Developing leaders as powerful agents of change

Amanda Fajak

The influence of leaders on organisational culture is strong. The shadow that leaders cast into their organisations means that the beliefs and behaviours of leaders permeate deep into the organisation, shaping the culture.

Leaders signal what is valued in an organisation through how they interact with others, how they make decisions, how they use their time and the language that they use. Meetings, presentations, ‘in the corridor’ interactions and the grapevine inform people about what a leader values and therefore culturally the sort of behaviour that is appropriate.

In our experience, the patterns of behaviour (culture) that are present in an organisation are reflective of the collective beliefs and behaviours of leaders in the organisation.

It is for this reason that a focus on shifting leader behaviour during culture transformation is critical. In our experience, any successful culture transformation has a behaviour programme with leaders in year one. Where this does not happen there are two consequences:

  • People become cynical and disillusioned as they see rhetoric about change but no change in behaviour;
  • People do not receive enough information and examples of what is expected in the new culture.

The goal from our perspective is to develop leaders as role models. A role model is someone that so strongly demonstrates a way of doing something that others are motivated to follow them and to change their behaviour accordingly.


Changing leadership mindsets to develop organisational  culture


But how do you do this? In our experience there are a number of factors that enable leaders to become role models:

  • A clear discreet set of target behaviours – in our experience focus is key. Often organisations go wrong by trying to get leaders to focus on too many new behaviours which becomes confusing and results in limited change or change that doesn’t send a powerful enough message to employees about what is expected.
  • An ‘aha’ to trigger transformation – A big aha is the moment that someone has an insight either about the importance of them changing; the impact of their current behaviour; the opportunity afforded them by engaging with new behaviours; or that there is a gap between their behavioural intent and how others experience them. This sort of insight is achieved through a combination of 360 feedback – focussed on the target behaviours, expert coaching and advisory and transformational workshops which are targeted at working not only on behaviours but also going deeper to mindsets and beliefs.

In my experience the insight that happens most often is where people recognise that although they want to display a behaviour (“I think collaboration is important”) their day-to-day behaviour does not consistently reflect this (“I never spend any time collaborating; I dismiss ideas from others; I tend to make all the decisions”).  Where this is the insight, the focus is helping the leader become much more congruent between beliefs and behaviours.

Where a leader’s belief system is at odds with the target culture (“collaboration slows us down”; “I know best”; “I can’t trust anyone else to deliver”) but they see the value and need to change, there is a much greater need for coaching and advisory to unpack the beliefs and help reframe those.

The other group of people you identify in this transformational stage are those that are already role models and these people are critical for your change as they offer a practical view to others about what is possible and the advantage of engaging in the new behaviour. We run a powerful role modelling workshop where we consistently receive the feedback ‘ahh, I see why this is important and what I could do’.

  • Embedding in the day-to-day – Irrespective of the focus for change (beliefs or behaviour) the hard work of behaviour change happens inside the day-to-day life of a leader. Whilst it might be possible to achieve an insight inside a workshop or coaching experience, it is as an individual navigates day-to-day life that the new habits, patterns of behaviour and thinking need to form and come to life. It is inside the day-to-day decisions and interactions that choices about new and old behaviour occur. Embedding therefore needs to be conscious and needs to occur over a long enough period inside the day-to-day to shift habits – in good and bad times. Embedding activities include observation and feedback; micro learning exercises; peer coaching groups or learning circles. All of which should be structured as light touch but to help keep the new behaviour conscious.

I am often asked ‘what do we do with the person who just doesn’t want to change’. In my experience some of the people who have been identified as ‘never will change’ often have the greatest epiphanies and become extraordinary advocates for the change. This epiphany is often a combination of insight and peer pressure (as other peers start to change the individual becomes more and more uncomfortable staying in the old way). My advice is this, suspend your judgement and give people a chance to change. At the end of 6 months you will know those that will not and wilfully choose not to change; those that are struggling to change but making an effort and those that are starting to become your role models.


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