About the Author: Stefaan van Hooydonk is the founder of the Global Curiosity Institute & Business Council Member of Axialent. This article is a shorter version of a dedicated chapter on curiosity and leadership in his book: The Workplace Curiosity Manifesto.

It is hard to be a good leader — whether the source of leadership is being an executive, running a country, or being a frontline manager. It is also hard to find good leaders. An extensive 2015 internal study of twenty thousand executive placements was conducted by the executive search firm Heidrich and Struggles. The study revealed that 40 percent of these newly appointed executives fail within eighteen months.

Curious Leaders Create Successful Cultures

A failure means the executive left, was asked to leave or was performing significantly below expectations. Consistent with data from other research in subsequent years, the success of executive appointments was no better than 50 percent. Executive recruitment seems to be a hit-or-miss activity. Candidates have an equal chance to succeed or fail.

The challenges managers face today are less predictable than they were in the last century. Solutions to problems are not so easily found in previous successes. The power to effect change requires more gentle influence than formal top-down authority. Especially now, leadership is ambidextrous. Leaders need to be good at keeping their ship afloat while, at the same time, reinventing the future. 

Curiosity in its various dimensions is well suited to assist leaders to widen their perspectives, listen intently, engage new challenges, experiment, learn faster, and build organizations that create results in times of crisis.

What is a curious leader?

In a cross-industry curiosity study led by curiosity researcher Todd Kashdan commissioned by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, professor Kashdan posits several curiosity barriers associated with leaders.

  • Autocratic, top-down leadership behavior stifles curiosity as curious subordinates are not provided with the opportunity to question or challenge decisions, nor are they invited to explore and share novel options.  
  • The prevalence of risk-averse behavior makes leaders opt for proven and safe ideas, thus restricting creative thinking time.  
  • A preference for conformity and fear of standing out from others among managerial peers.  

The above points already highlight a number of dimensions explaining incurious leadership behavior. What becomes clear is leadership positions are sensitive to the nature/nurture divide. Leaders show up with their own level of curiosity, yet simultaneously are also adapting their individual inclination for curiosity to the context they are in.

An interesting finding in the research is that when a CEO displays a healthy dose of curiosity, the company benefits both in terms of an increase in operational efficiency as well as an above openness to exploring new territories.

When the CEO, or the team leader for that matter, is high on curiosity, the members of the organization are more likely to agree with the statement that the organization encourages curiosity. This does not mean employees at all levels of the organization automatically feel encouraged and enabled to show up curiously at work.

Next to being role models, leaders also need to establish habits and interactions, so employees are reassured curiosity is not reserved for people at the top.

Curiosity needs champions. The shadow the manager casts is an important driver for team curiosity. In my research, I have established a linear correlation between the numbers of hours a manager spends on the acquisition of new information and knowledge through reading books or articles, viewing educational videos and taking (e-) classes, listening to podcasts or e-books, and so on.

The more the manager consumes new knowledge, the more the team also follows in the curious behavioral footsteps of the leader. As a result, there is an increase in the hours the team spends on learning to mimic those of the leader. Intuitively this makes sense.

When the manager is curious herself, she will—openly or not—make it clear she values new knowledge in the team. The team will recognize that learning and intellectual exploration is important and will follow her example.  

The inverse is sadly also true. If a manager does not communicate in words or—more importantly in actions—that learning is important, the team refrains from consuming learning. Luckily, not all team members mimic the manager’s learning habits.

Some of them—the A players—are intrinsically so curious, even a non-conducive environment does not stop them from exploring. A-players are not negatively influenced by the behavior of their leader. In summary, curious managers uplift the team and stretch it beyond what they thought was feasible. Incurious managers, on the other hand, stifle the team and hold it back.

Curious Leaders Create Successful Cultures

A 2018 study of three thousand international employees conducted by the Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino disclosed the implications of workplace curiosity and the corresponding leadership support for curiosity. She states curiosity is an important aspect of a company’s performance because of the following reasons:  

  1. When curiosity is triggered, leaders tend to be more intentional and rational about their decision making.
  2. Curiosity makes leaders—and their teams—more adaptable to the dynamics of uncertain market environments.
  3. Curious leaders command higher levels of respect of their followers than incurious leaders.

Workplace curiosity works in real time. When leaders are more curious and invite surprise about everyday activities, the more it has a carry-over effect on team members.  

However, when studying in the above-mentioned Harvard Business School research how leaders viewed curiosity, Professor Francesca Gino found: “Although leaders might say they treasure inquisitive minds, in fact, most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency”.  

On the one hand, executives realize the underlying importance of curiosity in helping to implement their firm’s strategy agenda when it comes to product and services innovation, outwitting competition, winning deals, taking calculated risks in the pursuit of novel and creative outcomes, etc. On the other hand, these same executives are rejecting curiosity as something which goes against the grain of operational efficiency of the organization or that of their team.  

