Leadership, Culture and Ambiguity…….

A discussion developed during a recent Working Group review with a client leadership team that centred on the degree to which they should seek to influence the organisation’s culture as part of the proposed organisational change arising from the implementation of a new process.  As usual in these situations there were as many views on the topic as there were participants in the conversation; each being argued with a greater or lesser degree of passion seemingly irrespective of the need to evaluate whether the need to change the culture was either required, supportive of the process change or even the degree to which they felt collectively or even individually able to assert such influence.

As the conversation continued to evolve it became evident that there was a general consensus that developing and sustaining a positive culture within the organisation was ‘a good thing’. What was abundantly less clear within the group was the reason why this was so or indeed how this was to be achieved. The meeting concluded with the general assertion that the group would continue to develop a positive organisation culture although no attempt was made to evaluate how this would either be defined or evaluated in the context of the organisational change.

As with many business attributes a positive organisation culture is largely invisible, or rather taken for granted, whilst the impact of a negative culture on the organisation’s performance is altogether too obvious. In this instance what was also of concern was the team’s inability to understand its role in developing a culture that was supportive of the change process.

Several days later I met with the Chief Executive over dinner.

“Have you had any further thoughts on the cultural aspects of this change following the team’s discussion the other afternoon” I enquired. “ I thought they raised some interesting issues but seemed a little unclear about their role”

“Yes, I would have to agree and yet we have spent a lot of time as a team working on this change but we don’t seem to have nailed down how to bring the organisation with us” she responded.

“I’m actually quite positive.” I continued. “The team appreciate that developing a positive culture will determine the outcome of the change process. What we need to help them with is how to influence the organisation’s culture as the change takes place.”

“Agreed” responded the CEO. “So any thoughts on where we should begin?”

“Well, we can start by emphasising with the team how important it is that everybody’s behaviours match the process change intent. It has to be clear how this change and the organisations strategy meet which gives us the route in to driving the correct behaviours.” I suggested.

“Yes, I can see that” she continued “but how can we use this to open up the dialogue with the extended team?”

“Just now we have the perfect opportunity. As we launch the change there will inevitably be a significant level of ambiguity in the organisation as everybody tries to understand what is required and what they need to do. “ I continued. “The organisation will open up as it seeks to deal with this ambiguity and it is this openness that is the route in”

“Ok, I can see that but I’m still not clear on the first step, where to begin?”

“Well how about starting with the ambiguity in the Leadership team…..”

Leadership Charisma…….

“Have you noticed how much of the current popular literature on Leadership focuses on the high profile charismatic leaders and their success stories?”

This comment sparked a somewhat heated debate amongst a group of my students as to the validity of such literature and what contribution these types of books made to the overall understanding of leadership.

“It seems to me that to be a good leader one has to be first and foremost charismatic” he continued as if to emphasise his point.

“And male” retorted a somewhat aggrieved female from within the group much to the amusement of her sisters “well, come on, can somebody name a popular book on leadership that is based on the story of a successful female leader?”

The impact of this question on the group was considerable. After the initial amusement subsided there was an uneasy realisation amongst both sexes within the group that a characteristic that it is cited by many as a fundamental trait of a good leader was widely perceived in popular literature to be predominantly attributable to male leaders.

“As we all know” she continued “charisma is seen by many to be at the root of Transformational Leadership. It’s a key behaviour that defines a change agent in the eyes of the team. It affirms them as a role model, brings life to their vision and provides them with the authority that serves to empower the team.”

It was a pretty powerful and well-articulated argument and one which I, for one, had not really considered hitherto. Whilst it could be argued that the bias in popular leadership literature is a reflection of the relatively low number of female senior executives compared to their male counterparts closer examination would support a proposition that this was exclusively so.

“Interestingly” she continued “it can be reasonably argued that many of the other attributes broadly associated with transformational leadership are no better suited to leaders of either sex so this bias would seem to stem directly from this one attribute.”

The debate continued long into the evening without seemingly coming to a conclusion. Each argument was met with counter argument as to whether leadership skills could be classified in terms of gender or no and indeed whether this could be considered to be a useful categorisation in taking the debate forward. My conclusion, having listened to the various arguments throughout the evening, was that it would not be but I, along with the rest of the group, continued to be troubled by her initial assertion.

“It would seem to me that there is confusion between charisma and heroism in much of the literature” she stated as she rose to leave “and if that’s the case I’m pretty much certain that the attribute that is being described can be used both constructively and destructively with equal effect……”

Does Emergent Leadership Play A Part In Your Organisation?

