Leadership beats culture — how to avoid icebergs

When leaders try to influence their organisations and do not get the desired results they often turn to “culture”. But, do you really need to deal with “icebergs”? In many cases whether you reach your destination depends on you.

Dismayed by your organization not doing what customers or shareholders need? Frustrated by the “resistance” of your organisation to the well-intentioned changes? Somehow, the past seems to stop the future? You are looking for a lever to move the seemingly immovable?

When leaders try to influence their organisations and do not get the desired results they often turn to “culture”. After all, culture is that ominous thing which apparently eats strategy for breakfast. Seasoned scholar Edgar Schein describes organisational culture as: “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” In simpler terms, culture is the big container for all the rules, which everyone follows in your organization without anyone ever having made them explicit.

Whenever you are introducing something new, when you want to change what people do you indeed cannot ignore how people have learned to operate in your company. We all have seen the famous iceberg analogy for culture. Changing how people behave means that you cannot focus only on what is visible above the waterline.

Do you really need to deal with “culture icebergs” and all that is hiding below the waterline?

Focus on business instead of culture

Sometimes, “culture” is used as a fuzzy metaphor for “something” not specified, which is held responsible for negative business outcomes. Take the example of the leadership team of a company identifying that the “risk avoidance culture” of their organisation gets in the way of continued growth.

Much energy and money can be wasted. Consultancies, project teams and employees can be kept busy with investigating the “risk avoidance culture”. More often than not, they will come back and either tell the management team what they knew all along or what they do not want to hear about anyway.

Instead of stopping with “culture” being identified as the culprit — which is just a “nicer” way to say that people further down the hierarchy are not doing their jobs as you would like them to — you should take a step further and identify what is leading people in your organization to avoid risks.

Indeed “risk avoidance” comes in many forms. Are you or your management team often rejecting “risky” proposals and initiatives? Are decision processes taking forever because no one is given authority to make a final decision? Who has the authorization and resources to actually investigate and include new technologies? Are customers involved in product development? Are you hiring management consultants instead of entrepreneurs as managers?

After having identified the underlying issues for your “cultural” concerns, you and your leadership team can work on how to improve the organizational system you are responsible for. Maybe it is best to revisit and adapt your strategy. Alternatively, you might need to re-design parts of your organizational structure, e.g. change the make-up and processes of key decision-making bodies or establish additional ways of involving customer feedback in your core business processes. Or is it simply that you need a different type of person in one or more key positions?

After all, do you really want to chip away at icebergs or improve your business?

Engage with your organization to lead more effectively

Sometimes leaders have a clear and concrete picture of the future and know what they specifically want to change. However, the desired shift is just not happening. “Resistance” by the organization is identified as the issue. The old “culture” does not support the future.

Quite often, this perception is due to too little understanding in the management team about how the organization and its members operate. This makes it hard to translate what they want into something that the organization can actually take on and do. Additionally, unless you have new kingdoms to grant (e.g. because your organization is growing fast) or you plan on replacing those who are not enthusiastic you will have some convincing to do.

One answer is to find out more about your organisation and how it relates to the change you perceive necessary for a positive future. How attractive is the future you paint to key members in your organisations? What could be attractive about it — not from your perspective — but from theirs? What are people afraid to lose and what can you offer them instead? What are the strengths, which you want to keep, celebrate and tap into? What are the potential risks and consequences, which others see but you might have overlooked and need to find answers for?

You can find out about these questions in 1:1 conversations, by interviewing people you trust or engaging consultants to do this for you. However, it is most powerful if you are part of the dialogue with key groups in your organization. In interactive workshops, you can take the pulse of your organisation, identify the critical items, have your organization help you with how to address them, identify key critics and supporters, get your management team to take responsibility for parts of the change and kick-start the shift by having participants translate what you propose into their areas of responsibility and concrete projects.

Instead of trying to melt down or chip away at icebergs find a good path around them — to your goal. Much easier and faster.

Make it personal and be persistent

A concrete picture of where to take your organisation and how to get there is crucial. Driving the change itself is a contact sport. No technical system, HR organization or consultant can make change happen for you. They can support but you as the leader will make or break any change effort.

Leaders working to change their organizations will encounter that in order to be successful they often need to change themselves. You might need to find new ways to communicate, form new habits, and shed beliefs you took for granted which no longer serve you and your organization. The response of the organization will be (at least partially or initially) negative and often you will be challenged personally. At times, it might seem impossible to make any headway. However, it is no good to try to get out of your responsibility by blaming “culture”.

Introducing change puts leaders in the heat of battle, into the spotlight on the organizational stage. The good news is: Everyone in the organization is watching you — all the time. They will react to how you act and make decisions. However, many have seen leaders not walking the talk; they quite rightly wait to see what category you belong to.

Dedicated external partners have proven to be a vital resource. Engaging regularly with a leadership coach or bringing on a good consultant creates a support structure to keep you and the organization continuously focused on the change at hand. They help you to stay persistent, to create clarity on the next step and to positively engage with your organization. Beyond that, you will have a safe space to explore the unthinkable, the disturbing and the terrifying, which all come with change.

Whether you go it all alone or with external support: Take the helm and lead.

How do you deal with “culture”? What is working well for you? What is hard to do? Let us know.

Share if you found the article useful, insightful or irritating. Connect with me if there is a chance for working together and helping each other.

And yes, there are times when you can use “culture” as a lever. Soon to be explored.

Nico Czinczoll is an experienced leader and consultant in the area of organisational development. He coordinated parts of the global change programme aimed at shifting culture, leadership and organisational practices in response to the Deep Water Horizon Incident at BP. As a trusted advisor to executives and management teams, he focuses on strategy development and implementation, re-organisations, and leadership.

Find me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicoczinczoll/