Talking Leadership

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Fundamentals First

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on September 7, 2017 at 1:50 pm


“All of these principles are easy to comprehend, and all of them are damnably difficult to live and make happen. And that explains why truly great leaders are rare indeed.” Oren Harari

Writing in his book The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell author Oren Harari is talking about the fundamentals that were so characteristic of Colin Powell’s approach to leadership. I’m not sure why, but it seems these days that there is far too little attention paid to developing strong fundamentals, maybe it’s that tendency in human nature to complicate the simple.

Good examples would be the seemingly boundless enthusiasm for personality testing and emotional intelligence workshops and books these days. I’m not saying these are of no value, only that work on these topics will not transform an average team into a high performing team. In leadership, as in virtually all other endeavours, the foundation for success is found in strong fundamentals. There will always be far more upside in teaching leaders how to stay mission focused, provide good direction, build accountability and provide skillful feedback than there is in some of the more tangential leadership topics there seems to be so much enthusiasm for, yet I frequently see these foundational topics overlooked.

So what the are some of these fundamentals? In the space I have here I can’t possibly offer a complete list but I can cover a few.

Start with the right heart

All the best leaders care a great deal about the missions and people they lead. They are in it for the right reasons. They are mission and people driven. They value relationships. This doesn’t mean they coddle team members. To the contrary, they challenge people to deliver their best work and to continually get better and they encourage and support their efforts. We can’t teach someone to have the right heart for leadership, but we can help those who already do learn how it how to express it in the right ways.

Communicate well

We talk to people we care about and we listen to people we care about. For the best leaders good communication habits connect them with people and build engagement. As I have so often said, we can’t expect engagement if we don’t engage people, if we leave them in the dark. Opening the enterprise and building relationships with strong communication skills is essential.

Provide good direction

Research clearly demonstrates that when people know clearly what is expected of them they have higher levels of performance and more job satisfaction. Yet so often I meet people who don’t know or are unsure about what’s expected of them. Learning how to provide direction well and how to avoid common pitfalls is essential. This is why I include eight keys to providing direction well in my work.

Provide lots of quality feedback

I’m convinced that every truly team building leader has great feedback habits. Why? Because teams are built one member one situation at a time and skillful timely feedback is the key. Time and time again I encounter leaders at all levels who don’t provide enough feedback as well as those who provide it poorly.


Legendary coach John Wooden wrote, “Every good leader is a natural and enthusiastic teacher.” I couldn’t agree more. Wooden’s UCLA Bruins won more national championships than any team in history. His book, Wooden on Leadership, is a brilliant volume on applied fundamentals. His efforts to build relationships and improve skills through coaching ranks high among these. Time spent developing good coaching skills is time well spent.

Build Culture

I would offer without hesitation that every significant team building effort I led at newspapers across the country featured purposeful work on culture – not what your team does but the way they do it. If the leader doesn’t do something to promote the right team culture and correct problems then who will? Culture drives performance and there is a right way to go about building it.

Make every performance count

Last on my admittedly incomplete list is the way great leaders treat performance. They insist that every team member earn his or her place. When someone isn’t they confront the problem with feedback and coaching first (here we are back at these two fundamentals) and when this does not solve the problem they know how to have those difficult conversations and make the necessary changes to the roster with skill.

I take a fundamentals first approach because 20 years of building the teams I led convinced me time and time again that they work. Today, when I encounter teams who are not living up to their potential it always traces back to fundamentals. It’s fundamentals consistently applied that will always drive the biggest improvements.

Want to fortify the fundamentals with your leadership team? Check out these options for 1/2 day workshops and individual coaching.

Powerful Achievement

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on October 1, 2012 at 6:39 am

Grandson Sawyer

Achievement is a powerful motivator. We all take joy in succeeding at something that has challenged us. We see evidence of this every week in our first grandchild Sawyer. Watching him, now ten months old, take such joy in reaching new milestones – sitting up, climbing a set of stairs (oh what joy he took in that one!) standing independently – reminds me of just how much we humans are motivated by achievement. But for a variety of reasons, as we age too many of us forget what it feels like to do something we are rightly proud of. Good leaders restore this feeling by giving the people they lead a renewed experience with achievement.

I have seen feelings of achievement transform the workplace experience for many people and it is uplifting. Make this a part of your culture and you will be rewarded with people who want more of it. There are steps you can take to foster an achievement orientation in the people you lead:

Work that is not challenging cannot lead to a feeling of achievement, so setting the right goals is the starting point. Goals should be challenging and yet still within reach. Then make sure people get the support they need to be successful. If you challenge people to do the impossible or don’t provide the coaching they need, you only teach them how to fail.

