Don’t Let Your Company’s Culture Stifle Leadership Development

Don’t Let Your Company’s Culture Stifle Leadership Development

Taylor, a seasoned manager at a midsize tech company, recently completed a training on how to have difficult conversations. Taylor found the training valuable. She learned a new model, practiced a difficult conversation she needed to have with a peer, and got feedback from other participants.

But Taylor never had the conversation. It felt risky, and she worried how the person would respond. While Taylor knew this conversation was important, her own manager rarely communicated so directly, nor did most of the leaders at her company who were regularly recognized and promoted.

“Taylor” is a composite of many motivated leaders I’ve worked with throughout the years who are encouraged and developed to lead in ways that they don’t see modeled or rewarded at their company.

I’ve previously written about the power in using behavioral science to increase the effectiveness of employee development programs. When, after completing a training, individuals define exactly when they will take action and plan for the inevitable obstacles they will encounter, they are more likely to achieve their goals and make meaningful behavior changes.

However, this focus on individual development doesn’t account for another key variable in any behavior change effort: the context or environment in which an individual is working. Across nearly all domains, a person’s context plays a large role in shaping their behavior. The design of our environment impacts our choices and consequent habits.

We are also strongly influenced by the norms and expectations of other people within our environment. When we see others around us being altruistic or exercising, we’re more likely to behave in the same way. BJ Fogg, founder and director of the Stanford Behavior Design Lab, goes as far as to say, “There’s just one way to radically change your behavior: radically change your environment.”

Within an organizational context, senior leaders play a large role in creating the environment. Edgar Schein, who is considered the “father” of organizational culture, noted that what leaders pay attention to, role model, teach, and reinforce will have a significant influence on organizational culture. A leader who spends all of their time with the leaders above them while neglecting their own team is sending a signal about what they believe is important. When a leader refuses to admit a mistake or weakness, they’re implicitly telling their team it’s not safe for them to do so either. In Taylor’s case, her manager avoided difficult, direct conversations and set the tone that conversations like that are not important enough to prioritize and are okay to avoid.

And yet, all too often, leadership development programs don’t adequately account for the culture, norms, and system within which the leader is working. Leaders may be asked to think long term in a culture that fixates on immediate results, or they may be taught to collaborate across organizational boundaries when they’re rewarded for work within their own group. When leaders and leadership development practitioners fail to acknowledge the critical role of 1) a company’s culture and organizational context and 2) the most senior leaders’ role in shaping that context, they oversimplify and likely undermine their leadership development efforts.

At Intuit, we’ve spent the last five years working to build a culture that reinforces, rather than inhibits, positive leader growth. We’ve had our share of learnings along the way, including the need to modernize our learning technology, which required significant buy-in and investment from our HR and tech teams. We’ve also been reminded of how difficult it is for our leaders to consistently prioritize their development in the midst of limited time and many competing priorities. While we still have a long way to go, we’ve seen positive feedback, engagement, and behavior change that suggests we’re on the right track. Hopefully our experiences can provide inspiration to anyone else on a similar journey. Below are four actions we’ve taken to ensure our culture supports and reinforces leadership development.

Define leadership.

To start, senior leaders need to clearly articulate what great leadership looks like at your company and create a shared language around your leadership expectations. To do this, consider questions like:

  • What do our best leaders do really well?
  • What will our leaders need to be great at in the future?
  • What is unique or special about culture that we expect leaders to model and reinforce?

At Intuit, it was important to us that our shared language around leadership was relevant and applicable to people leaders at all levels — not just our executives. We also wanted to make sure it was “easy to remember and recite,” so we avoided making it overly prescriptive or complex. Ultimately, we focused our definition on three core capabilities: 1) Lead with a clear vision; 2) Build a high-performance culture; and 3) Drive winning results.

