How to Make Leadership a Cultural Value

Organizational leaders are trying to find their footing in what is shaping up to be a very different business environment than the one that existed at the start of 2020. The one word that most would probably use to describe the future is uncertainty. Consequently, chief executives must focus on the issues over which they have control, make assumptions about their customers, their suppliers, their finances, their employees and their business plans, and then implement a strategy that will ensure success in any economy. Easy, right?

Hardly. Planning in the current environment is complicated at best. It is requiring enterprises to cultivate strategic leadership throughout the organization. Leadership must permeate every part of the business. It must become a guiding, cultural value. In short, in the “new economy,” everybody in the company must learn to lead.

So, what exactly does that mean and how is it achieved?

Let’s examine three principles that can help make leadership a cultural value in your company.

1. Insist on Stewardship

In leadership-centered organizations, employees don’t simply fill a “position” or have a “job.” Instead, they have a role to fulfill and in that role they are responsible for certain outcomes upon which the success of the business model and strategy depend. Each person in such companies is in their place to produce certain results, not to just to perform certain behaviors.

A role-based business only works if its employees see themselves as stewards. Stewardship means every member in the organization “owns” the outcomes their role exists to produce. Organizations that insist on a stewardship approach do not manage their people through top down leadership methodologies. Instead, their employees are coached and mentored. The focus is on helping them understand the strategic purpose they are there to fulfill, where their role fits within the team of leaders in which they function and what resources are available to them to get the results for which they are responsible. There is a clear, ongoing process for reporting on their roles and evaluating their progress towards the outcomes for which they are accountable.

How will you know when your employees have bought into the concept of stewardship? You’ll know it because:

• They will exhibit an ownership mindset in decision making.
• They will adopt a strategic approach to their roles.
• They will focus on outcomes and results.
• They will protect shareholder interests.
• They will expect to create “added” value before receiving “added” compensation.
• They will make sacrifices to help the company succeed.

2. Create Line of Sight

Leadership as a cultural value is a natural byproduct of creating line of sight. It’s not something you can create by simply preaching leadership principles or putting people through training classes (although those can be helpful). Line of sight is achieved when everyone in the organization has a clear and consistent understanding of the following:

1. The Company Vision—what the enterprise hopes to become and why its purpose for being is worth fulfilling.
2. The Business Plan & Strategy—how the company expects to achieve its vision and purpose.
3. Roles & Expectations—the role each person has within the business model and strategy and the outcomes for which they are responsible.
4. Rewards—how each person will be rewarded if they fulfill the expectations associated with their roles.

When your people have this context in mind as they go about their work each day, they are naturally inclined to apply leadership principles and values in their roles. This is because if I have a clear understanding of what the company is trying to become and know the core tenants of the strategy that need to be carried out to fulfill it, I understand my role better and why the results for which I’m responsible are so important. But more than that, I understand the role everyone else is playing as well and why the outcomes their roles exist to produce matter.

So, for example, if I’m in sales and one day someone from finance calls with an urgent need to know my department’s revenue projections for the next 90 days, if I have line of sight I’m inclined to get finance the data it needs—so they can achieve the result they need to produce. Because next week, I may need finance to work with me on a pricing issue to secure a big customer—and I want them just as concerned about the outcome I’m trying create as I was about theirs the previous week. This is how organizations that have leadership as a cultural value operate. No one from “the top” has to tell sales to respond to finance that way or vice versa. Line of sight takes care of it.

3. Charter Teams

Seldom do individuals, working by themselves, drive organizational success. They combine their distinct talents with others to create unique teams. Company success and competitive advantage are achieved when the business’s teams have a clear focus and understand what their “charter” is—and the members of the team are involved in determining what it (the charter) should be. A team “charter” clearly defines why the team exists and how its success will be measured. If a team has a clear charter, its members will have a unified understanding and commitment to:

1. Mission—why the team exists; the purpose it serves.
2. Context—where the team’s mission fits within the vision and business model of the company.
3. Outcomes—the results the team should produce.
4. Resources—the scope of support team members can expect to access to achieve those outcomes.
5. Data—what rationale should guide decision-making within the team.
6. Reporting—to whom the team will be responsible and in what interval and form.
7. Accountability—how the team will be managed and directed.

Team charters begin with chartering conversations. This is how Elizabeth Doty explained what that means in a recent Strategy+Business article:

“A chartering conversation…is based on the premise that genuine commitment is a choice. Sharing information is still important, but the focus shifts from ‘nice-to-know’ updates to providing critical context, so leaders and teams can craft mutual agreements tied to a common mission. As a concept, the process of negotiating a charter prompts managers to be clearer about what they are asking of their teams, and to listen more actively to what their teams need from them in order to deliver.” (“How to Help Your Employees Own Your Strategy,” Strategy+Business, February 6, 2020, Elizabeth Doty)

Chartering conversations are most productive when there is clarity about what will be achieved if the team fulfills it “charter.” During times of combat, military units achieve that clarity through something called Commander’s Intent. It is a simple, no-nonsense statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal and the desired outcome of an operation. It is given with each order so if the unit is separated from other teams involved in the exercise, the ultimate mission remains clear—and the members of the operation know they should continue to pursue that outcome even if the specific tasks they were charged with carrying out are no longer possible (the bridge has collapsed, the enemy ranks moved to a different location, etc.).

In your organization, you might ask if all your associates know your intent and if they feel empowered to achieve it. If they do, then you have successfully integrated leadership as a value in the organization.

Certainly, we are operating in a business environment that is filled with uncertainty. As a result, leadership is a value no organization can ignore and expect to succeed. And the broader that leadership extends within the business, the better its chances will be of thriving in the unchartered waters that lie ahead.