How HR & CEOs can drive real transformational change

HR can play a significant role in working with CEOs and generating the energy needed to achieve a successful cultural transformation

Leaders who pay only lip service to a transformation will find others doing the same, according to Melinda Tunbridge, who explains that HR can play a significant role in working with CEOs and generating the energy needed to achieve a successful cultural transformation

Organisational core values do more than just promote business practices. As HR practitioners, we know values will shape the culture of the organisation, the decision-making criteria of your managers, and the actions of your employees. The better the definition of the values, the more likely that this system will serve as a robust code of conduct.

But what happens when you have a CEO or senior leaders who espouse all of the right things one minute, but behave in a way that is contradictory the next?

“Values-aligned” CEOs, leaders and employees benefit the entire organisation by practising values based leadership, and this provides the “compass” to help influence and guide behaviour.

As leaders, we believe we have the ability to cultivate that potential in others. To do so requires leaders to have a state of self-awareness and alignment. Leadership must be rooted in who you are and what matters most to you. When you truly know yourself and what you stand for, it is much easier to know what to do in any situation.

“If values based leadership means to lead by aligning the leader’s values with the organisation’s values, then new CEOs need to learn quickly what signals they are sending”

Leaders modifying an organisation’s culture are likely to end up with a culture that, at least in part, echoes pieces of their own personal value systems. Through the strategic decisions they make, leaders impress their values upon the culture of the organisation – good, bad or indifferent. That may sound simple, but it’s hardly simplistic.

My experience suggests that four key functions collectively define a successful role for a leader in a cultural transformation:

  1. Making the transformation meaningful. People will go to extraordinary lengths for causes they believe in, and a powerful transformation story will create and reinforce their commitment.
  2. Role-modelling desired mindsets and behaviour. Successful leaders typically embark on their own personal transformation journey.
  3. Building a strong and committed top team. To harness the transformative power of the top team, leaders must make tough decisions about who has the ability and motivation to make the journey.
  4. Relentlessly pursuing impact. There is no substitute for leaders rolling up their sleeves and getting personally involved when significant financial and symbolic value is at stake.

Everyone has a role to play in a transformation. Leaders who pay only lip service to a transformation will find others doing the same. Once the story is out, the leader becomes a consistent advocate and reinforcer. Ad nauseam! Reinforcement should come from outside as well. Systems, processes, in addition to behaviours, must be in alignment with the transformation story. Ultimately, employees will weigh the actions of their leader against the system and processes and other behaviours they are surrounded by, to determine whether they believe in the story.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “For things to change, first I must change.” Therefore for senior leaders the position of role model is amplified, and not only involves a level of self-awareness but personal transformation in some cases.

“What happens when you have a CEO or senior leaders who espouse all of the right things one minute, but behave in a way that is contradictory the next?”

Typically, a personal transformation journey involves 360-degree feedback on leadership behaviour specific to the program’s objectives; diary analysis to reveal how time is spent on transformation priorities; a commitment to a short list of personal transformation objectives; and professional coaching toward these ends.

Try using a typical nine box matrix, with “business performance” on one axis and “role-modelling the desired behaviour” on the other. Those in the top-right box (desired behaviour, high performance) are the organisation’s stars, and those in the bottom-left box (undesired behaviour, low performance) should be motivated to move, developed, or dismissed.

Questions for leaders

  • Do team members clearly understand what is expected of each of them in relation to the transformation?
  • Is the leader/s serving as a positive role model?
  • Does everyone recognise and acknowledge the downside and upside of getting on board and doing what is required?
  • Have struggling team members received a chance to understand, develop or receive backup to reinforce the needed skills?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, decisive action is justified based on your matrix.

Understanding and assessing your organisation’s culture can mean the difference between success and failure in a dynamic market. On the other hand, senior management, particularly the CEO, often has a view of the organisation’s culture that is based more on subjective hope and faith rather than a view grounded in objective fact. Where a conflict of values emerges, it’s often a matter of difference in interpretation between the leaders and employees.

Imagine you were asked to describe your organisation to an outsider – how would you answer the following questions?

