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Culture PART 2: The role of leaders in a culture shift

In the previous article in this series we examined the effect of COVID-19 on an organisation’s culture. Now, we turn the focus onto the role of leadership and technology in leveraging culture.

When an organisation decides to change its culture – be it planned or unplanned, as was the case when COVID-19 arrived – leadership has a vital role to play. Leaders set the trends, the strategy needs to align, the operating model needs to change with a key focus changing or updating the processes, technology, ways of working, governance etc. Changing culture is more than just words, it is actions. You cannot say you want to be a different or agile organisation without changing the way you do things.  

Maybe even leadership needs to change as leaders can make or break your culture. They need to put the time and effort in; often when a culture shift fails it is because the leadership talk the talk, but their actions and behaviours do not drive the new culture. Culture shift is not simply new posters on the wall. COVID, in a way, has forced companies to relook at their culture, providing a burning platform which necessitated a shift.

The CEO’s (and other C-executives’) role becomes that of a motivator and facilitator in a culture transformation. The successful CEO will be the one who best leads his or her networked groups according to purpose, accountability, transparency and collaboration.

What can leaders do shift the culture?

  • Match and align strategy and culture: If you want to successfully change your culture you need to make sure that it aligns to your strategy. Articulate your culture clearly and make sure it is reinforced trough formal and informal mechanisms.  
  • Focus on a few behaviour shifts: Walk the floor and speak to individuals across the organisation to learn about the behaviours that are most affected by the current culture, both positive and negative. Select 3-4 behaviours that are widely recognised and likely to be emulated.
  • Engage in deliberate action to drive alignment: Leaders can send clear messages about new organisational values, priorities and desired behaviours through deliberate engagement – practicing the desired behaviours and values themselves before they start rolling out the new culture.
  • Invest in skills: If you want people to work in new ways, they will need more than motivation – they will also need to shift their behaviours and ways of doing things. New cultural skills and capabilities consisting of interpersonal skills such as communication and emotional intelligence are key.
  • Organise for success: By analysing an organisation dispassionately to determine the best possible setup for a new digital model, leaders can arrange their teams for more successful interactions, both internally and with customers.
  • Create transparency: People need insight into what is happening and a clear context for why something is happening to be fully engaged and embrace change.
  • Measure and monitor your culture: Just like you would do with any priority business initiative, you have to monitor your progress to identify a need to course correct or reinforce culture initiatives. It is also important to demonstrate tangible evidence of improvement and shifts in culture to maintain the movement.

All too often leaders see culture change as an initiative that is owned and delivered by Human Capital, but this is the furthest from the truth. At the end of the day, a culture transformation has to be leader led; it is not about lip service, posters and communication. Alignment between culture and strategy is key, and taking it one day at a time, focusing on the critical few behaviours, rituals, artifacts and, sometimes, even changing people, will lead to sustainable culture transformation.     

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