The first principle of successful culture shaping – The Shadow of the Leader

Shadow 8-18-14-08

I wrote about the four reasons culture-shaping efforts fail in my previous post (Organizational culture has reached a tipping point, yet many culture change initiatives fail for four key reasons). But what makes them succeed? What makes some culture-change efforts successful where others become simply another ‘flavor of the week’ training session that never translates into real change? This is a subject of great debate and many theories exist.

As we looked for the common denominator of success in the hundreds of culture-shaping efforts we have led at Senn Delaney, the level of CEO ownership and personal engagement won hands down as a key success factor. That came as no surprise to me since the central finding of my field studies of culture for my dissertation 40 years ago was that organizations tend to become “shadows of their leaders” over time. This finding led to our first of four key principles of successful culture shaping, which we call Purposeful Leadership.

It is important to understand that there is a big difference between owning and being personally engaged in a culture transformation and endorsing or blessing the initiative. The all-too-common model is that the CEO announces the culture-shaping initiative and openly supports it and then over-delegates the process to others, usually Human Resources.

To be personally engaged in leading culture change, the CEO must:

  • work on leadership behaviors that they need to shift in themselves and then show up differently to the organization
  • lead his or her senior team through culture-shaping sessions and activities before any other teams take part
  • take ownership of the work on defining the desired and needed culture and clarifying the organization’s purpose

Why Yum! Brands Chairman and CEO David Novak and USAA CEO Joe Robles are truly connected to the Shadow of the Leader concept
Yum! Brands CEO David Novak is an excellent example of a leader who has done one of the best jobs we have seen of understanding the phenomenon of leadership shadow and of intentionally casting a powerful one. David used a focus on creating a recognition culture to build Yum! from a spin-off of PepsiCo where it was failing to a global brand across 117 countries and 1.4 million employees with remarkable international expansion and more than a decade of double-digit earnings growth. He was honored as 2012 CEO of the Year by Chief Executive magazine.

In the following video, David talks about shadow of the leader and the role of culture in creating a defining global brand.

Another leader who has done a remarkable job of leading culture is General Joe Robles, CEO of USAA, a financial services firm serving military families. If you ask him what his job is, Joe he will tell you, “I am the Chief Culture Officer.” USAA has won some of the most coveted awards, including the highest customer loyalty, the highest customer satisfaction and the number one place to work in technology in America. USAA is also one of the top-performing companies in the financial services sector. He attributes the majority of that success to his focus on culture.

In the following video, Robles talks about his role in leading culture.

Elements of purposeful leadership
Starting the culture-shaping process with the CEO’s team is a key part of purposeful leadership. A full list of elements in purposeful leadership in shaping a culture include:

  • The CEO and senior leadership must own and lead the culture-shaping process.
  • Leaders need to have a clear, compelling purpose for themselves and their organization, coupled with a strong business rationale to inspire a Thriving organizational culture.
  • The process needs to be supported by resources and a systematic execution plan, like any other business strategy.
  • Leaders cast a powerful shadow; therefore, the culture needs to be explicitly defined via values and behaviors and modeled by the senior team.

This last element in purposeful leadership also speaks to shadow since the senior team needs to define and model a set of values and behaviors they create. While most all organizations have a value set, many are outdated or incomplete in defining the culture they need to win today. Since a wise old axiom is, “If you can’t define it you can’t create it.” work on better understanding what culture is and what it should be is part of the role of the CEO’s team.

In future posts I’ll describe The Essential Value Set, which provides a framework for creating a healthy, high-performing culture, and discuss the other three principles of culture shaping.

Do you agree that the leadership shadow is important in culture change? What other aspects of purposeful leadership would you add to this list? Please comment below.

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Dr. Larry Senn is a pioneer in the field of corporate culture. He is chairman and founder of international culture-shaping firm Senn Delaney, a Heidrick & Struggles company. Larry's vision and leadership for more than 35 years has helped Senn Delaney become an international firm that is widely recognized as the leading authority and practitioner in the field of culture shaping. Larry has led culture-shaping engagements for the leaders of numerous organizations, including dozens of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, state governors, members of two U.S. president's cabinets, deans of business schools and the presidents of major universities. He is an accomplished consultant, business advisor, group facilitator, author, CEO coach and public speaker. Larry has co-authored several books, including Winning Teams, Winning Cultures and 21st Century Leadership. In 2013, he published his latest book, Up the Mood Elevator: Living Life at Your Best. This book reveals some profound principles, fascinating concepts and useful practical tools to help people improve their experience of life, enhance results, build better relationships and create success with less stress. Prior to founding Senn Delaney, Larry ran his own retail business in college, was a senior engineer in the aerospace industry and a faculty member at University of Southern California and University of California Los Angeles where he taught leadership. Larry has a BS in engineering, an MBA from UCLA, and a doctorate degree in business administration from USC. Read his full bio.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Steve

    Hi – yes I do … and I’m ))smiling – because a group of five of us are getting together to share insights about shadow and organization culture. I’ll be sure to share this article with them = thanks!

    One question I have for you – can one person “own” organization culture? I believe the CEO can “model the way” – as people are watching his/her feet (where his/her shadow is pointed). However, organization culture is about human interactions …

    Would appreciate your perspective?

    To add to the list … I suggest “staying found as in **** presence**** ” as many leaders are “staying lost = absence, even confusion.” This concept is linked to a “surviving the wilderness story” I shared when instructing wilderness remote first aid. It’s better to stay found in one spot than to wander around when lost – as searchers can find you easier [as you can appreciate there is more to the story – merely framing a picture.]

    • Tim Kuppler

      Hi Steve – hopefully we’ll hear from Larry Senn on your question. Here’s my opinion. Someone better feel like they “own” the culture and it’s great if it’s the CEO since ownership needs to start at the top. My goal is always shared ownership but that will never exist in any sustainable way if it doesn’t exist at the top. Any decision, statement, personnel move or other action that would have a severe negative impact on the culture needs stopped without hesitation at any level. Ideally, there’s such a feeling of shared ownership where peer pressure, not wanting to let each other down and a genuine interest in maximizing the potential of each other are very common behaviors.

      The CEO must model the way because that environment will never develop at lower levels if they don’t feel that personal ownership and accountability. I wrote another post about the need for senior leaders to look in the mirror when any serious culture issue is raised.

  • TalentCove

    Truly great article, Larry! A company can go about making culture changes and shifts, but employees need to see their leaders “walking the walk” in order to truly trust in them. If leadership is not invested, employees won’t be either. I love to hear about the recognition based culture built at Yum! Brands … Recognition often plays a key role in engaging and retaining employees, so it’s smart for companies and leaders to take notice – :)

    I believe another aspect of purposeful leadership is empathy. If you can’t see your employees as human beings first, it’s going to be hard to relate to their triumphs and struggles. More thoughts on this here:

    Cheers! – Lolly