The Future of Workplace Excellence Belongs to Culture Warriors 

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The most common response I get from the audience when I speak on the topic of leadership, anywhere in the world, is a sense of relief and hope as if to say “Thank goodness! Somebody understands!” I see it in how engaged people are during my talks and in the comments they share with me afterward. I believe this is primarily because many people feel they are hindered by their bosses or the complex web of policies and politics at their workplace; the environments in which they work in are not conducive to them truly living up to their potential, being able to make a difference, and being fulfilled in what they do. Want to know how I know that? It’s not only because of all the research that points to the fact that only 30% of people in workplaces are actively engaged. It’s because the second most common reaction I get from the audience is a desperate plea for some way that they can get their boss to change his/her ways. They often ask, “…But what if you get this and your boss doesn’t? What do you do then?” 

I feel their pain. I spent the better part of my 31 year corporate career in manufacturing and Supply Chain where most of my colleagues believed that the solution to most problems was the latest gadget or widget. Since I was always the guy who was looking for organizational solutions to our problems, my ways weren’t always exactly understood, or received well, by my bosses. I should mention that I had several bosses along the way who supported, encouraged, and rewarded me and I am grateful to them. Yet, I have also had my share of clueless bosses who never really got that empathy, collaboration, camaraderie, and trust, and those other “touchy feely ideas,” do have a direct and significant impact on the results. So I know very well what it’s like to feel like you’re out there on your own, and what it feels like to start doubting whether working on culture and relationships really makes a significant difference. It took me years, but I finally got clear that those of us with emotional intelligence and a passion for empowering and engaging people have a responsibility to stand our ground, even if it means we may experience short-term personal set backs in our own careers. We owe it to the rest of the people who want to come to work, deliver good results and go home at peace, to fight for the workplace culture we want to create. We are culture warriors, and we are up against the dictators, the tough guys who are only interested in squeezing work out of people but don't have the courage to look inward and transform their own character.

This is why I have dedicated my professional life, and a fair bit of personal time, to not only guiding leaders in becoming more effective at improving the morale and results at the their workplace, but also empowering people within organizations to be productive and fulfilled, even if they are working with a less than perfect boss. 

I have been encouraged lately as I have come across more and more news articles about how a new breed of leaders, such as Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, and Dara Khosrowshahi, new CEO of Uber, are leveraging culture to dramatically shift the results of their companies. (Their prescient insight on the importance of culture most likely stems from their own experience, similar to my own, of having to navigate multiple cultures as an inherent part of immigrating to another country). While my own stories have stirred up quite a bit of excitement in my circles, it’s great to see proof of just how well culture transformation is working at a place like Microsoft. The October 2017 edition of Fast Company featured an article titled “The C in CEO Stands for Culture” on how “Nadella […] has stopped infighting, restored morale, and generated more than $250 billions in market value in less than four years.” According to the article, “Nadella is still as focused on Microsoft’s culture as he is its business strategy.”

People in leadership positions who have not taken notice that the next big thing in Transformative Leadership is mastery of the art and science of transforming their workplace cultures, are in denial. And, since the value of empathy, collaboration, servant leadership, and communication, etc. has been known for quite some time, it’s about time we all started paying attention to what it’s all about, and how we can transform ourselves into the kind of leaders who gets this stuff and can effectively lead a culture transformation. Those of us who think we get it could perhaps benefit from creating an empowering context for what it takes to win the war against ignorant management practices. Yes, I call it a war and we won’t win it unless we know the opponent and find ways to effectively neutralize their toxic effect on the workplace.

I’m not referring to the people in the lower ranks who have felt disenfranchised and are not fully engaged here. I have seen many of these folks come around and become extremely productive when their leaders truly changed their ways. The primary opponents I’m talking about are the organizational dinosaurs who have risen to the ranks of VP or SVP because of their functional expertise. For the time being, they are still cashing in on their ability to force people into compliance and produce some short-term results. Generally, they are the ones who have been at the same company for a long time and have the support of a fairly strong network of like-minded fellow dictators. They are not like the Nadellas and Pichai’s of the world, who have an expanded world view, and can see things through the lens of other cultures and ways of thinking. They have a fixed mindset and are not into trying anything new. They know the process by which results are produced and even though they are clueless on how to get their people motivated and fired up, they manage to leverage their functional expertise to make their bosses think they are indispensable. So they continue to get away with being the way they have always been and they get in the way of the people in the organization rising up to their true potential.

If the person I just described sounds familiar, I’d like to remind you that there is a whole world out there that appreciates you, the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation, the diverse thinking, collaboration, and empathy that you bring. Whether you stay or go, make up your mind that you are not going to be a victim. Either stay and be a proud culture warrior exactly where you are, or cut your losses and go be that somewhere else. Whatever you do, don’t let these less enlightened souls make you believe that their way works, and that you and Nadella and Pichai and the rest of them are wrong.

Since my “rewirement” back in December, I have had the good fortune of meeting so many progressive thinkers and leaders across many industries who really get the power of culture transformation, and I enjoy partnering with them and guiding them in their pursuits. There is nothing soft or weak about these people. They have the courage to take responsibility for the culture at their workplace, in line with their business imperatives, and they make it their business to figure out how to transform it. 

“The CEO is the curator of an organization’s culture,” Nadella writes. And by the way, this is not just limited to the CEO. Anybody who has been given any kind of leadership responsibility ought to see themselves as the curators of the culture that is delivering their current results. If you don’t like the results, you have two choices: You can either try to muscle the results and see if you can squeeze a little more out of the people, or you can begin to study the culture and understand the organizational design features and behavioral dynamics that are creating those results, and go to work on changing them. Transformative Leaders take the latter approach. 

No matter where you are in your journey, I hope you will take the time to read and hear about the victory stories that speak to the power of culture transformation and reinforce that you are in the right path to create a sustainable shift. Surround yourself with people who will encourage you to hang in there and keep the faith that acting with integrity, being authentic, committing to something bigger than yourself, truly caring about the people who work with you, serving the people you lead, practicing empathy, and communicating clearly, are what makes a difference in just how much of the potential power of your team is actually applied to solving your business problems. 

Please check out the related links I have included below as a gift from one culture warrior to another. Buy my book, The Transformative Leader to read more about the characteristics of High Commitment Cultures and the mindset and behavior of leaders who create them. You can also sign up for my newsletter and download a free chapter of the book. If you are interested in other recommendations on sources of encouragement and perspective as you continue to pursue your journey as a culture warrior, get in touch with me and I’d be happy to share my thoughts and other resources with you.

Further Reading:

Satya Nadella Rewrites Microsoft’s Code

In Praise of Intrapreneurs: 10 Encouraging Tips for the True Champions of Transformation

Culture Transformation as Context | The Transformative Leader Podcast 012

Why Every Leader Should Become Multi-Lingual

The Simple Key to Cross-Cultural Leadership

As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at amir@theghannadgroup.com.

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