It’s the one question I always ask senior leaders.
"What kind of culture do you need to help you become the best leader you can be?"
After years of asking the question over and over again, I keep getting the same range of answers from leaders in all sectors, at all levels, and in different countries around the world. Almost all leaders want:
- “An organization where there is no ambiguity surrounding the organization’s expectations.”
- “An organization that is deeply committed to finding and developing the best possible leaders.”
- “An organization that promotes trust and mutual support among leaders and encourages them to extends those same principles to their relationships with employees.”
- “An organization where everyone is fully engaged and committed to driving success.”
Okay, so that’s what most leaders want. Now, how many organizations have built a culture that embodies those principles? In my experience, not very many. In fact, in a global survey of over 2000 respondents, only 27% of the companies we surveyed believe they have a strong leadership culture.
Talk with leaders and it doesn’t take long before they begin to express frustration and anger about being trapped in an ineffective and dysfunctional leadership culture. And that leaves them craving a work experience that is more positive, more productive, and more inclusive.
Within each dysfunctional organization, you will find leaders who are working at cross-purposes because strategic clarity is low or non-existent. Sometimes, this is a product of the fact that the primary focus is on protecting turf and competing internally, silo against silo. In these organizations, conflict is rampant, frustration is high, and getting anything done feels next to impossible.
Or, maybe you are drowning in sheer apathy, where there is little energy or creativity. You and your fellow leaders seem to be going through the motions, bystanders cloaked with fancy leadership titles. In the end, it’s just exhausting and demoralizing.
Maybe you’ve reached the point where you are questioning why you ever became a leader in the first place. You know deep down that there has to be a better way, you just can’t find it.
Don’t despair. There is a better way.
In my book, The Leadership Contract, I talk about the need to forge a strong community of leaders that is built on a foundation of two important principles: clarity of purpose and commitment to excellence.
I know what you’re thinking. “That’s all good and fine, but how does a sense of community make my organization more successful?”
I’m not talking about holding hands around the water cooler and singing Kumbaya. A true leadership community is a place where leaders can work together to establish a culture that leads to repeatable, sustainable success. It’s about forging a one-company mind-set among all leaders.
The community of leaders is also based on the premise that no one leader has all the answers. Leadership is more distributed today and to accomplish our goals, we must leverage the knowledge, ingenuity, and commitment of all leaders and employees.
A community of leaders will help ensure a higher degree of clarity about leadership expectations. All leaders in the community will know what they must do to make the organization successful, and how they must do it.
A community of leaders also has much less tolerance for lame leadership than individual leaders. In fact, a strong community of leaders makes it much easier to remove those individuals who consistently fail to live up to their expectations and obligations. In the community of leaders, everyone knows that a few bad apples can undermine the overall leadership culture, so they are much more likely to act to remove chronic underperformers.
If you are lucky enough to be part of a true community of leaders, you will be able to feel the difference.
You will be full of the confidence that comes from having true clarity and commitment. You will be blown away by the level of trust and mutual support you enjoy with other members of the community.
In short, you will feel part of something great, something special and something rare.
I have seen how a true community of leaders can transform a company’s culture. Take the example of Rob, the CEO of a large utility company my team and I worked with several years ago.
When I met Rob, he had been in his role for about 18 months and during that time, he rebuilt his executive team. Even though he assembled a strong and talented group, he knew the executive team alone couldn’t fix what was wrong with the company. He needed all his leaders aligned and on the same page.
So, Rob established a leadership forum for his top 200 leaders where they would learn about the new strategy of the company.
As he entered the meeting room that day, Rob said he was stunned by how quiet everyone was. As he was getting a cup of coffee, he noticed that all 200 leaders were sitting very quietly, almost ignoring one another. As he led his group through a discussion about corporate strategy, the room remained very quiet. The leaders just sat there, listening, but clearly were not engaged.
Afterward, Rob said “it was like pulling teeth.”
Rob met with his executive team to discuss the forum. As they began to reflect on the mood of the room, they had an epiphany: the company had promoted a lot of strong technical performers who were good at their jobs but very introverted. The team quickly realized that introverted leaders would not be well equipped to navigate an operating environment that would require them to be more nimble, competitive, and customer centered in the face of deregulation.
The leadership forum confirmed an important reality going forward: Rob and his executive team had to reboot the entire leadership class.
It was at this point that we were called in to work with the head of HR to create a program that would help build a community of leaders within the organization. At first, the program met with considerable resistance; leaders in this organization had been through a lot of lame leadership development and weren’t all that enthusiastic about having to go through more of the same old, same old.
However, as the cohorts began to go through the program, they began to realize its value, and perceptions began to change.
About a year after running a series of the intensive leadership programs, Rob held another leadership forum for his top 200 leaders. This time when he entered the meeting room, Rob was struck by a very different vibe.
As he went to pour himself a cup of coffee, he noticed there was a positive energy in the room that hadn’t existed a year before. He could see leaders talking and laughing with one another. He knew instantly that this group had undergone a profound change.
Rob began his opening remarks by asking his leaders if they noticed a change in the mood of the room from last year’s forum. He explained what he observed a year earlier, and how it made him feel.
The leaders in the room agreed, and an impromptu open discussion took place. It became clear that things hadn’t changed just in the mood of the forum; things had changed on the job, too. Leaders talked openly about how they felt more optimism, more clarity, a greater receptivity to change, and a deep sense of trust and support.
That’s what a true community of leaders is all about.
Do you have one in your organization? Read and reflect on the checklist below. Use the questions to open a discourse with all of your leaders.
To what extent are your leaders:
- Clear on the strategic direction of your organization?
- Excited about the future?
- Committed to being great leaders?
- Leading with a “one-company” mindset?
- Willing to call out unproductive or lazy leadership behavior?
- Willing to celebrate success and key milestones?
- Breaking down silos and promoting collaboration?
- Ensuring that internal politics and personal agendas take a back seat?
- Demonstrating resilience and resolve in the face of adversity?
- Supporting one another and committed to have each other’s back?
If you can build a strong community of leaders in your company, it will become your ultimate differentiator.
However, to build that community, you need to start with a brutally honest self-assessment of where you are today, and where you need to go to cultivate greater clarity and commitment among your leaders.