The next step is to build out a leadership framework. We call ours the Leadership Playbook, and it includes three supporting behaviors for each core capability. Many of the behaviors we included, such as “Develop people to accelerate performance,” are best practices and likely similar to desired behaviors in many other companies and industries. Others, such as “Stay focused on the customer problem,” reflect our unique company priorities and values.

We’ve consistently received feedback from leaders that codifying these behaviors has been helpful in clarifying the expectations of them and providing a framework to address real leadership challenges.

Model leadership.

If you’re a senior leader, the most impactful thing you can do to ensure your company’s culture aligns with your leadership expectations is to personally model your company’s leadership behaviors. As Schein suggests, your actions will have a disproportionately large influence on shaping the culture.

To encourage this at Intuit, we start at the top, with our most senior leaders kicking off many of our leadership development efforts. When we initially rolled out the Leadership Playbook at our annual leadership conference, our CEO Sasan Goodarzi and his staff, along with our former CEO and then-executive chairman Brad Smith, shared their experiences practicing the playbook behaviors and the ways in which the behaviors showed up differently based on their unique leadership styles. Our most senior leaders set the tone for the rest of the organization, and their actions — much more than their words — indicate what they believe is important.

We also try to help leaders build self-awareness about whether they’re modeling our leadership behaviors. As part of several of our executive development programs, leaders receive feedback from their teams and/or manager on the extent to which they’re practicing our Leadership Playbook. Leaders then create development goals based on this input to ensure they’re consistently reinforcing and practicing these behaviors.

Teach leadership.

In the book High Output Management, former Intel CEO Andy Grove discusses the concept of “managerial leverage” — the actions leaders can take to increase the output of their organization. He identifies training as “one of the highest-leverage actions a manager can perform.”

As part of our efforts to build a leadership development culture, we’re training our leaders to seize upon teachable leadership moments. These can be formal opportunities — for example, we design nearly all of our training programs to be at least partly leader-teacher led. We try to structure these opportunities so that the leader is teaching about a topic they have passion for and sharing lessons from their own experiences and observations.

Teaching can also happen during informal moments that emerge in a leader’s everyday conversations, 1:1s, and team meetings. We encourage our leaders to develop a leadership philosophy — what professor and leadership expert Noel Tichy calls a “teachable point of view.” We suggest they ask themselves the following questions to develop their own teachable point of view:

  • What experiences or observations have influenced my perspective on leadership?
  • What important lessons have I learned from my experiences?
  • How can I codify or simplify my lessons into principles or tangible advice?

In our last fiscal year, 100% of our EVPs and 88% of our SVPs facilitated a learning experience. Perhaps not surprisingly, participant attendance, engagement, and commitment to leadership development programs has been relatively strong. In our first year after launching the Leadership Playbook, 95% of VPs voluntarily attended our first executive program, the VP Leadership Lab.

Recognize and reinforce leadership.

In order for your leadership behaviors to stick, they must be systematically reinforced through your talent and performance systems and processes. When your performance systems aren’t aligned with the behaviors you’re promoting, leaders are much less likely to consistently practice these behaviors. Consider all of the formal and informal ways you hire, reward, and recognize your leaders. Each of these processes provides an opportunity to reinforce your organization’s definition of great leadership.

We embedded our Leadership Playbook into our hiring, onboarding, and performance management processes. We mapped behavioral interviewing questions to our playbook for use when hiring leaders. For example, to get at our leadership behavior of “Define success and galvanize the team around it,” we included the interview question: Describe a time that you had to influence others to move in a direction they were initially resistant to go in. What did you do?

Every employee is introduced to the playbook during employee orientation and all new executives take part in a year-long deep dive as part of our executive onboarding. The Leadership Playbook is the rubric we use for performance and promotion decisions, and is foundational to our company leadership awards and annual leadership conference.

Many organizations have leaders just like “Taylor” — curious, motivated, and eager to do the right thing for their company and team but working against organizational headwinds. Taking steps to create an environment and culture that supports and amplifies, rather than diminishes, their growth and development as leaders will have a big impact.

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