Rowing Together: The Vital Role of Leadership Development in Culture Change

In 2019 organizations invested $370 billion in the global training industry.1 Yes, that’s billion. In return, their people were put in physical or virtual classrooms and taught models for being more proficient at leading change, giving feedback, holding others accountable, and a litany of other competencies. A key target of this training was the relationship between leadership and culture development and how to improve the former to more effectively achieve the latter.

Their seasoned leaders (as well as their aspiring leaders) learned more about themselves, including how they communicate and process information, through self-reflection tools like DiSC or an Emotional Intelligence assessment. They participated in roleplays, contributed to group discussions, and created action plans to apply the principles and learned upon their return to the throes of their daily work responsibilities. They gathered their skills and prepared for their next business challenges. In the end, many gained a better understanding of how leadership impacts culture.

Then what? Did these trained up and enlightened leaders perform better? Did they solve problems more quickly, increase motivation and discretionary effort on the part of staff, implement new ideas to reduce costs, and/or satisfy customers in more engaging ways.

The answer depended on the health of their organizations’ culture and the extent to which values and norms supported new, more consistent, constructive leadership behaviors.

Here is the tricky part. One key reason organizations engage us and use our knowledge to rework their leadership development programs is that their current methods are not producing leaders with the necessary skills to consistently perform in ways that achieve expected organizational outcomes. They need their leaders’ behavior to support a new culture and more effective ways of working. However, the leaders themselves also need a new culture—one that makes it safe for them to practice and model the new behaviors.

This is the classic chicken-and-egg scenario. Which comes first: culture or leadership? Practically speaking, it really doesn’t matter. Here’s the real question:

How do we make long-term, sustainable culture change within an organization whose leaders built the current culture?

An organization’s culture is formed over time through a series of leaders bringing in their personal styles and leadership approaches, building systems and structures, and reinforcing some behaviors while discouraging others. Team members learn what’s expected to interact with others, solve problems, and, most importantly, fit in. What’s expected, however, can end up being quite defensive–even if many of the leaders personally value more constructive behaviors.

One definition of culture is a system of shared values and beliefs that can lead to behavioral norms that guide the way people in an organization approach their work, interact with others, and solve problems. (For a more thorough explanation of this definition, plus a look at how culture impacts key business imperatives such as performance, diversity, and inclusion, check out this blog post.) Consistent with this definition, research shows that an existing culture, through its powerful influences, produces leaders who interact and approach their work in distinct ways that, in turn, reinforce the present norms operating across the organization.

To paint a practical picture, let’s say your organization was founded and operates on the supreme value that it is important to have a hierarchy with command and control to achieve consistent and quality results. In this organization, the prevailing belief is that senior staff always know best. Therefore, the organization has put into place elaborate systems that require approvals, discourage conflicting opinions from non-executive staff, and affords absolute power and decision-making responsibility to the more senior members.

Today, in a more virtual world where employees are working independently and addressing problems that are not outlined in any rule book, this same organization now needs a culture that allows each person to achieve results outside the system of approvals. It must become a place where, instead of walking down the hall to get the boss’s parental nod, employees consult with their peers through screen-sharing. Hierarchy is pushed to the side to allow employees closest to the work to make decisions and, in the process, to further develop their skills and knowledge.

How does this organization make such a massive pivot? This is where many CEOs and CHROs get stuck. With limited resources and a desire to achieve change quickly, many are unable to craft an integrated plan and are unsure of which levers to pull. 

To make matters worse, many large organizations separate the training and organizational effectiveness (OE) functions. They use training to provide core leadership skills but typically ask the OE group to work on culture. If these functional areas are not aligned, they will find themselves competing, working at cross purposes, and derailing culture change initiatives.

We believe it is imperative to influence culture from both a leadership development and an organizational strategy perspective.

Resist the trap that many action-oriented leaders fall victim to when they ask HR to run a training class on the latest popular leadership topic, assuming it will cure whatever ails them. A more thoughtful, strategic approach will get better results.

To start, it is important to understand your organization’s current and desired focus on two key continua: people versus tasks, and satisfaction versus security. Such an understanding will provide meaningful insight, a common language, and a more accurate lens through which you can view your culture. You can accomplish this by combining a qualitative assessment with quantitative results generated via the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI) assessments. These will give you an enlightening look at the gaps between your current and ideal organizational culture through the lens of 12 cultural styles.

Once you know your cultural gaps and can select focus areas, it’s imperative to identify the leaders who need to understand and engage in behaviors that align with the desired culture. It’s the only way to close your gaps.

