Creating Internal Leadership Cultures

Leadership experts and advocates often are obsessed by control and invention. Nothing of any worth apparently can happen without being conceived and put in place by those at the top. That is the basic way CEOs and senior staff members display their visionary creativity on the one hand, and demonstrate their being in charge, accountable and indispensable on the other. That also is the only way organizational change occurs. Well, perhaps not the only way.

A minority report would claim that change also occurs without executive intervention, and sometimes sadly without their knowledge, recognition or encouragement. To be sure, it may lack the overt drama of a CEO rallying call. Typically, it works its way internally and quietly through a series of small and even minor decisions and adjustments over time. But its leisurely movement is at least thorough permeating many levels, ranks and divisions by the slow momentum of analysis and example. Gradually, another way of doing and structuring operations and processes begins to appear. The organizational generic problem-solving tool kit acquires another and often more rigorous way of meeting new challenges. Doing whatever it takes becomes the new principle of daily operations. Such changes often have the further advantage of taking hold faster and lasting longer. In short, organizations often benefit significantly by what their employees and managers independently do as professionals responding creatively to challenge. The net result is the evolution of leadership cultures brought into being as self-driven and evolving organizational creations. Whether leaders are born or developed, all such cultures are always made and then remade again and again.

Does this mean that CEO initiatives are unimportant or unneeded? Or that such internal developments just happen autonomously without nurturing interventions? Obviously, neither is the case. The recognition of the power of internal culture to become its own change agent identifies two options. The first is the need for executives to acknowledge and accept the existence of a critical and equal ally, which, together with their initiatives, defines organizational difference and performance. The second is to identify the various ways that evolving leadership cultures can be nourished and supported to emerge not only on their own, but also with the unique power to continue to be self-evolving and changing. In short, the challenge is how do organizations help their offspring cultures grow up to be independent of parental authority on the one hand, and interdependent on each other for collective and continuous growth on the other hand?

Happily, we are not without answers and guidance from many sources. One of the earliest and most consistent supporters of internally driven cultures was Charles Handy, who argued that organizations needed to be viewed essentially as communities of political exchanges. To Van der Hijen, each organization is to be perceived as a community of conversations. That alone accommodates the application of his recommended new methodologies of structured interviews, strategic conversations and scenario planning. For Renesch, the search for best companies inevitably involved discovering communities of best practices. For Hamel and Pralahad, all best practices were always future-driven. Senge presided over the formation of the learning organization and knowledge-based communities. Human resources became intellectual capital, and mission statements affirmed knowledge management. Even new top executive posts were created for chief learning officers. A recent exotic version is the title of chief knowledge and innovation pusher, presently held by Jacob Jaskov of the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies.

But obviously, communities even of best practices do not just happen. Indeed, the term community may appear precious when applied to the tough reality of organizations struggling to survive. Can community prevail during reorganization when the norm is whose ox is being gored? Far from being fragile, both the difference and the impact of community-based cultures emerge when their range and focus are further spelled out in terms of the tough obstacles they have to overcome. Here is a list of what they have to face:

  • Ownership: Handy claims that the benefit of viewing business as a political community is that it places high value on checks and balances and on negotiation as the medium of exchange. But he also acknowledges that companies are viewed traditionally as commodities, not communities. They are owned by stockholders. Indeed, in order to hold top personnel responsible and accountable for dividends and profits, ownership essentially has dictated the structure of vertical control. If negotiation exists, it is unilateral and downward, not shared and two-directional. In short, ownership and control are not natural allies of community.
  • Equality: Van der Hijen believes strongly in the multiple benefits of strategic conversations as a common way to address mission and planning. But such conversations can happen only in a community that is committed to dialogue. Many organizations minimize conversation or encourage only standardized and ritualized versions of exchange. As a result, most conversations are not strategic, let alone two-way, and most companies do not empower employees to talk and, perhaps more important, supervisors to listen. Strategic conversations can only take place when companies encourage and even train everyone to talk to one another and when such new conversations occur between equals.
  • Best practices as obstacles: Renesch argues that companies that last and are successful are constantly optimizing. They create an internal culture of best practices to realize the highest levels of productivity, quality and profitability. But the enemy of optimization may be the status quo of the new best practice. The new breakthrough may become the new obstacle. That is why communities of best practice have to be committed to continuous improvement and to the constant dialogue of optimization.
  • Knowledge is not enough: Senge essentially ascribed the vitality of a company to its capacity to learn constantly. The result is a community of knowledge managers and CLOs or innovation pushers who stir the pot of creativity and innovation. But Senge later admitted that learning itself was not a magic bullet. Change did not automatically follow. Often, the new learning was essentially incremental, not archetypal. Talk changed, but thought remained intact.