  • What 10 words would you use to describe your company?
  • Around here, what is really important?
  • Around here, who gets promoted?
  • Around here, what behaviours get rewarded?
  • Around here, who fits in and who doesn’t?

Telling the CEO the truth about the organisation or leadership style he/she has built, can often be dangerous as the messenger. Delivering such a message takes skill as a coach and a willingness to take risks and confront conflict.

Sometimes the leader needs to be told that his/her baby is ugly. Having objective measurement tools such as HCG’s “Cultural Assessment Tool” or the “Cultural Audit” from the Walking the Talk methodology, can provide valuable objective measurement of existing culture. Executives are frequently analytical and quantitative in their orientation.

Having data and an assessment tool to deliver a painful message may be the key to getting management to pay attention and face the reality of what kind of culture really exists. It is also useful in preventing the demise of the messenger.

“CEOs must increase awareness of their own value systems”

Even though few would dispute the value of being an engaged leader, many still do not practice what they preach. The harsh reality is great numbers of leaders continue to operate in a vacuum. I rarely come across leaders who couldn’t benefit from being more meaningfully engaged on both a broader and deeper basis: engage. Forget the span of control – think span of awareness. Senior leaders need to personally speak to their customers, suppliers, vendors and partners.

As HR practitioners, what do we do? What if we ask the leader to look ahead to the end of their tenure and give their exit speech and then ask them to describe their immediate challenges? We could then evaluate some of the challenges the gap between then and now presents, culturally.

If values based leadership means to lead by aligning the leader’s values with the organisation’s values, then new CEOs need to learn quickly what signals they are sending.

The typical new CEO knows that his actions will be noticed by those in his company. What he does not generally realise is the extent to which his every move – both inside and outside the organisation – will – be scrutinised and interpreted. His words and behaviours, however small or off-the-cuff, are instantly spread and amplified, and sometimes drastically misinterpreted. Even personal choices are subject to scrutiny. The CEOs microphone is always on, and his message can become distorted. Even an innocent question may be interpreted as a loss of confidence.

Too often, we forget CEOs remain bound by all-too-human hopes, fears, and limits. Invariably, they have to come to terms with the fact that they can’t do everything well. It’s difficult and ego-bruising to accept gaps. It is essential for new CEOs to make a disciplined effort to stay humble, to revisit their decisions and actions, to continue to listen to others, and to find people who will be honest and forthright. As HR practitioners, we can add immense value here.

In every HR directorship I have held, I have sat down with the CEO/MD very early on and explained my approach. “You may not always like what I have to say. I may be critical of your style, approach or that meeting you just chaired. But I will have your back. My feedback is in your best interest. You can be real with me, let your guard down – swear and kick the wall if you need to. We will package you back up, send you back out, aligned and ready to tackle anything. If you are not willing to be honest and vulnerable with me, I’m not the HR person for you.”

“Understanding and assessing your organisation’s culture can mean the difference between success and failure in a dynamic market”

According to Richard Barrett, “When a situation arises that we have to deal with, there are three different ways we can arrive at a decision on what to do: we can use our beliefs to formulate a response, we can use our values to formulate our response, or we can use our intuition to formulate a response.” Barrett continues to explain that if you use beliefs to make decisions, those decisions will reflect your past history in dealing with similar situations. But if you use values to make decisions, those decisions will align with the future you want to experience. Therefore, they can be used for making tough decisions in complex situations that have not yet been experienced. They provide a more flexible mode of decision-making. It takes courage to face our authentic self and make the commitment to protect and care for that authentic self. It requires relentless integrity, authenticity and measurement.

In order for the links between the values, culture, and likely outcomes to be fully understood, CEOs must increase awareness of their own value systems. Identifying how one’s values fit with different cultural aspects can help CEOs find the appropriate balance between their own values and the needs of the organisation’s culture in order to achieve desired outcomes.

For CEOs leading a transformation, no single model guarantees success. But they can improve the odds by targeting leadership functions – making the transformation meaningful, modelling the desired mind-sets and behaviour, building a strong and committed team, and relentlessly pursuing impact. Together, these can powerfully generate the energy needed to achieve a successful cultural transformation.

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