Organizational culture is created through behaviors that grow into norms that influence how we behave at work. Therefore, the culture change will occur when leaders begin to consistently exhibit new or different behaviors, setting the example for others to follow.

Keep in mind that culture is stronger than any single leader. Imagine culture as the current in a raging river. One person in a single kayak has little chance of navigating the treacherous waters, but a team of leaders, rowing in unison, increases your odds 100-fold. Once leaders start rowing together, they are a powerful force.

Some of my peers may challenge this next statement and offer other ways to make long-lasting culture change. However, in my 30 years of experience doing this work, I have found that the leadership development lever is the most powerful and direct way to change a culture.

Leadership development is the process that helps expand the capacity of individuals to perform in leadership roles within organizations. Significantly more than a “training class,” integrated and robust leadership development programs typically include individual leadership coaching, high potential or other group development work, team development, mentoring, and other experiential learning events.

Done right, organizations create a leadership development culture using three main efforts: individual, group, and team development programs. These are explicitly aligned with the targeted improvements from the assessment process that includes the OCI culture and OEI climate surveys. These programs respond to leadership gaps, paint a clear picture of success, teach new skills required by leaders, and create a powerful, interconnected group of people rowing together to overcome past forces as they forge a new path.

At the other end of the spectrum, many organizations have a disjointed set of development programs occurring simultaneously. Individual leaders are sent to a wide array of events, from an open-enrollment training program to an industry conference. Individual coaches are hired, coaching to their model of leadership. The collective results have no impact on culture. We will address all three of these development programs below and ways to integrate them with culture.

Our Dion Leadership value chain model offers a visual to depict how leadership development impacts organizational culture.2

dion leadership value chain model

First, we have witnessed the positive impact of individual coaching on leadership and culture change. As noted above, senior leaders have a proportionally greater impact on culture. Culture begins to evolve quickly when a leadership coach works one-on-one with C-suite leaders, creating a development plan informed by culture gaps and focused on culture change. We conducted a study on the impact of leadership coaching on executive performance during the coronavirus pandemic and found that 83% of coachees reported “focusing on the most important work” as a key benefit of coaching.

When senior leaders focus on the most important new culture behaviors, a powerful reinforcement mechanism begins to drive wide-scale change.

The second modality mentioned above, team development, is another powerful tool that is underused for culture change. Many organizations have a standing process of conducting annual off-site retreats, team-building events, or periodic management meetings. We suggest reframing these efforts with an explicit objective of discussing culture gaps and determining methods for these teams to behave in new ways that lead to the new culture. Using the culture planning and change process is, in itself, a team development effort that builds team trust and the skills of individual leaders.

Team development may also include piloting improvement efforts using an action learning approach with specific teams to understand how to collectively apply constructive behaviors, overcome typical cultural obstacles, and deliver results. Results are the reinforcement loop for any new cultural attribute (or norm) to form, and piloting improvement efforts with specific teams can help determine what will and will not work at your organization and accelerate the process.

Last, and perhaps most familiar, are group development programs. Many organizations have a list of training classes as their solution to developing similarly situated groups in an organization. One potential drawback to such open-enrollment training classes is that often they drip-feed content with no purpose or broader context and allow leaders to engage (or not) as they choose. Alternatively, we recommend creating an integrated curriculum, provided to hand-picked leaders, for the intentional purpose of creating the drive for intentional culture change. Groups of 4 to 6 leaders (from different teams and organizational units) can be brought together for programs on issues or skills that are of interest to them.

In conclusion, don’t hesitate to go beyond just teaching best-in-class leadership programs. Engage the leader’s leader in the process, include individual coaching for on-the-job application, and spearhead action learning projects aligned to closing culture gaps. The result is a leadership team, poised in a sturdy boat, ready to traverse even the most turbulent waters.

Creating a constructive culture is the reason your leadership development program should exist. And your culture will only change when the behaviors of your leaders change. Don’t train just to train. Don’t conduct an organizational survey just to survey.

Targeted leadership development can raise the collective consciousness and skills of your leaders. However, only when these programs are informed by well-researched and established models will they contribute to constructive cultures. And that is when your leadership development investment will provide a rewarding ROI.

The task is not as daunting as you may think at first. Pick up your paddles, decide who needs to be in the boat, and we will be rowing together in no time.

Editor’s Note: This blog post has been updated with content for your continued learning.

Reference Notes:

  1. Spending in the Global Workplace Training Industry 2007-2019, Statista. Available at
  2. Adapted from Robert B. Kaiser and Darren V. Overfield. “The Leadership Value Chain.” Psychologist-Manager Journal, 13: 164–83, 2010. Copyright © The Society of Psychologists in Management. DOI: 10.1080/10887156.2010.500261.