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lead-by-exampleThe people follow the example of those above them.

– Chinese Proverb

We do, don’t we?

I mean, sure; there are conditions … but given those are met, we do take our lead from our leaders …

And when leaders see markets shift … competitors get stronger … customers more demanding … and technology disrupting … they, in response, seek to change the organization’s culture, fully squaring it with the challenges ahead.

They do it to stay competitive; to protect profit margins; to sustain growth.

But changing a culture is typically perceived as a rather daunting task.   In fact, some would say, impossible.

Is it possible to get hundreds or thousands of people to exhibit enhanced ownership and accountability?  Is it possible to get hundreds or thousands of people to pick up the pace?  Is it possible to engender greater discretionary effort across a broad spectrum of diverse people as they work in diverse roles with widely varying skills and capabilities?

Yes, possible.

In fact, at its essence, pretty simple really.

Lead differently, and people follow, differently.

Yes; leaders actually can move the manners and methods and norms of hundreds or thousands of people to something different.  Yes; leaders can drive a different way of behaving; a different way of interacting, of communicating, of problem solving, of deciding, of working.

Yes; they simply need to set the example.

C’mon, John, it can’t be this simple! you say?

Actually, honestly, I think it is.

You must think me mad, at this point.  Because you know better.

You do know better … but I’m not mad!

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The proverb, in its simplicity, has it substantially right, I think.

We do follow leaders — when we believe them; when we have confidence in them; when we respect them.

And when they model change for the rest of us … we take their lead, and change happens.

Yes, it is possible.  Yes, but.

There are big buts.

Yes, but:  When leading by example, leaders must actually change.

Not just in words.  Not just talking about what needs to change.  Not talking about the behaviors that they’d like to see in everybody else.  Not just in espousing a new set of organizational values.

They must actually change their behaviors.  For real.  They must model the behaviors they seek in others, in followers, in us.  Their change must be genuine; it must be believable.

Quick example:  If the CEO goes on record wanting more discussion and debate and less one-way power play decision making, his leadership meetings better reflect a shift away from PowerPoint presentations and toward table discussions exploring the issues …

Yes, but:  All leaders must be aligned and in sync.

There’s nothing that will undermine a change effort quicker than some leaders not on the same page with the others, and nothing being done about it.  Correcting counter cultural leader behavior is an exceptional opportunity to send a powerful message.  It is also a deafening noise that will drown out the culture messaging if not addressed.

Tight, high performing cultures reflect tight, high performing leadership teams.

Yes, but:  Leaders must — MUST — make enabling changes to work policies, management norms, and budgeting practices.

This is a VERY BIG BUT!  It is the epitome of leading by example, for executive leaders.

Consider that leader behaviors just aren’t that visible to all employees even when the change strategy emphasizes high frequency interactions. What is visible, though, are the policies that all employees must consider when making choices at work.

Leaders can send unambiguous change messages by updating key policies to reflect key shifts in thinking.  For example, instituting flexible working arrangements and a telecommuting policy would undoubtedly grab employees’ attention and substantially reinforce a shift away from a paternal culture …

Even more ubiquitous than policies are the norms that managers have established to solve problems, make decisions, communicate, and manage.  Targeted changes here mean business and have influence. 

Of course, this requires an investment in organization development, and in management training.

Which is a natural segue into our last enabling change — the budgeting, putting the money where the rhetoric is, sending clear messages of change in terms of where and how leaders invest dollars.

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Those are big buts, no doubt.

They are why you know better.  And they are why I’m not mad.

Because as big as they are, they pale in comparison to the power of a culture change that is leader-led and leader-modeled.

People will follow … and cultures will change.