A crucial misconception is that curiosity will naturally occur in any reasonably healthy workplace. In fact, curious work environments are rare. They require deliberate and consistent action. Here are some steps to help you as a leader promote a more curious work environment:

  • Put curiosity on the team agenda.
  • Show up as an all-around curious individual interested in the world, the people around you, and yourself.
  • Ask for (reverse) feedback.
  • Become aware of your question strategies. Are they open-ended or closed?
  • Baseline your own curiosity as well as that of the team.
  • Identify barriers to curiosity in the team, create quick wins and build on their success.Ask the team how they can help in creating a curious environment.

Do try out the above steps and explore on your own how curiosity can lead to building more successful and better performing organizational cultures. 

I invite you to become aware of how you show up as a leader. Are you showing up with curiosity or with judgment? Are you listening to fix or are you listening to learn? Are you projecting yourself a personal desire for continuous learning and growth or not (what type of questions do you allow in your team meetings; questions which confirm what you know already or questions which challenge the status quo)?

These questions will help you become aware of your own curiosity level, trigger you to make curiosity at work intentional and help you start measuring progress.   

Welcome to the community of curious leaders.

I have a dream, and its name is Conscious Kids! And I want us to dream together. With my colleagues at Axialent, I work with great business and people leaders around the world. Fundamentally, we help build conscious cultures and coach leaders to successfully run conscious businesses. I love what I do. I really do it out of passion, and I am rewarded by the outstanding impact this work has on individuals and organizations. And yet, I feel there is so much more that can be done to foster consciousness in our ecosystems. 

A few months ago, at an Axialent Board meeting in Barcelona, I had some sort of revelation: we could also support the leaders of tomorrow – our kids! This revelation made me feel 30 years younger, made my eyes shine, and filled me with renewed energy…and a new sense of noble purpose. I began my work toward this by preparing a series of videos where I addressed what conscious kids means concretely, how we could impact kids around the world, and how to make this revelation real.  

conscious kids

When discussing “kids”, I am referring to potentially three different groups: children ages 7-12, teenagers 13-17, and those preparing to enter their adult and professional life. 

In the first phase of these videos, I addressed the what (help kids raise their consciousness so that they are the owners of their lives), the why (our kids’ freedom of mind is at risk), and the how (to raise our kids’ consciousness and be the owners of their future).  

The what of conscious kids is the DNA so to speak. It is helping kids to become: 

  • The player, rather than the victim of their life 
  • A learner, rather than a typical teenager pretending to know everything 
  • A master of their emotions, rather than being controlled by them 
  • Someone who thinks for themselves, rather than just as they are told to think 
  • Someone who speaks their truth constructively without the fear of avoiding confrontation or conflict and without disrespecting the opinions of others. 

The why of conscious kids is somewhat obvious, yet under-addressed. Kids are facing many challenges today for which they are not prepared. There are more and more challenges coming up that nobody but themselves will have to manage individually and collectively.

As adults, we don’t yet know the solutions to the unique challenges they will face. But it is our job to prepare and empower them. As I see it, our children are endangered by three key phenomena:  

  • Social networks, which are based on algorithms that create circular thinking. Social networks do not only tell us what to think but also unconsciously how to think and what relationships to have or not to have with others. These are all the opposite of critical thinking, and of thinking for oneself.   
  • A dramatic polarization of opinions towards the extremes, which divides people within the same family, community, and country in an increasingly violent and lack of respect for others ‘world. Kids need to discover and master polarity thinking that is not taught at school. 
  • The meteoric arrival of the metaverse will immerse us — our kids first — in a world of virtual and augmented realities. Once again, for the better and for the worse. The metaverse, together with artificial intelligence and transhumanism, is revamping the notion of life and of WHO we are. Psychiatrists and psychotherapists have already evidenced how virtual worlds in some video games are leading our kids to face serious risks of loss of identity, confusion about reality, and what the sense of life is — not to mention the risks of manipulation and brainwashing in virtual reality worlds. The metaverse could also be a world of opportunities for the best — if we infuse it with consciousness and mindfulness.  

One thing for example that is of major concern, I think, is the relationship our kids should consciously build with their AI avatar(s): The avatar is their self-representation / projection in the virtual worlds. We need to help them decide and define how this avatar could be their own hero: a hero who can help them become the best version of themselves in real life, and NOT a confusing chimera of someone they are not and should never be. 

My fourth video on conscious kids was a very early reflection on how we can help kids raise their consciousness and be the owners of their life and future. A couple of possibilities include:  

  • A community-based learning & development program where kids will learn from each other, from their parents, from teachers, psychologists, therapists, and pediatricians, from their sports coach, from universities, from corporate foundations, and from all kinds of educational governmental agencies and NGOs — with the support of high-tech companies through strategic alliances. 
  • Gamification — through the investigation of how kids of different ages learn, providing video games, sports, art, and/or physical projects that are tailored to raising consciousness. 

Our aim is to become a marketplace and connector, leveraging the ecosystem of private and public initiatives around the world for raising our kids’ mindfulness, and their ability to make this world a better place for them and for others. 

Take a look at my series of videos about Conscious Kids:

Watch my entire series of videos about Conscious Kids!

At this stage I have three key inferences to be validated or not as we are confronted by realities in our experience: 

  • The ways kids learn and develop are obviously different from how we structure L&D programs for adults — and the way kids will learn & develop in the coming years and decades will be completely different from what it is today. Their world is changing dramatically at a pace that we adults might not even be able to imagine. 
  • Kids and their education are our future: I don’t know how yet, but I intuit that the kids themselves will be the masters of this game. They will tell us, we will learn from them, and they will make us grow. We will not be the teachers — just enablers, facilitators, and coaches. What a shift of paradigm in our education approach!  
  • Likewise, with AI and the metaverse we really need to figure out how together, kids and adults, we will shape the world and the life we want. 

The next step in this exciting journey is to develop the how suite further. Stay tuned for further videos in our next phase, towards the end of the year. I am looking forward to this journey ahead, and hope you are with us! 

Teryluz Andreu, Axialent Partner & Culture Expert, and Ginger Hardage, Founder of Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship & Former SVP of Culture and Communication of Southwest Airlines, engaged in an interactive forum discussing how leaders can create and sustain cultures of enduring greatness within their organization.

Ginger retired from Southwest Airlines after an illustrious 25 years and created The Unstoppable Cultures Fellowship. UCF lives on as The Fellowship (which Axialent has the privilege of partnering with this year), a four-day masterclass helping you build a captivating culture that your customers can’t resist and your employees refuse to leave.

Ginger Hardage Unstoppable cultures

Ginger and Teryluz began their discussion by listing the three most common pitfalls organizations run into during their pursuit of cultural transformation and advice on how you can address them.

  1. Leadership is not on the same page. It is critical for leadership to be on the same page when trying to evolve their organizational culture. Alignment amongst the leadership team on what kind of culture they desire, how they will drive it, and what commitments they are willing to make is vital. If misalignment occurs within leadership, it will not only be noticed internally but externally as well.
  2. Lack of processes and discipline. Cultural transformation is not a one-and-done project. It requires time, processes to support the change, ongoing communication, and discipline in follow-through. Too often, organizations underestimate the rigorous processes and disciplines needed after launching cultural initiatives and don’t make the necessary investments to drive sustainable change.
  3. Lack of employee involvement. It is important to understand employees’ thoughts and perspectives before making organizational changes. Often, organizations do not listen to their employees’ pain points and roadblocks, which slows efforts down the road. When employees are involved from the start, it creates a sense of ownership and shared responsibility to overcome barriers and see transformational change.

Ginger and Teryluz shared some insights on actions that we can take to address (or even better, avoid) these challenges. It all starts with two key steps: Define and Demonstrate.

  • Define. Have open conversations with your team about these key questions: Where do we want to go? Who do we want to be? What do we need to protect? What do we need to evolve? Teryluz mentioned that this step is a great opportunity to find creative ways to make everyone in the organization a part of the cultural conversation.

For this to work, senior leaders need to have a vision of where they need to go, but also have the courage to seek understanding. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, these leaders need humility to let go of any preconceived notions on what needs to change. Understanding the current culture from employees’ point of view will help inform what key shifts need to be made culturally.

  • Demonstrate. Help leaders walk the talk. When it comes to demonstration and changing culture, Ginger outlined a few key things leaders should address:
    • Culture is everyone’s job.” The most effective efforts involve all departments, not just the typical communications and HR-driven initiatives. If all leaders aren’t living the values and modeling the desired behaviors the desired outcome will not be achieved.
    • For culture to change, leaders may need to change. Leaders must reflect on how they need to change, not just the organization. It’s critical to provide safe spaces for leaders to gain self-awareness on how they need to improve their own mindsets and behaviors to align with the new ways of working.
    • Never underestimate the power of storytelling and leadership visibility. In the era of social media, people are used to the continuous flow of communication and increased accessibility. Engaging in conversations about the what, why, and how of the organization’s cultural initiatives has to be a constant process across multiple channels. To be authentic, leaders need to find what approach works for them, understand what is most engaging for their internal audiences, and establish a cadence to keep the dialogue going.

Even the best laid-out strategies can get stuck or go off the rails. Ginger and Teryluz offered some ideas on what to do if you feel stuck in your culture journey.

Watch the entire webinar now! Click here.

  • State the need for change. Tie the need for change to your business strategy and priorities. Ginger encouraged organizations to look at their “return on culture” like other ROI challenges. How can culture drive your business at the enterprise level? It’s essential to clearly articulate how the lack of change will impact employees.
  • Give a cross-section of leaders the responsibility to lead culture. Too often, change is only driven through the HR lens, which can be limiting. It takes a cross-section of people to solve problems and help initiatives get unstuck.
  • Don’t be too prescriptive. Let people serve the organization in the way that works best for them. Model employee empowerment and involve people in creating solutions for problems they care about.

Like any strategic change initiative, cultural transformation requires a clear vision, discipline in execution, agility to adapt to circumstances, dedication to overcome obstacles, and a great deal of resilience.

Let’s allow this journey to be an opportunity to evolve as people as we transform our organizations.

Many organizations have identified the need to drive culture change to adapt to evolving business needs and strategies and new ways of working and retaining talent. The need is clear, and the desire is there. So, what gets in the way of actual change happening?

Most culture change efforts start with a lot of energy but quickly lose steam.  We start seeing the tell-tale signs that we’re not moving forward:

  • Senior leaders dedicate less time and focus
  • Culture activities get cancelled or postponed
  • Initiatives are superficial and there’s no real effort to change mindsets and behaviors that get in the way
  • Focus is on storytelling, but not on “story doing”

As time goes on, it gets difficult to remember why we were doing this to begin with. Because we don’t know what got us here, we wonder, can we really change? We start focusing on all the reasons why we can’t change instead of what we are missing by not changing — what other possibilities could exist.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a shock to the system, a call to consciousness to make us focus back on culture – an incident that publicly exposes detrimental behaviors permeating the company and tarnishes the brand, talented people leaving due to burnout and disengagement, crippling bureaucracy or missed growth opportunities.

If you are a leader or culture champion, you may be wondering: How can we jumpstart the culture change? How can we spark renewed enthusiasm and support? Instead of looking for a recipe for success, we encourage you to address the challenge with curiosity, one conversation at a time.  Contemplate who you need support from to reenergize the process and how you can best engage them in discussing the following questions:

  • Who is in? Who is indifferent? Who is out? Why is that the case?
  • Are we clear on why culture matters to our business?
  • Are we aligned on what needs to change about the way we do things today?
  • What is holding us back from making the necessary shifts?
  • How can we quickly demonstrate that things are changing?
  • As leaders, how do we need to change to ourselves?
  • What commitments are we willing to make?
  • What support do we need to fulfill those commitments?

Conventional wisdom is that change takes time; in reality, what it takes is intention and practice.  Culture changes one conversation at a time.  If your culture journey is stuck, jumpstart it by creating a safe space to discuss the questions above constructively.  It may sound counterintuitive, but instead of doing more and going fast, it may be better to focus on less and take time to reflect.  Don’t get discouraged if things don’t happen in the first conversation. Change requires intention, inspiration, a simple plan, and practice.

I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the pandemic a few weeks in advance and to be able to act based on the signs, intuition and experience to face a challenge that we did not even imagine what it would finally be like.

The signs were the cancellation of a project in Germany and the anger around the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The intuition, that we were facing something unknown and devastating. The experience was that of my colleague Thierry de Beyssac warning me that in the face of real crises, the “worst-case” had to be “really” a nightmare scenario.

Today, two years later, I know that surviving would have been impossible without the trust of our partners and the support and ability to sacrifice of all of us who comprised of Axialent in March 2020. Practically our entire operation was face-to-face with our clients, and involved travel throughout Europe and America that was cut off to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

That was the situation.

The first thing I perceived was fear — fear in our people, fear in our clients, fear in our families. And I understood that the first thing we had to do was to overcome fear.

I set myself three priorities to transform fear into hope.

The first: guarantee the survival of the company. We did it by renegotiating the financial structure, expanding the capital base and applying very tough cost management that included pay cuts up to 50% in the highest salaries and eliminating all non-essential expenses.

The second: talking to people, honoring our values and proposing a pact to socialize sacrifice so that no one would be left behind in circumstances in which uncertainty and vulnerability were total. The tsunami had hit us in the middle of the sailing and all of us on the Axialent ship deserved to reach port together, safe and sound. So we agreed, so we did. It is what I am most proud of as CEO.

The third: to talk to our customers and offer help and support with the ship afloat and the crew weathering the storm. They were just as scared and perplexed as we were. It was the best we could do — we helped each other. We designed new services together that helped them in a complex and challenging scenario, and because of this we were able to reinvent ourselves beyond what we would have dreamed of without the pressure of the coronavirus.

The implementation of these three priorities brought us an unexpected gift, which was to accelerate innovation. Almost without realizing it, we began to do remotely what we were doing in person. The need helped us to make possible what we previously saw as impossible — and for which we had brought a team to the company whose presence at that time was critical. Thanks to this, we found ourselves giving new answers to the new problems that the pandemic brought to the table. At the same time, none of this was easy. And although today I see these two years as a vital and invaluable learning experience, the truth is that we all suffer a lot and still continue to suffer consequences of COVID-19.

At some point, we used the tools we use with our clients to see how we were working in the midst of chaos and the result overwhelmed me. I heard things that I did not like, and it helped me to see things that I did not see. All of this helped us to correct course, and taught me how the humility to admit mistakes is the best ally to create the confidence that is needed to act and lead in uncertainty.

When they ask me what my keys as CEO were for Axialent to survive, I answer that I listened a lot and made quick decisions at the service of the people. Decisions to empower, remove obstacles and protect with an armored umbrella those who were on the front lines helping our clients, containing the budget, or reinventing our services. And underneath the armored umbrella manage the storytelling without essentially missing the truth and remembering that “a team is a state of mind” as my friend Jorge Valdano says. I considered that some bad news or explaining in detail the size of certain obstacles would only serve to increase the distress and discouragement of the team in the midst of the greatest challenge most of us had ever faced in our lives. I sincerely believe that this selective transparency, and sometimes with an optimistic bias, helped us stay on course and reach port.

The pandemic brutally showed us the difference between what we can control and what we cannot. Knowing how to make this distinction and focus energy on what is under our control is what we call at Axialent “unconditional responsibility” which, next to caring for people, are the keys to getting out of a crisis like the one we are experiencing with more awareness and wisdom. Is important to know it now since we also know that this is not last crisis we will have to live.

No one would argue that work landscape has changed significantly in the last years due to covid-19.
According to a Mercer report, 71% of employers said last year they were going to adopt a hybrid model. And, an Accenture report noted that hybrid workforce models are embraced by 63% of high-revenue growth companies.
Although there is no exact definition and it can vary according to each organization, hybrid work is understood as the possibility of alternating (fixed or flex way) working from home, from a remote location and a central hub or office.
While there are many advantages for organizations and employees in adopting a hybrid model, it needs to be planned and consciously managed to offset some of the disadvantages hybrid work has revealed in the past years. Let´s look at the main drawbacks people have expressed after forcefully adopting this new way of working.

  1. It diffuses Human Connection: although technology platforms and collaboration tools have taken a quantum leap facilitating access to virtual experiences, human connection and sense of belonging have been diluted. In a virtual configuration, we tend to jump from meeting to meeting focusing on the task and results while investing little time on hanging out and mingling. Some people tend to experience weariness, loneliness, and disconnection.
  2. If not carefully planned, cross group collaboration can drop dramatically, and organizations might become more siloed: some organizations are already reporting an impact on sharing collective wisdom and innovating. Although spending face to face time is a possibility, it´s not always assigned to becoming more collaborative.
  3. Remote vs On Site Mindset: There are different shared beliefs by remote workers vs on site workers. Often people working from home can feel their career development is being impacted due to a lack of connection with their peers and/or leaders. We sometimes tend to believe we need to be “visible” to be considered by people who have decision making power in our careers. This might drive some additional tension to the implementation of the working model.

Human connection and sense of belonging are key to create a trusted environment and develop a high-performance culture.
So how can we as leaders, foster belonging in a hybrid environment?

  1. Make face-to-face time count: no virtual experience can replace the physical connection, so plan and invest purposefully your time together — it´s precious and needs to be taken care of. Building and growing your “WE” into trusting and collaborative relationships is the best use of your time. Plan for formal and informal gatherings to strengthen your bonds and get to know each other.
  2. Get to know your people — plan for 1:1s: We all come from different places, are immersed in different contexts, and have different needs. Let´s not approach our teams with a “one size fits all mindset”; ask your team what they need to feel more connected with you, the team, and the organization in this configuration. Make connection and sense of belonging part of your ongoing conversations and periodically assess with each team member their level of connection.
  3. Encourage mentoring / peer sessions: Developing a mentoring program creates a safe container for people to come together and share own experiences, wants, and needs. People feel heard while being challenged to adopt new mindsets. Mentoring has proven to be a great mechanism to help people grow in all 3 dimensions (I / WE / IT).
  4. During hybrid meetings, start with remote workers: Hybrid meetings can be messy and ineffective; it´s harder for remote workers to follow through and for onsite workers to be mindful of those who are accessing virtually. Before starting the meeting make sure you have the right technology in place so everyone can clearly hear the conversation that will take place in the room and in each virtual space. During the meeting periodically pause and check with the team how are they experiencing the meeting. Make sure you always give priority to remote workers to voice their opinion first without being overran by others. Setting clear ground rules is key for leading effective meetings.
  5. Foster vulnerability & authenticity: showing up and being seen as who we truly are with our own strengths and opportunities bring us together. Embracing others without judegment and with compassion creates an inclusive culture. As leaders, we have a key responsibility in role model an inclusive leadership inviting others to do the same.

Implementing a successful hybrid work model requires more than ever creating an inclusive environment where people feel connected and have a strong sense of belonging.
It´s not about making the model itself work, it is about consciously managing our culture and creating the right conditions to enable people develop to their full potential in any given working environment.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is one of the top trends that is shaping organizations in 2022 and beyond.1 Best practices in DEI have been talked about for decades, but how much change have we actually seen? Recent surveys have shown that we still have a gap in turning intention into impact.  According to a recent study, four in five (80 percent) of senior leaders think that their actions show that they are genuinely committed to greater DEI, while only three in five (58 percent) individual contributors say the same.2
Much of the traditional DEI efforts have been centered on corporate messaging on the company’s commitment to DEI, implementing HR policies to attract, retain and promote diverse employees, tracking DEI-related data and conducting mandatory training for managers to promote awareness of unconscious biases. These top-down and HR-driven actions are important, but not sufficient. In many cases, what organizations see as DEI challenges are underlying organizational cultural problems manifesting themselves as DEI issues.3
For example, the global pandemic has shown us that we need to think beyond traditional definitions of DEI and help people in organizations have more authentic conversations and conscious interactions. These day-to-day interactions are greatly influenced by the unwritten values and behavioral norms which guide the way we approach our work, interact with others and solve problems. In other words: the company culture.
For example, consider the impact that the following culture norms could have on team members feeling included, heard, and valued:

  • We are expected to come to our bosses with only good news
  • We shame people for making mistakes
  • We have a bias for action and value quick consensus over constructive debate
  • It’s not ok to disagree with others in a meeting
  • We only share business performance information on a need-to-know basis

Culture norms like this exist in every organization. They guide and regulate what is acceptable behavior in a group. The problem is that in many cases, these norms were not consciously defined in the first place, and we may not even be aware that they exist —they are “just the way we do things around here.” To drive culture change, the first step is to identify and name these unwritten norms, and discuss what may be driving them and whether they may be helping or hindering our journey to be a more diverse, inclusive and equitable workplace.
This process will be more effective if leaders work on adopting a learner mindset. When we shift to a learner mindset, we actively treat our views and opinions as our subjective interpretation, acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers and that there are multiple perspectives. This creates a positive snowball effect – we can better uncover and understand the culture norms that may be holding us back, benefit from the perspectives and ideas of others to drive the culture shifts, and visibly role model inclusive leadership behaviors.
A learner mindset also helps us to acknowledge that we will never be ‘done’ when it comes to understanding the context and experiences of others. By entering a space of humility and being willing to be vulnerable, we can better invite others to also be vulnerable and to openly share how they feel. This creates psychological safety: a space where people feel free to fail, to say ‘I don’t know’, to admit their mistakes and to be vulnerable about their feelings and experiences. It also encourages people to share their ideas, challenge others, raise issues and constructively disagree. Creating this safe space is the most important first step to creating a culture that truly values DEI.
This is an invitation to pause and reflect on what has and hasn’t worked in the last couple of years and to encourage ourselves, our leaders, and our employees to consider:

  • How can we facilitate more constructive and honest dialogues around what we need to change to drive representation and belonging?
  • Where are the gaps in our own cultures and behaviors?
  • What are the best experiments we’ve seen or experienced to drive a more constructive and inclusive culture? Why did they work? How can we refine and replicate those actions in other parts of our organization?

Creating a constructive culture that fosters DEI is a journey that will never end. Once you become more aware, you realize that there is much more to learn, unlearn, explore and do. We need to treat change as an ongoing process and experiment; not trying to get things perfect but working with conscious intention on making things better each day.
 
 

111 Trends that Will Shape Work in 2022 and Beyond (hbr.org)
22022 employee experience trends // Qualtrics
3 The limits of “Cultures for…” the latest or most urgent organizational problems (humansynergistics.com)

For most executives we know, embarking on a transformation journey at the helm of an organization is thrilling. It’s nothing short of an adrenaline rush, like the climbing expedition we’ve been comparing it to over the last few weeks. However, journeys come to an end, and life -as well as business- goes on. Business as usual, they say. At the foot of the mountain, the heroes of the hike blend with ordinary folks and continue onward. That part of the story typically gets left out of the books because… who wants to hear about the ‘normal’? We revive that story here, in the final article of the series, The Next Normal of a New CEO.
In the first article, we laid out a roadmap for the first 100 days of a CEO and the ‘new’ leadership team that results from that appointment (from A to B in the illustration above). We continued with a second article where we explained the focus of the team’s next 100 days in its safe descent back to base camp (from B to C). We finish the series with the ‘next normal’ of this team (‘new normal’ sounds too definitive for a VUCA world).
The Next Normal of a New CEOBeginnings, or new beginnings, are exciting. They create momentum, but it’s a hard job to keep the flame alive. If the leadership team does an excellent job with the four D’s mentioned in article two, there’s a higher chance that the flame will last longer. However, they will need a sustainable fuel source for that flame because eventually, it will die out. No matter how well-intended the leaders are, their behaviors are not enough to consolidate an evolving or transforming culture. Culture needs to be hinged on systems to endure.
 

