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.”
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.