Culture: The Leadership Equalizer

I was thinking the other day, how much I enjoy the movie The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington. He is a man with a certain set of skills and experience who uses them to help people who cannot help themselves. The Equalizer helps level the playing field for the common man.

When it comes to leveling the playing field in leadership, organizational culture has that same effect. It doesn’t mater how skilled the leader or leadership team is. It doesn’t matter how compelling the vision or useful the product. The organization’s culture has the ability to give an organization the edge it needs to win or the “ability” to take out leaders and bring down businesses. Ignore it at your own peril.

A recent article on HBR.com points out the dismal track record of new leaders within organizations. They have poor approval ratings, short tenures, and low effectiveness. Why? The article argues that the leaders fail because they are not a good cultural fit within their new organizations. Further, hiring managers are failing to identify key cultural indicators that would help predict the new leaders’ success within the new organizations.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to work with a variety of people and companies at different stages in their development.  A non-profit organization I consulted had a culture that highly valued relationships; they called themselves “family.” Often focusing too directly on how culture matters that it can sabotage an otherwise capable leader.

Having a highly relational culture provided some great benefits – people loved working there, the people they served felt valued and cared for. However, the organization needed to grow. The services it provided were in high demand in the community. In order to grow, they needed to standardize some processes and develop some efficiency. Recognizing the need for different leadership, the executive director retired. The board hired someone with great vision and a track record of operational excellence. They just knew he would bring the leadership the organization needed to grow. It was a disaster. There was 100% turnover of the staff within 18 months and more than ½ of the volunteers quit during that time. What went wrong? The board and new executive director held cultural values focused on growth and operational excellence; everyone else thought they were “family.” Families don’t operate that way. While it’s true the culture needed to shift; the change was too radical and the new executive director was gone in less than two years.

Often a major shift in an organization’s life cycle necessitates changes in both culture and leadership. The start-up that is now an established company may still have a creative, visionary leader and a culture that matches. Now that the company faces market competition and scalability issues, competition and control values are starting to emerge. The founding leader’s cultural values no longer align with the direction of the company. Yet as the previous example showed, the board cannot simply hire a new CEO who values competition and control. Those values, while ultimately desirable, currently do not match the culture. The organization must first bring in a leader who can manage the transition of the culture from creative to more controlled and collaborative to more competitive.

My experience with the non-profit organization furthers my explanation of the importance of culture when it comes to leadership success. Any time you consider a leadership development program, executive coaching, or conducting organizational assessments, you should ensure that the team doing the work has expertise and experience in understanding organizational culture and how it impacts individual, team, leadership, and organizational performance. At Leadership Balance, one of our core operational principles is that culture matters, we have the tools and expertise to help. If you are facing a leadership challenge and need partnership and insight on how to navigate it, we have the experience and desire to partner with you. We too, have a certain set of skills and experience and use them to help people. Let us help ensure you leverage the power of your organizational culture to win – in leadership and in your business.