Systems and Symbols

What are systems? For us, systems are to the organization what behaviors are to individuals. They are the workflows, procedures, policies, practices (you name it) that shape collective actions. As such, they can be powerful symbols of what the company values, regardless of the words on their posters.
An example of the power of systems and symbols is how top leadership deals with ‘airtime’. What they spend time on, or whom they spend time with, sends a loud message to the organization. Take one of our clients. They decided to end their hierarchical, command-and-control leadership style because their business strategy called for swifter moves that they believed would happen with more autonomous, empowered, and customer-centric teams.
Their leadership manifesto called for them to be ‘servant leaders’. Some took on the challenge of transforming their mindsets and behaviors to become that type of leader. However, their meeting protocols remained unchanged. Front-line employees were still called to provide status updates to top leadership, which meant taking an elevator to the ‘noble’ floor, projecting the same lifeless PPTs as always, as if they were making a case in front of a tribunal waiting for the verdict.
The culture only started shifting when the executives brought the change to another level. No more status updates at the top of the high-rise corporate headquarters. They systematically took the same elevator down, attended the forums where teams did the actual work and asked questions when their turn came. Their leadership manifesto got grounded in their collective rituals, which had a compounding effect on their behaviors.
 

The Road Ahead

Other systems and symbols in an organization are how the budget is allocated (what do they spend their money on?), whom they hire, who gets promoted, what gets celebrated and punished, and how they reward and discipline. These are the infrastructure on which the leaders keep traveling when they return from their climbing expedition. They arrive eager to reach milestones on their ongoing journey toward long-term, sustainable success in the form of robust business results, healthy relationships, and personal fulfillment. Excellent leadership teams realize that:

    1. The road ahead is full of curves. They will arrive at crossroads where the tools they gathered on their way to the peak will come in handy. The good news is that, after a climb, a curvy road pales in comparison.
    2. They can’t let their guard down. Continuing to measure how the team is doing on their levels of trust, conflict management, commitment, accountability, and results is paramount for them to keep working out where they are weaker. No matter how well they’re doing, they know that the moment they quit going to the gym, they’ll get out of shape. Staying at the top of their game is a life-long sport.
    3. They need to get rid of the inappropriate infrastructure that slows their momentum, sometimes to a halt.
    4. They found their fuel – a healthy fuel that keeps the fire (the one they kindled at the fireside chat at base camp) burning and lighting the way. Holding on to their purpose, their true North, they move not for themselves, but for something that transcends them.
    5. There is a legacy to leave behind, and they have decided what they want that to be.

We hope you enjoyed the journey alongside this new CEO and leadership team. Let us know in the comments which part of the journey you found most helpful for your own!

In high achievement cultures where people are held accountable for delivering on time and their results, there is generally a misconception about what it takes to lead and inspire others. Leaders often believe they need to “be tough” on others to drive results and get the best out of people. If we watch the way these leaders interact with their teams we can immediately know if they are leading by fear or by love. At Axialent, we find leaders who practice compassionate leadership, rather than an iron fist, are more likely to get the results they want.
The first type of leader is 100% result oriented, very focused on the task and the business results. They have a very strong opinion of what needs to be done to expand and grow. Therefore, they generally need to be “in charge all the time”, often using a very directive approach with their teams. They hand out orders to others, correcting people’s behavior on the spot, sometimes providing destructive feedback. Fear of failure (or not delivering results) is so strong and present that they undermine trust, psychological safety, creativity, and innovation.
Although these types of leadership behaviors may achieve business goals in the short term, leaders need to develop a more integral approach to create exceptional sustainable results. An approach that addresses the human dimension as much as the business one. This is what compassionate leadership is all about.
 

Compassionate leadership

 
compassionate leadershipCompassionate leadership does not mean being “soft with people” and not holding them accountable. It certainly does not propose giving up business results in pursuit of caring for people or make them feel connected.  At the heart of compassionate leadership lies the ability to recognize the potential and need of every human being and help them develop and grow in service of the business needs.
It means helping people sharpen their edge with kindness in the service of a bigger goal.
 

Compassionate leaders:

  • Develop a clear and inspiring integral vision.

They strongly provide and thoroughly communicate a clear direction to the desired outcomes and the role teams and individuals are invited to play in achieving the vision.

  • Embrace their own vulnerability and practice self-compassion.

Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen with no control of the outcome (as Brene Brown has stated through her research). Experiencing our own vulnerability and being kind to ourselves is the first step to connecting with others’ vulnerability and feeling compassion.

  • Put themselves in others’ shoes.

They invest time connecting and getting to know their team. These leaders have a genuine interest in them and the challenges they face. They build strong, trusting bonds. Compassionate leaders master the right balance between containing and challenging people to help them get unstuck and carry forward. They understand we all fail and make mistakes, and this is part of our development journey.