As they go about the work provide lots of feedback. Don’t do the work for them but give them the support they need to do it well and learn from mistakes. When they face setbacks, encourage them. Finally, when achievement comes, celebrate it and attribute it to the achiever. Too many leaders have taken the glory for the work others did.

Like a good boxing trainer, set goals to build confidence. Don’t send them in against the “heavyweight champ” before they are ready. Set goals that are within reach and then gradually move the level of difficulty up. Avoid confidence-destroying knockouts.

So an achievement orientation doesn’t just happen, it is established through a cycle that starts with good goals, progresses through training and preparation and then through the actual performance, (which you support with feedback and encouragement), it concludes when you celebrate results – it’s a virtuous cycle that builds confidence. Good leaders are active in each phase of the cycle. With each cycle confidence and performance grows. Give an individual an experience with achievement and he or she will come back for more. One person at a time the performance of the entire team will improve as achievement becomes a part of the culture.

Just as achievement builds confidence, failure destroys it, which in turn leads to more failure. Do not allow these demoralizing cycles to persist. Correct the problems that led to the failure and scale back goals in the short term to rebuild confidence. When this fails don’t allow people to remain in roles where they continue to fail – these situations are very discouraging and do not serve anyone’s interests.

I have worked with many people for whom a taste of achievement made a dramatic difference to the way they felt about work and the contributions they made. Don’t leave achievement to chance.

Looking to add to your leadership skill set? Check out my book, The Heart and Hands of Leadership: The Twelve Timeless Practices of Effective Leaders, available in soft cover and all major e-book formats,

Discussion Questions:

1. What was your most recent experience with achievement and how did it make you feel?

2. Where is the best situation for you to foster achievement, a team or an individual, and what goals will you set?

3. How will you celebrate?

For more on building powerful culture call to arrange a 1/2 day workshop

Mapping Culture

In Leadership Articles (Archives) on March 6, 2012 at 7:30 am

“Everyone was extremely pleasant, polite and genuinely nice, but no one seemed to have a competitive spirit or a sense that time mattered. Everyone talked about technology and values – they didn’t talk about customers or competitors. It was my first experience with what I would come to learn was common behaviour: people did not confront issues at Hewlett-Packard.” Carley Fiorina, Tough Choices.

“Common behaviour” – it is an apt definition of culture and it is a powerful force – nothing has more impact on organizational performance. Culture ranks at the top of the list of reasons why people join and leave companies. In the years to come, as baby-boomers leave the workplace and the competition for talent heats up, leaders will begin to give culture the attention it deserves. Without the right culture they’ll be left behind in the competition for talent. Increasingly, people will gravitate toward the organizations that offer the best cultures.

Let’s begin with the reality that every group, from families to large multi-nationals has a culture – their own way of doing things and it can be inspiring or discouraging.

Culture taps our need to fit in – to feel part of the group. If everyone in the organization works hard, then newcomers soon discover that working hard is the path to acceptance. If the newcomer works hard and is chastised by colleagues for working too hard, he either slows down or leaves for a place that is a better fit. This is why good leaders get purposeful about shaping culture. They know that when they get the culture right, everything else is much easier to achieve.

Work on culture begins right away as the leader assesses the current culture, we see evidence of this in Carley Fiorina’s opening quote. Clearly the Hewlett-Packard culture she encountered included both strengths and weaknesses. Politeness and a passion for technology are strengths; a lack of urgency and an unwillingness to confront issues are weaknesses, that if not corrected, would be severely limiting.

In each new leadership assignment I took on, the work on culture began much the same way. From my first days on the job, I watched the way things were done. At one newspaper we lacked a competitive spirit; at another, people would’t bring any bad news forward (it was all good news or no news at all); at a third, people were too fearful to take even the slightest risk. Each also had its positive attributes. In each case mapping the culture and then correcting its limiting facets was the key to engineering a turn-around or a successful integration. Good leaders develop an eye for culture and with experience the mapping becomes easier.

You cannot change a culture for the better until you know where it is today and where you want it to go. Your vision for a better culture becomes a source of inspiration for the talented people throughout the organization who will help you create it.

Not everyone will make it through. There will always be those who do not share the same values and are unwilling to change. Everyone deserves the chance to get on board, but this is not a choice you can make for others. You can only provide the vision and then have the courage to see it through. Building a better culture is hard, and it is among the most important work every leader does. Get it right and you give your organization and everyone in it a powerful and lasting competitive advantage.

Discussion Questions:

1. Think about a negative culture you have had experience with, what were it’s characteristics?
2. How would you describe your current culture – the common behaviours?
3. What are the three to five facets of culture you should correct or instil?

To go deeper on culture why not contact us for more on a half day workshop.

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