Culture Change: For Culture to Change, Leaders Must Change

By Horacio Rieznik
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There is a deep link between leaders’ change and culture change. The impact of their behaviors is probably the most difficult aspect for leaders at the beginning of a culture transformation process.

Leaders usually understand intellectually the logical connection between their behaviors and the resulting organizational culture. In our work at Axialent, we have never seen leaders rejecting their responsibility in that. What seems harder for leaders to envision from the beginning are the implications for their own personal transformation.

 

Communication Is Not Enough

The initial tendency many leaders show, even when they are enthusiastic about the culture change process, is interpreting that leading it means just politically supporting the change. That they only need to be openly and explicitly in favor of the transformation. A well-intentioned leader may think their scope of responsibility includes declaring their support and demanding that others support it too. There is a general interpretation that this is simply a “communication process”. Enthusiastic leaders tend to easily accept the need to re-design structures, processes, and symbols. All of those are necessary conditions, but are not enough.

leaders' behavior paves the wayThe moment of truth comes when leaders become aware that they need to address a deep insight into their personal beliefs and values as a necessary step for culture transformation. The review and transformation of leaders’ individual mental models is the real “work” they’ll have to do to get ahead on the culture transformation highway. Any culture change process that omits this condition will be weak. Without it, there are more chances for resistance to the transformation.   People in the organization may perceive that “all that culture stuff” is just another example of “lip service”. The attempt at culture transformation then runs the risk of becoming another case in which leaders quickly learn to declare and describe the change they want, but appear incompetent to model it consistently through their behaviors.

 

Mental models

For the new behaviors to emerge and be perceived as sincere and legitimate, the mental models in which they are grounded need to change too. For this awareness and commitment process to be possible and agile, the visible connection between the organizational culture gap and the individual leadership style gap needs to be identified. The sooner this happens, the better. This connection must then become a reference to share mutual feedback, to assess progress, and evaluate impact.

One of the most important learnings I’ve had in the 12 years I’ve been managing culture transformation processes, is that culture is built upon the messages RECEIVED by people, not merely on the messages “DELIVERED”. This means that at the end of the day, what matters most is how the organization is reading the leader and how people are interpreting their behaviors. These interpretations could be quite different from how they were intended. A leader’s behavior is a central message carrier in building culture. At the same time, the subjective interpretation of this behavior shows us a critical path to culture change that unavoidably involves the leader’s personal transformation.

 

Leaders must change

So, to be effective culture builders and transformation agents, leaders need to have more than highly developed communication skills. Even if they perceive themselves as “good communicators,” that’s not enough. Transformational leaders need to step up and be aware of how much their behavior alone is sending messages. Messages that are much louder than those coming from their nice words.

 

Sign up for this upcoming webinar where two of Axialent’s culture transformation experts, Thierry de Beyssac and Anabel Dumlao, will be talking to Tim Kuppler, Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, about the importance of intentionally managing culture and leadership development in an integrated way.

 

This article is part of a series on integrating culture and leadership change in culture transformation work.
5 Reasons To Integrate OCI-OEI And LSI Diagnostic Tools In Culture Transformation
Culture Change: Culture and Leadership are Intimately Connected
Culture Change: Measuring the gap makes the invisible, visible

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