Leaderful Organisational Culture

The word ‘culture’ is derived from the Latin ‘cultura’, meaning to cultivate; to care and honour. According to this simplistic deduction of definitions, the cultures we see in our 21st century organisations are therefore something to be looked after. Yet as HR professionals, whom the responsibility of creating and upholding ‘culture’ often falls upon, we know that ensuring a desired culture is present, is not always that straightforward.

“Crafting organisational culture” is a topic discussed at length amongst members of the HR community and furthermore, across the business world. The word culture may be derived from a Latin form that means to care and honour, but it’s modern definition is more concerned with a homogenisation of traits, values, beliefs and practices that exist amongst groups of people. The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the following definition:

“the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization (for example) a corporate culture focused on the bottom line”

It is an important part of our culture at PTHR, that we are humanly whilst being business-like and efficient. Which is why we focus not purely on our financial bottom line.

We work with organisations across sectors (public, private, not for profit) of varying sizes, using alternative and unorthodox approaches to create new ways of working. This is done through organisational design and HR solutions that transforms teams and the way they operate. The end goal is for people to flourish in their work. We are experimental in nature so the work we do with our clients is not an aspirational set of ideals but it is rather something we preach, practice and embody ourselves. Only from learning, applying these, and adapting, in an agile way of working, can we then truly deploy the appropriate solutions to our clients.

That being said, and with a broad definition of organisational culture in mind, we come to life when we share what it means to craft a ‘leaderful culture’.

In our micro-consultancy we placed our emerging culture at the heart of our first 2 years of our expanded operations. We recognise that in our geographically dispersed, remotely operated, self-managed team of 9, we face different challenges to larger organisations. However when thinking of culture as a set of shared values, beliefs, goals and practices that if truly established can be felt by any new employee, in any size of organisation, then our experiment with leaderful practices can be replicated team by team, and the benefits extrapolated in time. If we focus on crafting one significant component of the culture we seek, then we are more likely to see a chain reaction of positive cultural shifts. As the brilliant author, lecturer and management consultant, Meg Wheatly, says:

Is it possible to use our influence and power to create islands of sanity in the midst of a raging destructive sea.”

(Margaret J. Wheatley, “Who do we choose to be?” (2017))

In this powerful metaphor, if organisational culture might be the destructive sea, why does being ‘leaderful’ provide that sanity?

The case for the leaderful culture

Being a ‘leaderful’ organisation is not a new term, yet it is one that is not widely embraced. Joseph Raelin wrote in his 2003 book, “Creating Leaderful Organizations” that this then new paradigm “directly challenges the conventional view of leadership “being out in front”.

Raelin states that conventional leadership is serial, individual, controlling and dispassionate whilst leaderful practice is concurrent, collective, collaborative and compassionate. The leaderful organisation is therefore one that typically challenges bureaucratic structures and is congruent with de-centralised and self-managed teams.

Why do we believe this way of being is not just an alternative to traditional leadership models, but more so a component of a culture where people flourish?

Firstly, by declaring we are leaderful, we are letting everyone know it is OK to lead from any position in the organisation.

The declaration that we can all be leaders, is somewhat profound in enabling colleagues to set out their own accountabilities and aspirations and be comfortable in doing so. This can alleviate a sense of ‘competition’ for positional leadership – often responsible for eroding desirable traits found in teams. If we all know our colleagues intentions and aspirations to lead – and that they vary in degree – we can support, coach and even succession plan, more effectively.

This leads on to how having a leaderful mindset helps with an individuals own development.

In order to be a leader of an organisation, you may first need to discover self-leadership: take time to learn about yourself, your own strengths and pitfalls.

In today’s challenging working world, it is not easy to take this time and really develop ourselves, even if your organisation has a brilliant Learning and Development function and range of programmes and resources.

By establishing a leaderful culture, we are also urging people to develop a greater understanding of themselves in how they lead and direct their efforts, energy and attention.

Self-leadership is well documented in psychology, with a range of positive benefits. We will continue to focus on benefits to an organisation rather than the individual, yet it is worth recognising how powerful this phenomenon can be.  

To quote Charles C. Manz, self-leadership is a:

“comprehensive self-influence perspective that concerns leading oneself toward performance of naturally motivating tasks as well as managing oneself to do work that must be done but is not naturally motivating” (Manz, 1986).

And after all, an organisation is only as effective as its people. And its people are only as good as an organisation enables them to be. Organisational culture can be stifling, or nurturing; the latter facilitating infinite opportunities for personal, and organisational growth; and the former hindering talent and lowering morale.

