Leadership and the Power of Culture

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Culture, they say, is what happens in your business when you’re out of the room.

If that makes corporate culture sound like an afterthought, that’s not far from the truth. Traditional management theory focuses on creating rules, policies and reporting structures to ensure things get done. When I was in business school, no one suggested that leadership was really about creating a work environment that excites and motivates people to excel.

But then, my degree program was in “Business Management,” not “Business Leadership.”

I was pleased to discover a revised definition of leadership developed by U.S. consultant James Kerr in an article called “Leader or Manager?” at Inc.com. “Managers monitor and adjust today’s work,” Kerr writes. “Leaders look forward and imagine the possibilities that the future may bring, in order to set direction.”

I wonder how many entrepreneurs never progress beyond “monitoring”? Whether they got an MBA or hard-scrabbled their way up, who was there to tell them that their true calling is not to manage operational details, but to envision a better future for their entire team to work toward?

Growth is a choice. As a working entrepreneur at a consulting firm that our new team wants to see grow, I view my job very differently now. I see “management” as a limiting concept, one that implies controlling people and processes to accomplish defined goals. Leadership is about influencing, motivating and inspiring – a more abstract discipline that unlocks people’s potential and replaces finite goals with infinite possibility.

Many entrepreneurs are happy doing the same thing every day. But if you truly want to grow your business, you have to decide if you’re a manager or a leader – and then develop an executive team with the skills you lack.

This is harder than it sounds. When you start as an entrepreneur, there’s rarely anyone beside you to depend on, tell you what you’re good at, or discuss new ideas. As your organization grows, you need people who will not only talk business with you, but dare to disagree. You have to be mature enough not just to delegate, but to understand that sometimes you are the bottleneck.

I realized this at 50. Now I wonder how things might have gone if I’d figured it out 15 years earlier. The sooner you recognize what you’re not good at, you can start building a smarter, more robust business.

After years in manufacturing, I teamed up with designer John Cardoso to build a marketing-consultancy specializing in design thinking. But we were limited by our own thinking – that we had to be the smartest guys in the room. Over time, we learned our insights could transform large organizations. But we believed we lacked the contacts and experience to open those bigger, global doors.

As we found the courage to think bigger, we realized that it wasn’t our strategy that had to change but our culture. Culture humanizes corporate strategy, by clarifying relationships between an organization, its team members and customers.

So we changed our structure and culture to fit the needs of “A players.” We established ambitious goals for our company that would make high performers feel part of something great. We created a platform that enables talent to do the work they love, without grounding them in rules and red tape. As a result, we’ve suddenly been able to attract brilliant new talents who have re-engineered huge organizations and launched game-changing brands.

The secret? I’m not “running things” any more. We give people clear goals and freedom to make their own decisions. We found a COO to monitor the company, freeing me to focus on supporting our talent, and enhancing our culture of learning and personal growth.

Our philosophy is “manage daily, lead always.” We actually created more meetings – but the goal isn’t to check up on people. Our group leads meet regularly so they can build relationships, support each other, and solve problems together.

Does that sound too “soft?” We’ve discovered that collaboration is a competitive edge. In today’s world, consultants don’t have all the answers. Breakthroughs come from working with clients, building trust, developing empathy. Our culture, you see, describes not just how we work internally, but how we create value for our clients. That’s alignment!

There’s nothing soft about culture. There are now tools to measure it, to ensure your culture is creating the dynamic organization you want. Our business is such a believer in a made-in-Canada tool called OGI – the Organizational Growth Indicator – that we have now become certified OGI practitioners. This newfound ability to measure organizations’ intangible assets has already won us new clients.

Disrupting your own company can be tricky. It’s a leap of faith, emotionally and financially. But it’s an investment in the future. By taking this risk, we’ve discovered our own formula for generating growth: running the business “one half-person over capacity”. This gives you the freedom to develop ideas and win new business.

Most entrepreneurs borrow money to invest in equipment or other tangible assets. But investing in human capital is one of the best ways to stay relevant.

How do you keep world-class people happy in your business? It comes back to culture: the values and attitudes that shape how you interact and kindle each other’s energies. We’ve built an inclusive culture of openness and sharing. We welcome ideas and risk-taking. When you genuinely respect people and help them succeed, they will support you and each other.

As a business owner, you’re creating a culture whether you intend to or not. Make sure the culture you’re encouraging is the one you need to achieve your highest goals.

Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of design-driven strategy rm Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. He holds the Institute of Corporate Directors certification (ICD.D). Follow him on Twitter at @90percentRule.

Organizational Growth Indicator (OGI*)* *Source: Connective Intelligence Inc.

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