Anyone can create a good leader (more effectively than most leadership training can)

“Ladies and gentlemen. I am the captain of this flight, and I would like to inform you about our departure.” A wave of sighs and apprehension ripples through the hundreds of people, forming a line, about to board the aircraft. “As the airport of our destination has delays due to bad weather, I have decided to not let you board yet, until traffic control can give us a more precise time window for departure. I am very sorry, I apologize, and in thirty minutes I will come back to you with more information.” He then walked around through the crowd, and checked whether people had additional questions.

I love to see an unexpected example of great leadership in everyday life. With those few lines, the captain:

  • showed he wasn’t afraid to stand in front of a crowd to give a bad message;
  • took responsibility (“I decided not to board yet”), in order to divert potential angry passengers away from his colleagues, towards himself;
  • was clear about what information he did and didn’t have, and when people could expect additional information.

The situation had the potential to become messy. Nobody likes an unexpected, unintended change to their plans. And frustrated, often tired, passengers can get angry quickly if they feel they’re not helped immediately and adequately. But because this KLM captain was brave enough to face the crowd head-on, in a courteous manner, he defused a potential explosive situation, and protected his crew.

Another example.

“I am proud to start as the new director of this great school. My ideal is for parents and teachers to work together, to not only educate, but raise your children in the best way. We all need to responsibly interact with each other, with this goal in mind. That said, I will not accept the way one teacher was trashed last year by several parents in the class whatsapp group. In case you disagree with a teacher, please talk to the teacher directly, or to me. And I also expect every parent to stop a whatsapp thread that’s being disrespectful or downright damaging to anyone. Please, let’s work together to make this school and it’s culture a great environment for your children to grow up in, and look up to for guidance.”

With this, the director:

  • addressed the most important purpose of his job: to educate children attending the school – not only to teach them math and history and grammar, but also to raise them to become responsible and respectful citizens;
  • stood up for his teachers;
  • made clear what he expected of parents, as nowadays parents seem very vocal about their expectations of schools and what they feel they and their children are entitled to – but are sometimes less aware of their own duties playing a part of creating a good school environment.

Both stood up for their people (invoking my immediate admiration), communicated information well, and addressed their audience respectfully, clearly, and adequately.

I’m happy, every time I encounter great leadership like that. For them. For the people they are responsible for. For passengers, or parents, or clients. And for me, because it’s heartwarming to see many real-life examples of great leadership.

Some of you might say: that’s their damned job! Well, yes. They handled it the way any captain and any school director should. But we all have experiences where they didn’t, so we know excellent leadership behaviors aren’t that common. With bad examples we are usually quick to express our disapproval and criticism. So why wouldn’t we equally express our appreciation of good ones?

As HR manager, I’ve seen how important positive feedback is in someone’s development. Positive feedback makes people do more of what they did. It teaches them what behavior works well, in a more effective way than most leadership training can. Once I realized this, I tried to let people know I appreciated them. Not only professionally, but also in the day-to-day examples as above. I let them know why they were great by telling them, or sending an email, or just by giving them a quick thumbs-up. I want them to know someone appreciates them for doing a great job. And hopefully it gives them the encouragement that anyone needs, no matter how good they are, to keep up their good work.

If you want to see more great examples of leadership around you, start giving positive encouragement when you like what someone does. Let them know. Make their day. Be part of improving the level of leadership everywhere around us; one compliment at a time.

How to (wrongly) implement a big culture change

A mid-sized international organization had not been growing for about a decade, despite significant market growth in their area. They stayed behind compared to several competitors, who had increased both in size as well as profits. After a few years of internal fights about who would take over the helm from the retiring owner, a new, strong leader was appointed.

He dutifully followed an unwritten rule that many newly appointed leaders seem to like to: he initiated a culture change. Although often an unnecessary step a new leader takes to demonstrate his strength and vision, for this particular organization it was actually needed and long overdue.

I’m not a big fan of grand overhauls of organizations, but this one had become a dinosaur and really needed to get fast-tracked into a modern, functional organization. In previous years they had turned a blind eye to underperformance, tolerated a high attrition rates among staff and an equally high attrition rate for clients, and accepted stagnating or even declining turnovers.

Energetically, the new top manager overhauled the performance management system. He implemented stricter defined targets, with a closer follow-up routine, and a stronger link to pay. The gap with the previous approach intentionally was big. Leaders know the new approach always gets softened down the line, and have to take care that the organization does not just infuse the old culture with minor new elements. So he created a big shockwave through the organization, aiming for real cultural change.

Fast forward to one year later.

The new buzz words, introduced to symbolize the culture change, were used everywhere. So changes must have happened, right? But upon closer look, people just used the new language while stubbornly sustaining a continuation of the old culture.

What went wrong?

  1. The company had a strong preference for leaders rising through the ranks. In itself, I am a very big fan of developing your own. But when you want a significant culture change, you have to choose leaders who will support it. That can be done by people in your own organization, but usually not the ones that were put on the succession planning by the previous senior managers, in the old culture setting. You are more likely to find them in a corner of the organization, as they didn’t quite fit in and established management tried to isolate them. In this case, the newly appointed leaders had already been infected by the disease the organization needed to get rid of.
  2. They hired new employees fitting the new requirements, and drilled them from the beginning to become advocates of the new culture. They hoped the new people would soon be more successful than the existing, change-resisting stagnant employees. And change the company culture from bottom-up. They didn’t reckon with the force of socialization: new employees, who are in the minority and dependent on their bosses and co-workers, will adapt soon to the current ways of working of an organization. When they started they saw a different culture than they were promised when they were hired, but they adapted in order to survive.
  3. They made exceptions when applying the new rigorous performance management. They claimed the performance targets were purely based on meritocracy, however for certain individuals targets were adjusted or compensated for unclear reasons. Soon people felt the system was rigged, or at least tilted. In addition, most of the non-performers, who happened to come out of the same cohorts as the new leadership, were still condoned. The message new employees got, was that underperformance was only addressed with people the current leaders hadn’t bonded with yet.

What could the new leader have done differently, in order to achieve the desired cultural change?

In the few cases where a drastic culture change is necessary, it needs to be implemented drastically. There is no room for condoning old-culture behavior. Once an exception is made, the message people get is that the culture change will be watered down. The new leaders (the level below top management) have to be fully on board. And, most importantly, there can’t be tolerance of underperformance, especially not from the ‘old’ crowd.

A drastic culture change takes a lot of energy. Once you start to make allowances for old-culture behavior, the change won’t happen, and you might as well not have put any energy in it at all.  You have to go for it all the way.