Whilst this notion of having innumerable leaders may seem to confuse things like spans of control or decision making processes, Alanna Irving expertly points out:

“Distributed leadership unlocks incredible potential for collaboration, autonomy, and networked organising.”

There are examples of leaderful culture all around us, for example, a group of volunteers at an event, or a parent-led toddler’s playgroup. They manage to make decisions. And they make these decisions ‘for free’, often unpaid in voluntary roles. The voluntary nature of collaboration amongst leaderful individuals appears to enhance the strength of decisions made, rather than clouding it. Which leads us onto a further benefit of a leaderful culture, improved retention, a well referenced key metric for the HR function!

Multi-national organizations like the pioneering Dutch healthcare provider Buurtzorg, and the innovative manufacturer WL Gore embrace a leaderful culture, with the former being recognised as ‘Employer of the Year’ in the Netherlands on numerous occasions, and Gore being a ‘Fortune 100 Best Company to Work For’. They both cite their cultures as being ‘distinctive’, welcoming curiosity and this enabling freedom. Freedom? Yes, freedom at work! Something that leads to empowerment, motivation, commitment and retention.

If deciding to be a leaderful organisation has so many apparent advantages for a flourishing culture, then why is this way of being not more widespread?

As with all already established organisations, the culture has been unintentionally shaped and in places intentionally ‘crafted’ over time and it is challenging to renege on this. Understandably so. Differing leadership styles in the C-suite, subcultures and silos that have emerged, and even apathy for the concept of ‘culture’ can prevent the desire to establish something new. To refer back to Meg Wheatley’s idea that by making small changes, ‘sanity’ can slowly spread, leading us to how we have created a leaderful culture at PTHR.

This style of leadership, that underpins our culture, enabling development, ensuring open succession planning, improving retention and the holy grail; freedom at work, to us, is that sanity!

Taking small steps toward being ‘leaderful’.

At PTHR, we are small in size but huge in ambition, and our mission is to create “Better Business For A Better World”.

We have taken inspiration from the likes of Buurtzorg, WL Gore and Menlo Innovations coupled with the thought leadership of writers such as Raelin, Frédéric Laloux and Samantha Slade, In setting our intention, declaring that we are ‘leaderful’ and to quote Slade (2018), that we are “going horizontal” we are symbolising inclusion, choice and accountability. Slade states that hierarchy within organisations is obsolete and through this obsolescence, we can begin to craft dynamic structures that are better suited to managing a complex, adapting world of work.

A commonality amongst the organisations mentioned is that all operate using ‘self-management’. This organisational practice willingly gives power to every team member so that authority is distributed, maximising individuals’ freedom at work whilst maintaining clarity of responsibility.

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When establishing PTHR in 2012, Founder Perry Timms believed that self-management would be key to the future of work. We have found, like those companies we take inspiration from, that self-management and a leaderful culture are complementary. We are not saying that there must be self-managed teams in order to be leaderful. Yet we believe that the culture created by these two interrelated practices and ways of being, is one that will lead to the flourishing workplace of the mid-21st century.

A good place to start with the crafting of our leaderful culture at PTHR is the clarity in what we believe in. Without a mission and related commitments, or as we prefer to call them, our ‘principles’, we cannot create the right systems nor attract the right people who are open to being leaderful. This clear understanding from the outset, which are documented and discussed openly, has made it clear how this translates into individual and collective behaviours.

Intention to work in a leaderful way is critical in setting that cultural dynamic.

There is a strong belief in traditional, hierarchical organisations that you always need one individual leader to drive things forward, to have the vision and make all the strategic decisions. In start-ups, the Founder/Source, in large formal hierarchies, the Chief Executive Officer.

Even though there are other leaders in the organisations, with differing levels of authority, access to information or decision making power, people often still look for that one single person to take the decision.

At PTHR, we have deliberately distributed strategic decision making. We have a forum for this – our ‘TLC’.

The Leadership Circle (TLC) has three permanent seats and one rotating chair. The rotating chair is open for anyone in the team and it gives every member of our team the opportunity to make strategic decisions since this position is held for two seasons and then rotated. So every two seasons there’s a new member of the team joining TLC, contributing to the strategic direction of our business but also learning more about their own leadership and intentions to grow. This practice was inspired by Semco, where they’ve seen great engagement from employees knowing they can join the leadership board, make proposals and take decisions together for the benefit of all.

All matters this forum reviews and decides upon are open except personal confidential matters. This inclusive decision making promotes leaderful thinking and leadership skills.

We have been very deliberate in the establishing of engaging communication practices (arguably more crucial in the remote-working-world the knowledge working world has found itself in lately).

