Culture University

The first principle of successful culture shaping – The Shadow of the Leader

By Larry Senn

Shadow of the Leader

I wrote about the four reasons culture-shaping efforts fail in my previous post (Organizational culture has reached a tipping point, yet many culture change initiatives fail for four key reasons). But what makes them succeed? What makes some culture-change efforts successful where others become simply another ‘flavor of the week’ training session that never translates into real change? This is a subject of great debate and many theories exist.

As we looked for the common denominator of success in the hundreds of culture-shaping efforts we have led at Senn Delaney, the level of CEO ownership and personal engagement won hands down as a key success factor. That came as no surprise to me since the central finding of my field studies of culture for my dissertation 40 years ago was that organizations tend to become “shadows of their leaders” over time. This finding led to our first of four key principles of successful culture shaping, which we call Purposeful Leadership.

It is important to understand that there is a big difference between owning and being personally engaged in a culture transformation and endorsing or blessing the initiative. The all-too-common model is that the CEO announces the culture-shaping initiative and openly supports it and then over-delegates the process to others, usually Human Resources.

To be personally engaged in leading culture change, the CEO must:

  • work on leadership behaviors that they need to shift in themselves and then show up differently to the organization
  • lead his or her senior team through culture-shaping sessions and activities before any other teams take part
  • take ownership of the work on defining the desired and needed culture and clarifying the organization’s purpose

Why Yum! Brands Chairman and CEO David Novak and USAA CEO Joe Robles are truly connected to the Shadow of the Leader concept

Yum! Brands CEO David Novak is an excellent example of a leader who has done one of the best jobs we have seen of understanding the phenomenon of leadership shadow and of intentionally casting a powerful one. David used a focus on creating a recognition culture to build Yum! from a spin-off of PepsiCo where it was failing to a global brand across 117 countries and 1.4 million employees with remarkable international expansion and more than a decade of double-digit earnings growth. He was honored as 2012 CEO of the Year by Chief Executive magazine.

David talks about shadow of the leader and the role of culture in creating a defining global brand in this Senn Delaney video.  

Another leader who has done a remarkable job of leading culture is General Joe Robles, CEO of USAA, a financial services firm serving military families. If you ask him what his job is, Joe he will tell you, “I am the Chief Culture Officer.” USAA has won some of the most coveted awards, including the highest customer loyalty, the highest customer satisfaction and the number one place to work in technology in America. USAA is also one of the top-performing companies in the financial services sector. He attributes the majority of that success to his focus on culture.

Robles talks about his role in leading culture in this matter-of-fact video.

Elements of purposeful leadership

Starting the culture-shaping process with the CEO’s team is a key part of purposeful leadership. A full list of elements in purposeful leadership in shaping a culture include:

  • The CEO and senior leadership must own and lead the culture-shaping process.
  • Leaders need to have a clear, compelling purpose for themselves and their organization, coupled with a strong business rationale to inspire a Thriving organizational culture.
  • The process needs to be supported by resources and a systematic execution plan, like any other business strategy.
  • Leaders cast a powerful shadow; therefore, the culture needs to be explicitly defined via values and behaviors and modeled by the senior team.

This last element in purposeful leadership also speaks to shadow since the senior team needs to define and model a set of values and behaviors they create. While most all organizations have a value set, many are outdated or incomplete in defining the culture they need to win today. Since a wise old axiom is, “If you can’t define it you can’t create it.” work on better understanding what culture is and what it should be is part of the role of the CEO’s team.

In future posts I’ll describe The Essential Value Set, which provides a framework for creating a healthy, high-performing culture, and discuss the other three principles of culture shaping.

Do you agree that the leadership shadow is important in culture change? What other aspects of purposeful leadership would you add to this list? Please comment below.


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