The Relationship Between Leadership & Culture

Which comes first, the leader shaping the culture or the culture affecting and shaping the leadership? In this article by Janet Szumal, it’s not as much a question of which comes first, but recognizing there is a fluid and constantly influencing relationship between the leadership and culture. Think about a sample of the most iconic companies – Apple, P&G, Google,, General Electric, McDonald’s, Wal*Mart, Coca Cola, etc. When talking about those companies, can a conversation about their culture ever be conducted without talking about the leadership, even being specific to the CEO?

For those who have worked in several organizations, think about the biggest challenge you’ve had in assimilating into a new company.

  • Was it learning the product line, category or customer?
  • Was it figuring out the culture – how to get things done, how to operate and enroll, how to get to know others to build trust and gain influence, how to “figure out” the leadership?

As a leader, we influence culture everyday: how we model behavior; how we provide feedback; how we handle success and challenge and how we work. This is the HOW, also known as EQ (Emotional Quotient). A leader that has a high EQ demonstrates consistency and effectiveness in understanding issues & people, managing emotions, diffusing conflict, empowering team members, demonstrating empathy and overcoming challenges.

The article highlights three methods leaders can demonstrate to influence a culture, with the Constructive influence being the most effective. In describing the Constructive method, the author quotes:

  • Those who work with the leader are encouraged and believe they are expected to approach both their work (tasks) and interactions with others (people) in ways that allow them to self-develop, learn new skills, stretch, and be fully engaged.

So, as a leader, how do you demonstrate high EQ and foster a culture that is Constructive? Here are three methods that have worked well for me with different companies and teams:

  1. Actions Speak Louder Than Words
    • Just like in your personal life, how you behave and treat others is what they will remember. If you want to build loyalty & trust, you must exhibit loyalty & trust.
      • If you care about feedback, you must create a feeling of openness for people to give constructive feedback, and that you actually care about what they have to say.
        • For example: Do you only ask for feedback in a hall of 100 staff where people are scared to say something? Or do you make time to meet with a small group – or even someone one-on-on – have a paper & take notes, listen without interruption, seek clarity on a point they make and be engaged? Where do you think you’ll receive more actionable and robust feedback?
      • If you highlight talent development as a priority, how are you and your organization demonstrating that commitment? What specific actions are you taking?
  2. Seek to Understand
    • Collaboration is one of my mandatories. We are so much stronger together than we are divided, so I not only preach but live and act under the guide of “seeking to understand.” What does this really mean? Quite simply, before you jump to conclusions, accuse someone of misbehavior or emotionally react based on limited information, stop, ask some questions in an inquiring and non-threatening manner, and focus on getting to the root cause of an issue vs. placing blame.
      • Side note: When you follow this “seek to understand” path, you will find, in most cases, as people stop and talk through what they did and why, with a focus on root cause understanding vs. blame, they will realize where they were in error or what they might have done differently. That self awareness and learning is invaluable and allows you to provide constructive feedback.
  3. Transparency
    • If you want an engaged organization that feels vested in the mission, purpose and business objectives, enroll them! Help them see how their work contributes and understand the business environment.
    • For example: Every month I held a company town-hall where my leadership team and I would walk through a business status. We reviewed the financial & operational metrics, customer/sales trends, brand & MARCOM activity, innovation stage-gate updates and testing, and people/organizational activity. We also used this time to recognize team successes. This provided absolute transparency on the business status and helped the rest of the organization understand why we were making certain decisions, and how their everyday work contributed to the business results.