Communication must be shared with ease to maintain a culture where people can be leaderful in thought and intention. A very important aspect of this is transparency. We make sure everything is communicated clearly, using tools such as Slack, Asana, Google Drive and Mural. We do not shy away from ‘sensitive’ business information, for example, we all know the financial health of our business and what we need to do collectively to take it to the next level. Beyond strictly business, we’re open and honest with each other. This has been paramount since our team rapidly expanded at the end of 2019, necessitating more attention to our culture. The togetherness and unity in crafting our culture has made us more leaderful.

We have built together:

  • ‘Team agreements’, making implicit agreements within our team explicit, and we review these seasonally to measure our commitment and even divergence from these.
  • A ‘Stacks’ based operating model where each member of the team ‘owns’ at least one stack and is responsible for its direction (such as Products, Partnerships etc).
  • Our own individual ‘Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)’ that align with our own stacks, and our organisational strategy.
  • A paired working model, or ‘business partnering’ as we call it, where we work closely with another team member, and handle appraisals and development for two seasons in the year (normally the key role of Line Managers replaced by peer feedback and support).

All of these practices are connected and build up to an understanding of how we operate together towards our mission. These practices have proven vitally important for us at an individual level, and strongly encourage us to be leaderful.

Our co-created team agreements have in-built strategic thinking amongst us whilst promoting an understanding of what behaviour we expect in our culture. These explicit agreements were not labour-intensive, but were rather a creative brainstorm, where we all came together in an online session and discussed what our team agreements should be, what behaviours are important for us and what we expect from each other. We left this meeting with more clarity on expectations and how we will keep our agreements alive. In essence, we decided how we will also keep our culture at the forefront of our minds!  

Having team agreements in place and a clear operating model in the form of Stacks increase clarity, collaboration and coordination between us all.

The Stacks based model is a concept adapted from the tech world, where we’ve looked to build work portfolios to cover all aspects of the business and each Stack is led by one of us. The lead of each Stack has full autonomy to develop it in the direction they see fit with input and feedback from others.

Along with the distributed strategic decision making, and building of practices that promote this leaderful ideal, we are also interested in osmotic communication.

We can only learn through exposure to situations and proximity to others’ thinking.

Osmotic communication was a term coined by Alistair Cockburn in 2004, and it is the incidence where we are learning through an information exchange without effort. There is a natural movement of information, so fluid it is almost biological. In physical workspaces, this information osmosis happens through casual conversations, or brainstorming sessions; conversations where time is not a pressure.

In our PTHR ‘virtual office’ we have introduced practices to mimic these in-person exchanges, for example, a weekly Zoom call where any team member can share a project, principle or cultural practice, and our ‘listening sessions’ between two of us, where one talks, and the listener does just that, listens. Through osmotic communication – virtually or in a physical space – organisations can incidentally learn from each other, and where the culture is leaderful, learn to be that way to a greater degree.

Culture is a presence that should not be limiting, but enriching.

Organisational culture evolves as a company grows, yet throughout this growth, it pays to assess your intentions versus actions to see where they have taken you.

At PTHR, our intentions are clear. We seek to create ‘Better Business For A Better World’ operating remotely under self-management, and flourishing with our leaderful culture.

In a culture of this nature, the power lies with the collective, instead of being concentrated in the hands of a few. This is a notion we share with our clients in the hope of challenging convention and establishing organisational cultures adapted appropriately for the 21st century. As HR professionals, we can champion and ‘lead’ this leaderful movement.

By being leaderful, we work with autonomy and agency. Influencing things is in our own hands through collective agreement. We can be liberated yet accountable, self-leading and motivated, transparent and trusting.

To become a leaderful organisation, you need to start by decentralising the power in your organisation and giving people the opportunity to influence their area of work. Transparency and trust are crucial.

With this trust transcending mechanised business functions, subcultures and even geographical boundaries, the organisational culture will be one continually cared for, cultivated, recognisable and replenished.

As Emma Seppälä and Kim Cameron declared in their Harvard Business Review article from 2015, Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive this closing quotes sums up our view that leaderful culture help deliver sustainable success:

“When organizations develop positive, virtuous cultures they achieve significantly higher levels of organizational effectiveness — including financial performance, customer satisfaction, productivity, and employee engagement.”

Be leaderful. Be sustainable. Be successful.

Kirsten is Chief Impact & Culture Officer at PTHR, a micro consulting working with organisations to create better business for a better world. Her role focuses on the impact PTHR's work has with their clients, researching the impact the HR profession has within organisations, and ensuring PTHR remain conscious citizen's committed to sustainability.

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