“This is my favourite time in any change management project. We’ve gone live and the organisation is beginning to find its feet. It’s fascinating to watch how the new relationships develop, the bonds are created and the whole thing comes to life.”

My partner and I had just left the headquarters of a medium sized group who we had been helping through a major restructuring programme.

“I agree; these are exciting times” I concurred as we drove through their security gates. “I share your fascination with this stage of the process. It’s going to be really interesting to see how the group adapts to the new structure over the next few months. They’ve brought a lot of new people in; some of them in pivotal positions“

The group’s senior management team had embarked on a major restructuring programme some nine months previously against a backdrop of reducing turnover and profitability. Whilst similar downturns had been experienced by the majority of competitors in the sector it seemed that our group had fared worse than the majority. The group had grown both organically and by acquisition over the last 20 years and served a wide range of markets competing primarily on the technical superiority of their products.

“Yes, it’s that part that worries me most” my partner continued. “Their competitive position is driven by their technology edge which is vested in key individuals within the organisation. I’m not convinced that this will be best served by the degree of centralisation that is being proposed”

As with most programmes that are executed in such circumstances the major thrusts were towards increased centralisation to improve control and stripping out several of the smaller non-core businesses to enable the group to focus on the more profitable elements of their portfolio. The group had also recruited several executives into senior leadership positions within the group to bolster what was perceived to be a structural weakness of the existing team.

“I’m still not convinced that the leadership team really understand how their teams function within each company.” my partner continued “The primary influence in the majority of the companies is the technical expert who not only understand the products but can also relate to the markets they serve. These are the people that the teams really trust and look to for guidance not the management team.”

My partner had highlighted a key issue facing the group going forward. The restructuring programme embraced a significant increase in the level of centralised control targeted primarily at increasing profitability through better allocation of resources and leveraging the group’s position to drive down cost. This would inevitably lead to a clash with the existing culture of informal technical leadership within the majority of the group. These largely self-governing groups are the cornerstone of their competitive position.

It looks like it’s going to be an interesting few months…..

Leadership…..And The Change Management Paradox

“You know it never fails to amaze me how difficult managing change can be. Even when everybody’s up for it it’s just a struggle from beginning to end.” My partner was clearly suffering after a difficult week with our client. It seemed that everything that could go wrong had done so along with a few more things that hadn’t been foreseen by either us or the management team with whom we had been working for several months.

“I can’t see why you are so surprised” I responded somewhat unsympathetically as we sat down at a table to enjoy a well-earned beer. “You know that managing major change is amongst the most difficult of challenges that any leadership team can face.”

“Yes I know but whatever approach I take I cannot get them to buy into the need for them to change along with the rest of the organisation. It seems as if they are blind to the fact that the change impacts them as much as the rest of the organisation” my colleague’s frustration was all too evident. “They just don’t seem to accept that they need to change both individually and as a group as much as the rest of the organisation.”

It was a situation that we had faced many times before. The Leadership team’s focus was on the rest of the organisation. The imperative was to help the organisation to face up to the changes that needed to be made not to face up to the challenge that confronted them as a leadership team. The impact of change on the leadership team is often under-estimated primarily on the basis that they are more change oriented. This was certainly the case here.

“So, have you any thoughts on how we might change our approach?” I asked somewhat apprehensively given his mood. “It’s pretty clear that they are blocked as a team and almost certainly on an individual basis too. We need to find a way to stimulate some creativity to enable them to engage with more options”

My colleague nodded in agreement; his eyes drifting into the distance as he pondered the dilemma before us.

“The really interesting thing” he began after a few minutes “is that they are pursuing a really aggressive timescale when what they really need to do is to take some time out and create some space. I know that the Ops Director is concerned; his team is really creaking and I suspect that the Finance guy has similar concerns.”

“Well ok let’s use their concern as the way in. We can build on it and use it as the way to create some space. It will give everybody the chance to take stock and really think about the implications that the change has for them. Hopefully they will begin to sense the emotional and behavioural changes they need to take on.” I suggested.

“You know, if this were a systems modification we’d recommend using a sand-pit environment to really evaluate the change in a set of safe and secure circumstances – no damage to anybody but a massive learning opportunity for the whole organisation” he continued.

“So why don’t we do something similar” I suggested “call it Transition Space……”