcomes: what leadership brings about. As a collective human process, leadership can best be described as what is done to set direction, achieve alignment and get commitment (Drath and others, 2008). Direction, alignment, commitment: we shorten the three to the acronym DAC:

Direction. Setting direction usually implies some measure of change, from incremental to major. For a senior leader, setting direction means charting a course of vision for the organisation. Strategy addresses where you are going and how you are going to get there, so setting direction is part of strategy. All significant enterprisewide change emanates from vision and strategy. In organisation transformation efforts, your leadership strategy is as important as your business (or organisational) strategy. Your leadership strategy is your organisation’s implicit and explicit choices about the leadership culture, its beliefs and practices, and the people (talent) systems needed to ensure success.

Alignment. Alignment produces the right configuration of beliefs and talent in the systems, structure and processes that enable your organisation to head in the direction you have set. When leadership practices are jointly shared by the collective leadership, such alignment becomes a powerful force for change. One vital alignment is that between business strategy and leadership strategy. It provides an integrated strategic intent for the whole organisation.

Commitment. Commitment is getting the leadership culture and then the whole organisation on board, believing and devoted to the direction set by your vision and strategy.

DAC as qualities of human systems

"During successful organisational transformation, the leadership culture serves as a unified force for new direction, alignment and commitment."

It’s important to note that direction, alignment and commitment originate as qualities of human systems. If you don’t believe us, try getting commitment from a computer operating system. Traditional management functions focus on just operational tasks. It’s important to notice that a manager’s tasks of planning, staffing and budgeting are very different from the leader’s work in achieving the outcomes of directing, aligning and commitment, even though all may cohabit the same human body and mind - yours.

It is often difficult to stay aware of the difference in the day-to-day press of action, but leaders of change must discern it. More often than we can count, we (and perhaps you too) see company officers spend the vast majority of their organisational time in encounters about managing changes in organisational structure or systems and almost no time focused on human system changes in the organisation’s leadership culture.

Edgar Schein (1992) writes that what leadership really does is lead the organisation’s culture, which makes the human system pretty much the sole territory of leadership.

But he and many other experts have been reluctant to suggest or verify an actual pathway for transforming culture. We advocate developing and advancing the values and beliefs of your informal organisational culture because these are the guides by which people operate and make decisions and are, ultimately, the most powerful operating system your organisation possesses.

Attitudes and assumptions that get in the way

"Change the culture?" you ask. "You have got to be kidding me. How can I do that?" You can start by examining your attitude, assumptions and beliefs about change.

During successful organisational transformation, the leadership culture serves as a unified force for new direction, alignment and commitment. In our experience, four general attitudes can get in the way of embarking on change. As you look at where your leaders are now, think about the extent to which any of these might be a problem.

"Just let George do it": The myth of the 'Great Person' (CEO)

You or others may believe that meaningful, sustainable organisational change, including culture transformation, is possible — but only if someone like Jack Welch or Lou Gerstneris there to make it happen. It is easy to come by this myth. The popular press and many business books extol the actions of larger-than-life 'Great Person' executives. The media document their achievements and hold them in high regard. It’s a powerful image. In some organisations, employees are so conditioned to it that they look to the CEO as a parental figure — someone to show the way, make all the risky decisions and provide a safety net for others.

We call this the "just let George do it" attitude because it defers change to somebody else. In our work, we see senior vice-presidents defer to executive vice-presidents, who defer to the chief operations officer, who defers to the chief executive. It’s amazing to watch people give away their hard-earned power rather than stand up and lead. But leaders do give it away when they buy into the 'Great Person' myth.

"Yes, but": requiring no loss in control

Imagine a wave of people ready to make the changes you say you want. Imagine them eager to join with you as soon as you raise the ceiling so that you and they can stand up for change. Are you willing to give them real space? Executives often tell us they feel reluctant to make this kind of invitation. They worry that they don’t know which way the wave will break. We call this the "yes, but" attitude: when there’s no assured control over how things are going to turn out, leaders often get deeply disturbed. Right now, is your own anxiety about possible loss of control making you want to postpone a big effort to change?

"Culture change is a show-up, stand-up, participative, put-yourself-on-the-line personal process."

"Either-or": A feeling of not enough time.

You may be too busy keeping up with operational changes and making the numbers this quarter to make time for messy culture work. Besides, even if you could get time and could get a grasp of all that’s needed, making any lasting change to your organisation’s culture would take forever - if it happens at all. We call this the "either-or" mind-set. Time pressures force people into a false choice: either change the operations, or change the culture - there isn’t time to do both (Beer, 2001).

Leaders sometimes fall into the either - or attitude even though they value the idea of cultural transformation. Most modern human organisations do poorly even at adaptive, incremental change and learning. Few are true "learning organisations" that continually adapt, learn and readily grow in response to external change. But yours can get there.

"Are we there yet?": basic impatience.

Leaders come to us asking at the outset how long their organisational change will take and meaning we should be practically there - hence the name of the "are we there yet?" attitude. But lasting change will most likely take time and serious intention. If it took 30 years for an organisation to develop to its current stage, it’s pretty clear that it’s going to take more than 30 days of work to take it to the next level.

You might summarise these four, often robotic mind-sets in a larger, debilitating belief about cultural change that might be called simply "not me, not now." If you’re feeling not-me-not-now right now, is one or more of these mind-sets at play in you?

Change begins with you

If you expect change in others and in the culture of your organisation, then buckle your seatbelt and get ready to change yourself - first. Your change is the pivot around which culture change swings. If you keep the work of culture change at arm’s length, then real, lasting change won’t occur. The reason is simple: everyone else in your organisation is sitting around with their arms folded, doing nothing too - just like you.

Culture change is a show-up, stand-up, participative, put-yourself-on-the-line personal process. Culture isn’t an object or system out there. It’s internal. You are in the culture, and the culture is in you. It’s a meaning-making interpretation process that you and others perform for survival. We want you to take that personally. Sustainable and durable change begins and ends with you and your commitment.

Of his experience leading change at Honeywell, Bill George, executive vice-president of control systems and later CEO of Medtronic, says, "When I faced my self in the mirror I realised that Honeywell was changing me more than I was changing Honeywell" (2003). This is bound to be true. In the process of changing the culture of your organisation, you will change. You must; you are that much part of the culture.

Culture work is intimate and will reveal your vulnerabilities. You can’t manage and control real change the way that you can manage a benefits system. Your team can’t fix culture or manipulate it like a software system, a business plan, or a budget. You can try to "fix" or manipulate it, and a lot of managers do. But those efforts mainly account for the dismal failure of so many change efforts. People don’t like being manipulated. They prefer to be engaged. Isn’t that your preference? Wouldn’t you rather be engaged in a participative human process than be manipulated like a part in a machine?