Often in approaching an organizational issue, the conclusion a learning and development professional comes to is that it comes down to culture. In order for a company to truly change itself with respect to a given aspect of performance —ethics, for example — it has to embed its intentions in its culture to succeed. The conventional wisdom is that has to happen from the top-down; from the C-suite down through the ranks.
But how does a CLO change a company’s culture? That’s easier said than done. According to Joseph Grenny, co-chairman of VitalSmarts, a corporate training and organizational development consultancy, this is because it hasn’t been approached correctly.
“We think it needs to be top-down and driven by leaders, when in fact that’s just a recipe for resistance,” Grenny said. Grenny prescribes four critical competencies for building a high performing organizational culture: self-directed change; intellectual honesty; 360-degree accountability; and influential leadership.
Grenny identified execution and innovation as the primary abilities a CLO seeks to foster in an organization. “The basis of that — the core ingredient — is self-directed change,” he said. “If you have a capacity in your organization for individuals to examine where the organization is headed and create self-directed change to be able to examine their own habits, alter them as the occasion requires, and align with the direction of the organization and their own professional aspirations, that really is what unleashes individual potential. Then the leader’s job is just to guide that self-direction.”
According to Grenny, a significant barrier to effective organizational culture is created when employees don’t feel free or able to speak up about bad decisions or mistakes that their company may be making. “If they are; if they can be intellectually honest; if they can talk about the elephant in the room, that’s the process by which self-correction happens in an organization,” he said. “When dissent gets stifled, then our capacity to execute well diminishes because we can’t talk about what’s wrong with the way we’re executing and our capacity to innovate disappears, because innovation is fundamentally a function of spirited debate. Intellectual honesty means you’re getting my full honest view of reality and what ought be done in the organization.”
Another way of describing such accountability would be simple transparency. “It means that everybody is responsible for everything at some level,” Grenny said. “Strong ethics happen in an organization when the norm is to challenge.”
In order to achieve this, it’s important that companies get away from strict vertical accountability. “In healthy organizations, peer accountability and upward accountability are the norms,” Grenny said. “People can let their boss know when they’re letting them down. People hold their peers accountable.”
This is not a process that can occur just once a year. “That’s malarkey because that’s so late in the process,” he said. “If it waits until some performance review nine months after the episode occurred because that’s when it comes into the boss’ purview, then you’ve already paid an enormous price in execution and innovation.”
Grenny feels that leadership is an area lacking clarity with respect to learning. “One of our problems in the learning and development field is we don’t define leadership particularly well,” he said. “So leadership is this vague, abstract concept, when fundamentally leadership at its heart is about influence. If people aren’t changing their behavior as a result of your leadership you aren’t leading. One of the greatest deficits in organizations is leaders not only don’t know how to do that, they don’t even know how to think about the process of changing behavior across a large social system in a rapid, profound and sustainable way.”
That is a tall order. But according to Caroline Turner, a former senior vice president of Coors Brewing Co. who now heads consultancy DifferencesWORKS, it can be achieved through creating inclusive work environments that allow people to thrive. The key to this is an engaged company culture.
“If you don’t have engaged employees, you don’t have committed employees who are willing to give you their best quality and focus,” Turner said. “Engagement really means a sense of belonging and commitment and it’s linked to retention, productivity and profitability. Then inclusiveness is a key competency because only by creating a culture where people who are very different from one another and from the leader feel valued and included will you get engagement.”
Daniel Margolis is managing editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at dmargolis@CLOmedia.com.