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There are Never Enough Leaders 5: Leaders Define Culture

The journey of scale for any organisation is not easy. Those who find themselves on the journey of scale have already been remarkably successful. 80% of companies never get there. The new challenges of scale cross every part of the organisation - talent, organisational structures and systems, capital, market expansion and managing change are just some. When it comes to leadership (the main topic of this blog mini-series), EY research found 65% of scale-up executives report that leadership and talent management is their biggest challenge. 33% of scale-ups fail due to team and management issues, with Stanford research finding that 46% of scale-up CEO’s believed leadership development was a top priority. 

As we’ve reflected on the challenge of scaling leadership, we’ve explored the importance of building a repeatable system for leadership development across the organisation. We’ve looked at defining a target leadership model, how you go about designing the system itself and the importance of keeping your approach deeply human and founded in relationships. The final element we will explore is the importance of building leadership development content that really transforms and ‘sticks’. 

One of the hallmarks of the new digital age is the proliferation of content. Getting hold of relevant information is easier than it has ever been - only accelerated by the rapid advance of AI. Adobe survey has suggested IBM estimates that 90% of the world’s information and data has been created in the last two years. Conservative estimates suggest that 500,000 tweets, 4.5 million videos are watched and 500 hours of video are generated globally every minute. 320 billion emails are sent every day. Not only is there more information ‘out there’ but that information is increasingly visual in nature. Information retention and engagement is empirically proven to be much stronger when it is visually expressed than when it is only surfaced in text. According to HubSpot, tweets with a visual were re-tweeted 150% more than text based tweets. The well documented ‘Picture Superiority Effect’ shows that knowledge retention is far stronger when information is revealed through image and picture than words alone. 

We’re really not short of information and ideas. They are literally everywhere at the touch of a button. The question is no longer whether or not we have access to good ideas and learning on leadership, but how do we create a consistent leadership voice inside of our organisations within a sea of so many voices about the unique kind of leadership we want to be expressed to uphold our culture. 

Leaders define culture

One of the most important tasks as you scale your organisation is preserving and upholding the unique culture you have. Your culture is what makes you unique. What gives your team the ‘experience’ of your organisation every day. Culture is a complex thing, and something I’ll be writing more about in my next series, but in short culture is defined by four important things. A story (your purpose or ‘meta-narrative’), a set of values (that inform the behaviour that is celebrated and also not tolerated), and a set of traditions (customs or rituals) all of which is expressed and understood in reference to a common language that articulates these things in the same way to everyone who shares this culture. If we don’t share language to describe meaning, it’s really hard to share culture. So, this means the content and the language you use is a critical part of establishing common culture and ensuring that you build an integrated and shared culture in any environment. 

The most important way that culture is practically upheld and strengthened day to day is through leaders. Leaders really do define culture. The way they relate to every person in every interaction they have day to day defines the culture that those around them experience. They define the culture both through the language they consistently use along with the behaviour they embody (and of course the behaviour they celebrate and tolerate around them). Ideally, the language and behaviour they commit to embodying day to day is a reflection of the shared story, values and rituals that you have agreed to be true to your wider organisation. Their role in being the administrators of culture is vital to your business success. 

All of this means that the ‘content’ - or language - we use in the way we develop our leaders needs to be very intentionally chosen. The definition, repetition and visualisation of important leadership ideas through a common leadership vocabulary and collection of images is not only more effective for developing leaders, but critically for establishing a common culture across your organisation. Using common language consistently will ensure that whilst we live surrounded by so many good ideas and information (which we should encourage people to engage with), you can still create a distinctive culture across your organisation. 

There’s a few simple things we can do to help use the language and content in our leader development to increase our impact. 

  • Define a common leadership language and use it all the time: choose language wisely to describe the most important values within your desired culture. Create some ‘sticky’ axioms that express something important you can repeatedly use each day. Use this language every time you do any form of leader development to ‘frame’ the information you present to anchor it back into the shared culture you have. 

  • Create a small number of simple visual representations of your leadership philosophy: people remember visuals more than words alone. Work hard to create meaningful visuals to express your philosophy and combine them with your core leadership vocabulary. This will drive adoption and equip leaders to be able to pass this on to other people day to day. My friends at GiANT have done an excellent job at doing this and created their very own ‘Leadership Toolkit’ which is in essence a representation of important leadership ideas in visual form. 

  • Focus on creating leadership tools we can use at every level in the business: there’s so much training ‘out there’ on the core technical leadership and management skills needed to succeed. I’d rather us not focus on re-creating this material for use within our organisation - let’s simply curate a way for people to access this information. Let’s instead focus our creative effort on defining a few important leadership ‘tools’ that can be used in every situation to inform a way of thinking and behaving that is aligned with your target culture. Like the master craftsperson had a ‘toolkit’, so we should think about a core toolkit for our leaders within our organisation. Tools by definition can be used all of the time and to achieve a lot of different things. This is harder work in the short term, but the long term impact is more agile and empowered leadership that drives culture, not just the management of processes. 

  • Focus on development that drives application, not just overloading with information: content doesn’t make people better leaders. I know many knowledgeable people who ‘know’ the right thing to do, but don’t do it. This is not leadership and never will be. It somehow is worse knowing what’s right and not doing it, than not knowing at all. Leadership is about action and so the ‘content’ approach in our development process should lean heavily on application and accountability for action. Don’t give in to the need to impress people with complicated content, give in to the need to create an approach to content that is unapologetically focussed on the simple transformation of behaviour. 

So that’s it. We’ve covered lots of ground exploring how to scale leaders intentionally. This work is not complex, but does require intentionality and hard work. Get it right, and you’ll grow well as an organisation with leaders who continually help shape the right culture, with the right capability. 


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