Intellect | Blog | How to Build a Strong Leadership Culture

Intellect | Blog | How to Build a Strong Leadership Culture

Author Peter Hargittay

The business world is replete with leadership development programs, strategic visioning processes, and formal frameworks for developing and executing on organizational priorities. Through all that, an effective culture of leadership continues to be an evasive goal for many companies. Like any other initiative having to do with organizational culture, developing a strong leadership ethos in your company takes time, and often seems like it’s more art than science.

As such, many business executives focus instead on the things over which they can have more tangible control. It would be a mistake, however, to neglect the cultural factors that impact effective leadership. Here are some practical ways to foster a strong leadership culture in your organization.

#1: Focus on People’s Strengths

In the traditional approach to developing talent, managers assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of their personnel with respect to each employee’s current position. In a typical performance review scenario, that turns into a conversation about “what needs to be fixed”. After all, why should we worry about the things that are already going well? Sure, we can mention them; but our attention should be focused on what is going poorly and how we can remedy that situation. Or so the traditional line of thinking goes…

Donald O. Clifton, founder of Selection Research, Inc. (now owned by Gallup), turned all of that on its head. In 1992, he published Soar with Your Strengths: A Simple Yet Revolutionary Philosophy of Business and Management along with co-author Paula Nelson. The book’s front cover summarizes Clifton’s groundbreaking paradigm: “Find out what you do well and do more of it. Find out what you don’t do well and control it.”

Extending that philosophy to people management, an effective culture of leadership should be built upon making the most of people’s inherent strengths. When people are matched to a role that complements their best attributes and minimizes exposure surrounding their weak points, they are happier in their jobs and perform better. When they are partnered with other team members who have complementary strengths, the results can be truly outstanding.

#2: Know When (and When NOT) to Seek Consensus

The majority of people are naturally inclined to seek consensus. That can be a good thing, – as it often fosters a sense of shared ownership in outcomes. In other words, when people participate in making decisions on behalf of the business, they are usually more highly motivated to see those decisions through to a successful conclusion. Consensus building often results in better quality decisions as well, because it offers an opportunity for multiple different viewpoints to be expressed. That means the group may become aware of concerns that were not otherwise apparent, and can address them proactively.

At the same time, consensus building can often slow things down, and it creates an environment in which some leaders can go too far in trying to validate everyone’s point of view. You can’t please everyone, – and consensus-based decision-making strives to that, sometimes to a fault.

Top-down edicts, on the other hand, can also be problematic. An excessively autocratic approach to leadership has the potential to alienate employees and cause them to disengage. In other words, when people don’t have a stake in the decision-making process, they may check out of the process emotionally. That has profoundly negative implications for corporate culture.

In a strong leadership culture, is important to strike the right balance between consensus (or at least, soliciting input from stakeholders) and top-down decision making.

#3: Make Accountability a Core Value

Another reason that consensus building can be dangerous is that people often confuse shared consensus with shared accountability. As we learn from the old story about somebody, nobody, and everybody, – it’s important that accountability be clear and exclusive. When two or more people are responsible for the same task or project, then no one is.

In a broader context, accountability is the critical element for all successful organizations. For those who intend to build a strong culture of leadership, it is essential to make accountability a core value. That means declaring it as such, talking about it frequently in both formal and informal circumstances, and holding people to their commitments and promises.

Innovative organizations ought to create a culture in which calculated risk is acceptable, – and by extension, failure is sometimes an acceptable outcome. There is an important difference, however, between allowing for failure due to calculated risk and tolerating a lack of accountability. Accountability is a must-have.

One final note on this topic: accountability applies most of all to upper management. If the people in the c-suite are not answerable to their commitments, they cannot expect the rest of the organization to be so.

#4: Commit Resources to Leadership Development

Companies seeking to establish a culture leadership must also be willing to commit the necessary resources to make it happen. When an organization invests in leadership development, it is committing to the success and well-being of its employees. At the same time, it is also serving its own interests. In other words, leadership development is a win-win proposition.

Don’t think of leadership development as a one-off training event or seminar, though. Companies that are serious about developing a culture of leadership should view this kind of development as an ongoing effort that will pay dividends over the long-term. By establishing a comprehensive leadership development plan and sticking to it over the long-term, business leaders can foster the kind of corporate culture in which leadership and excellence can thrive.

#5: Declare your Core Values to be Non-Negotiable

Core values are non-negotiable. We’ve saved this point for last, largely because it serves as a cautionary note against the forces that can undermine your company’s progress toward building a culture of leadership. Here at Intellect, we often repeat the statement that “quality is non-negotiable”. After all, quality management is our primary focus, and most businesses live or die based on their ability to deliver products and services that meet or exceed their customers’ expectations.

But quality is not the only core value that deserves this prominence in the life and culture of a business. Earlier in this article, we suggested that accountability should be a core value in every organization. It, likewise, should be non-negotiable.

If your business doesn’t already have a well considered mission statement, it should. Core values, likewise, should be carefully contemplated, clearly articulated, and discussed frequently. In companies that take their core values seriously, it is not uncommon to hear conversations in which a question cn be resolved quickly and easily when someone asks “Which option would fulfill our shared value of…” (outstanding customer service, or transparency, or accountability, etc.).

In all organizations, there is pressure to compromise. Are leaders rewarded for meeting quotas and deadlines more than for customer satisfaction? Are urgent short-term pressures allowed to get in the way important long-term company values? In a strong culture of leadership, those core values remain intact, – they ultimately guide the organization’s decisions.

If your business is seeking to foster a strong leadership culture and a stellar reputation for quality, we’d love to talk with you. Contact us today to talk about your organization’s aspirations, and to learn how Intellect can help you achieve your objectives.