A common denominator of all of these obstacles is encouraging and maintaining organizational strategic conversations. But if such change-driven communications are the glue of company culture, who is in charge? Clearly it is not those specialists who wordsmith and polish public image. They are not equal to the task, nor can they offer what is needed. Even marketing and customer service fall short of approximating the full scope and extent of the dialogue of change. As indicated earlier, the role of top leadership is to model and then extend such conversations on a company-wide basis. But that still leaves the critical task of who can do it, do it best and move it forward on all levels. The answer may rest with HR and corporate training in partnership.

The mission of both HR and training is to optimize relationships, internally and externally. Unfortunately, polices and procedures are often used primarily as a means of control and are seldom devoted to guiding the crafting of internal cultures of creativity and accountability. The compilation known as the policy bible has to be reviewed to determine to what extent it is antithetical or unsupportive of an evolving leadership culture. Once that is done, it is the task of training to include in every workshop self-starting and self-sustaining dialogues as the threshold to creative problem-solving and decision-making. In short, a leadership culture is invariably a communicating culture.

That is not an accidental coupling, because both community and communications share the same linguistic root and task of bringing people and processes together. In other words, communications is a necessary pre- and post-condition of change. Nor can it be assumed that it is already in place, adaptable or automatic, or that nothing separate or special is required. The goal of training is in fact to build a community of communication to precede, facilitate and finally undergird the formation of a leadership culture. Communications not only prepares the way for community, but also is its operating system of exchange. In other words, a communications threshold and base is always both anticipatory and participatory. In order to appreciate what advocacy of communications can add to the process of building a leadership community and culture, you must single out its value-added forms.

Community advocates communication forms, including Handy’s Governance, Van der Heijen’s Consensus, Renesch’s Symbiosis and Senge’s Unlearning. These four key correctives have to be built into training along the following lines. As antidotes to ownership, everyone has to be an owner. The focus has to be shifted from shareholders to stakeholders. The economics of business has to be conducted in the arena of political governance so that conversations are always driven by negotiation and the inherent checks and balances of the political process. In short, capitalism has to be democratized.

Consensus needs to rule the planning process and outcomes. The value that van der Heijen puts upon structured interviews, strategic conversations and scenario planning is in turn contingent on the use of consensus as the inclusive clincher. Exclusion and majority vote are versions of each other. The expediency of the rule of 51 percent can proceed only by the obscuration of minority views, which may turn out to be pivotal. Consensus is a communications process that resists bullying and the herd instinct. It pays special attention to the voices of, “Yes, but.” Strategic conversations are neither strategic nor conversational without being consensual. And that form of negotiated agreement between the haves and the have-nots requires a community of consensual conversation before a community of planning can emerge.

Best practice requires best process. They coexist symbiotically. Worker involvement is the key not only to standardizing the practice but also to continuously improving it. When the conversations between supervisors and employees are upgraded to equal levels of give and take, and when job evaluation becomes job improvement, recommendations for increasing productivity regularly emerge. In fact, what routinely has been called “best practice” might more accurately be designated as “best conversations”—just as what have been designated “communities of best practices” might be renamed “communities of symbiosis.”

Finally, the link between learning and institutional memory and practice is tenacious. If the two are not engaged together, new learning is at best an add-on that remains unintegrated, or worst is at odds with both past and current knowledge bases. In either instance, professionals may be operating at ideological cross-purposes—the new and the old are not united holistically.

For Senge’s learning organizations to take hold, they first must become unlearning communities. Assumptions analysis must unearth organizational and individual hidden baggage and histories. Forcing current round pegs into future square holes must turn methodologies back upon themselves. The most formidable obstacle to knowledge workers may be their own knowledge, just as what most inhibits organizational progress may be being locked into current best practices.

If one fully wishes to assess organizational quality, don’t just interview the CEO. Rather, listen to the organization’s talk. Hearken to its conversations. Observe the extent to which dialogue is as familiar as it is bracing. Note how managers do not wait for executive example or permission, but regularly act on initiatives that even may exceed the current scope of their job descriptions. See the extent to which operations are accompanied by an agenda of exchange. Visit training workshops to determine what new levels of organizational discussion are encouraged and structured routinely to take place there: how much lecture and how much talk, and finally, how much is left unfinished and poised. Above all, discern how such a series of internal and micro-conversations gradually, collectively and cumulatively realign and shape the big picture.

If community as a viable and dynamic organizational form is to realize its potential, communications training must be the midwife not only of a communicating culture but also of a leadership culture. In the process, such training must bring to the art of leadership and management the liberating and holistic resources of governance, consensus, symbiosis and unlearning. The communities that emerge in turn will engage the respect, trust and commitment of the best professionals. Placing talent and talk at the center optimizes not only recruitment and retention, but also high-performance organizations. Finally, community compels companies to both talk and walk the talk, an integration that describes their coherence and integrity. Happily, all of this not only coincides with the mission of HR and training, but also provides its future agenda for crafting the emergence of leadership and communicating cultures.

Irving H. Buchen, Ph.D., is director of international programs for IMPAC University and senior research associate of Canis Learning Systems. He can be reached at ibuchen@clomedia.com.