Warsaw Equity Group

The role of the leader in the process of organizational culture change

Author: Dawid Bieńkowski, Human Partner Capital, Warsaw Equity Group

Like any living organism, organizational culture also changes under the influence of the external environment. The conditions in which we have to perform management functions force leaders to react constantly and thus to change, which, as John C. Maxwell said, is inevitable, and only growth/development is optional.

Managing the whole and/or part of an organization is one of the greatest privileges and responsibilities that few of us will experience in our careers. Of course, we all have an impact on the organization (greater or lesser), but it is those who boast the title of leader who has the greatest responsibility.

Leadership contract

The pace of change in the business environment affects the attitude (and style) leader must adopt to succeed. What is happening today is no longer enough to predict what will happen tomorrow. As a leader, you will face a lot of pressure. Pressure to:

  • implement the strategy you have set,
  • manage the complexity of the market in which you operate,
  • develop the leaders of your organization,
  • build long-term value for shareholders/investors/employees.

Vince Molinaro, in his book “The Leadership Contract. The fine print to becoming an accountable leader” uses the metaphor of a contract (leadership contract) to describe the specific expectations of leaders/managers that they must meet in their positions in the organization. He emphasizes that being a leader is not just about signing an addendum to a contract, a renamed position, or a higher salary. Being a leader is all about change, which entails new expectations and responsibilities.

Elements of the leadership contract

  • Leadership is a decision: being a leader requires a conscious decision and acceptance of many compromises and sacrifices. To be successful, it is not enough to be a technical expert or an average leader who has learned how to survive in your organization. Your organization needs you to step up to the plate and take full responsibility for your role, and that always starts with a decision and a simple question.
  • Leadership is a commitment: as soon as you make the decision to be a leader, you immediately need to rise to the task and meet the expectations set for your new position. You must model the right behaviors, lead by example, and fulfill your commitments to your customers, shareholders.
  • Leadership is hard work: you must be ready to meet the challenges you will encounter as a leader. You will be the one who will have to set the pace for others and support them in their development rather than waiting for them to do it themselves. You must instill in yourself the willingness to do everything possible to make your organization successful.
  • Leadership is community: being a leader involves building strong relationships and connections with other leaders. It’s a responsibility to proactively participate in building a community of leaders and sharing knowledge.

Change the organization’s culture

While both strategy, market presence, and technology are very important from the company’s point of view, most admired, successful, and recognizable organizations gain most of their power from their unique organizational cultures. Culture becomes the vehicle that enables an organization to translate its unique value system, vision, and mission into ambitious plans and concrete actions. It also helps to ensure the right mindset of its employees, which is necessary to achieve its ambitions. It is through an organizational culture that is well aligned with the DNA of the company that we can influence the beliefs of our employees and, consequently, the actions that will generate the expected results.

Key steps in the organizational culture change process

Step 1: Develop a consensus on the current organizational culture.

Step 2: Develop a consensus on the desired organizational culture.

Step 3: Clearly define what the desired change will and will not be.

Step 4: Identify behaviors and accomplishments that will support the desired change.

Step 5: Develop a strategic action plan.

Step 6: Develop an implementation plan.

Culture change vs. leadership skills

Changing organizational culture requires leaders to excel in the skills necessary to lead this transformation. Developing these skills will accelerate the change process, as well as increase the likelihood of its success.

These skills are:

  • leading change: changing organizational culture requires that you lead it; this responsibility cannot be delegated to the HR department and/or another person; only full responsibility for leading the change at every level of the organization will successfully move the organization from the current state to the desired state;
  • dealing with feedback: during the change process, each employee looks up to the leader and his or her behaviors, trying to model them; the ability to deal with feedback (especially in stressful, high-stress situations) helps reduce the risk of overinterpreting behaviors, beliefs that may be inconsistent with those that are desired, or those that we want to change to generate new (desired) actions and results;
  • driving alignment: long-term change in organizational culture always requires cooperation and dialogue at every level of the organization; the ability to ask questions, seek information and create conditions for constructive conversation will definitely speed up the process of adaptation and change of beliefs toward the desired ones.

Changing organizational culture is definitely a long-distance run. Over time, it will be necessary to intervene in virtually every aspect of its functioning just to ensure that the actions that were taken support the desired change.

Successful change in organizational culture may require fundamental changes in many areas: structure; systems, and processes that are already in place (including HR); better alignment of people with positions; changes in the leadership style of current leaders and/or the skills they possess. One thing is certain – the desired change in organizational culture will not happen without leaders’ active involvement and the involvement of their employees.