  • Speak their truth with honesty and respect.

Compassionate leadership is usually thought of as leaders sugarcoating messages to avoid people getting hurt. They are seen as avoiding conflicts, difficult conversations, or providing any feedback that might challenge people to consider a different perspective. In reality, compassionate leaders do just the opposite. They communicate thoroughly, provide constructive feedback, and have difficult conversations, all in the service of the growth of their people and the business.

  • Are committed to helping people grow and achieve their individual goals.

They will not withhold important feedback that can contribute to others’ development. They’ll own their opinions and express them constructively being true to themselves and being respectful to others.

  • Have a bias for action.

Compassionate leadership is not only about connecting and understanding people’s pain and challenges. It’s also about helping them see what they can and need to do to move forward, overcome adversity, grow their resilience, and encouraging them to do so.
 

Conclusion

How do you choose to lead your organization? How do you want to be remembered? What do you judge to be the most effective way to deliver your business results?
Compassionate leadership is a matter of choice. It helps create a safe container for people to feel cared for, seen, and valued while being supported to stretch out of their comfort zone and learn what’s needed to excel.
 

Have you ever lived a glorious leadership offsite, where you felt in your bones the newly forged bond with your peers, your mission as a company, and your dreams about the constructive culture you were going to lead by example? How long did that euphoria last? How far did that momentum take you and your team before the friction of ‘business as usual’ slowly and painfully eroded enthusiasm and brought you back to the grind? Were your commitments to each other strong enough to endure the first breakdowns post-summit? In this second article of a 3 part series, we explain the focus of the next 100 days of the new leadership team in its safe descent back to base camp.
In the first article of this series, we laid out what we believe makes a clear roadmap to success for the first 100 days of a CEO and the ‘new’ leadership team that results from the appointment. We shared the lessons gleaned from accompanying team members through five stages, along individual and collective tracks, all the way from base camp to the peak. We find the metaphor of a climbing expedition a fair reflection of the effort it takes to build trust, manage conflict, reach commitments, uphold accountability and focus on collective results. Good expeditions reach the summit and celebrate that feat, for sure. However, great expeditions believe that reaching the peak is but another step in the journey.
Given the importance of the next steps and inspired by Fred Kofman’s Four D’s, which he described in his book “The Meaning Revolution”, we work to ensure that teams return to business as usual in a masterful way.
 

DEFINE the standards of behavior

next 100 days of the new leadership teamOne of the first outcomes of the leadership team journey described in the first article is that participants can clearly articulate who they want to be and what they are going to do differently. How would they achieve better results if they simply continued to do the same old, same old? The norms about how people are expected to behave at an organization are what we call their desired culture. Therefore, explicitly stating how everyone is expected to act could be considered their cultural manifesto.
 
How are leaders expected to lead in this culture? The honest, specific response to this question by the top leaders defines their so-called leadership manifesto. These are just two examples of how a leadership team can explain the standards, so their aspirations become something they can measure, discuss, and disseminate. These need to be more than just posters on a wall.
 

DEMONSTRATE the standards of behavior

The shadow of the leader is long; therefore, the leadership team needs to walk the talk. Declaring how they expect to act is one thing, while actually doing what they declare is another. Paraphrasing Gandhi, the team that reached the peak needs to become the change they wished to see when they defined the behavioral standards for the company. They must be willing to share their struggles and their accomplishments as they learn to live and embody the defined standards. To this day, we found nothing more powerful than leading by example.
 

DEMAND the standards of behavior

The standards that the leaders defined are of no use if every single member of the team does not uphold them. As standards usually express an aspiration, there is typically a gap between where they are and where they want to be. That is OK if they show curiosity about the impact that having that gap has on others. It becomes part of the learning process as long as they explicitly link their actions to their attempts at bridging that gap. Holding people accountable shows that they are serious about their manifestos. They can do this by discussing breakdowns to learn from struggles and actively catching people doing the right thing.
 

DELEGATE accountability for the standards

When everybody holds everyone else (including the leaders) accountable for behaving according to the set standards, there is an intentional ripple effect. Leaders who take this return to base camp seriously grant everyone permission to call them out if they do not behave according to their leadership manifesto. There are no double standards. The culture manifesto naturally becomes ‘the way we do things around here’ without a second guess. The expected behaviors become the norm. Aspired culture becomes the actual, current culture. Another way of calling this D is “Disseminate”, as it empowers more leaders to be culture carriers and scales up the new leadership standards. It means facilitating an environment where others can empower themselves to shape the culture and become responsible for propagating it by repeatedly demonstrating, demanding, and delegating accountability in a virtuous cycle.
 
These four D’s are a simple-to-understand, challenging-to-execute process for establishing or revamping culture norms at your company. Stay tuned for this series’ third and last article to learn what happens to this new CEO and leadership team in their Next Normal. See you there!