Leadership culture is formed from the top down. Culture is effectively a self-supporting web of beliefs and behaviours. Over time these become leadership practices and eventually create an environment that attracts people who share their values. It is essential that an organisations culture aligns with their overarching business strategy: if the two are at odds, leaders at the top must recognise that change starts with them.
With a clear shared purpose, culture and values, the entire dynamics of an organisation become much more connected.
A leadership culture that drives development
Leadership development revolves around recognising and unlocking potential: identifying our natural talents, having a vision of ourselves leading, and working to turn that vision into a reality. It is rooted in the mentality that each one of us already has natural strengths of character and that becoming a good leader is driven by service in the area of those strengths.
Organisations that have a culture of leadership development use these principles to create a widespread understanding of each individuals’ value and unique contribution. This is not dependent on the time or money invested in tools: it is dependent on a culture that provides the right commitment, focus and environment.
Leadership capability needs time and space to grow and people must feel their growth is valued. They also need to be able to openly discuss and reflect on their progress and the obstacles they face and be able to experiment with new ideas. They must feel that management and their peers understand the importance of devoting time to development and have the freedom to do so.
A leadership culture that drives performance
Building a leadership culture goes beyond investing in and mentoring the next generation of high performers. Organisations that prioritise leadership development lead in attracting, retaining, and nurturing the best talent.
Top level leaders that have the self-awareness and put the time and energy into harmonising their organisational culture and their business goals create a more driven and connected organisation.
A developmental mindset empowers that talent to go beyond their comfort zone, with an awareness of their natural strengths. A culture that embeds these principles inevitably drives a company to high performance. It tends to adopt core values. It inspires employee and client engagement. It aspires to lead in its industry. It organically fosters innovation and collaboration while recognising and unlocking potential.
Imagine an organisation full of people that understand their own value, the strengths of their peers and their potential. Where every team functions at peak performance, understands the organisation’s overarching business goals and has a true sense of purpose and direction. This is the catalyst for business transformation.
Startup founders and CEOs are often seen as a different breed of leader. Across the board, they are driven by a singular focus – to ensure their business succeeds no matter what, regardless of the pressures and the pressures are not insignificant – Funding rounds, pivotal hires, building a customer base, protecting IP and realising expansion plans. Their plates are often full of high-level obstacles to navigate as well as, in the majority of cases, still being involved in the day-to-day running of the business.
For a founder CEO, one of the first consequences of growth will be to hand over key areas of management to others as the business scales. They will need to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as leadership style, as they start to build out their management team. And this is the first leadership quality they need to exhibit. Growing a business quickly requires the right strategic hires at the right time; and knowing who to entrust with what. As a founder, you cannot be strategic counsel, HR lead, CMO, and everything else in between. So getting your senior hires right and trusting them implicitly is key.
Ensuring your growth targets are both manageable and realistic is crucial, both in terms of the promises you make to investors, but also how you structure your business and resources. Putting unrealistic expectations on growth, customer acquisition or revenues could stretch the business beyond repair as well as damage brand reputation. You may not be able to account for unexpected growth – which can take you by surprise – but you can prepare for more manageable expansion.
Perhaps something most frequently overlooked when growing a business is the importance of consciously building the character and culture of your business. Culture is no longer a mythical, ethereal thing, a ‘nice to have’. It has real world impact, both in terms of employees choosing where they want to work, and by investors assessing the strengths of the businesses they choose to invest in. Toxic cultures in fast growth businesses is now recognised as a legitimate and significant issue.
Ensuring that, during a fast growth period, that you don’t sacrifice your workplace culture is crucial. While businesses may grow revenues and strengthen their balance sheets, if the office culture is unhealthy, if it is not demonstrating the character that is needed, in terms of resilience, perseverance, bravery or even seeing opportunities or being influential or prudent at the right times, your growth is not sustainable.
Business leaders need to consider how they understand the character or their people and leaders and encourage good workplace culture and how to maintain it, especially in the often chaotic environment of rapid expansion. One of the greatest risks comes from the need to hire quickly.
In a rush to get people through the door, hiring managers may overlook or even disregard character flaws and blind spots that, in ordinary circumstances, would set off alarm bells. And while these hires might come with a short-term gain, they are likely to cause long term harm to the wider team. Successfully navigating these risks starts with truly understanding the character of your leadership team, and proactively setting the tone of your workplace culture.
Too often, businesses don’t consider this at the start of their journey and end up having to do a much more painful journey of retrofitting culture and transformative leadership once things have gone wrong. To find out how CharacterScope can help startups put character and culture at the forefront of their growth plans check out our product solutions.
Last week, our founder and CEO, Mark Loftus, was invited to take part in a panel discussion at Shell’s inaugural Startup Connect event for entrepreneurs. Shell’s Enterprise Development program aims to support startups through their early growth, both through providing access to its expertise and networks, but also equity free funding opportunities through its LiveWIRE and Springboard programmes.
The half day event took place in Weybridge, Surrey as part of Shell’s Energy Summit, and featured a series of panel sessions and talks addressing the issues faced by early stage, knowledge intensive entrepreneurs such as capitalising on failures, winning hearts and minds with innovation and finding funding opportunities. The audience consisted of low-carbon entrepreneurs, including alumni of the Shell LiveWIRE and Shell Springboard programmes.
Our CEO, Mark was invited to take part in a panel, titled ‘Fitness for scale – Tackling new challenges as you grow’.
The panel looked at the unique, non-financial, challenges faced by founders when scaling up a business. Whether this is developing good corporate culture, protecting your IP, building a customer base, and using successful collaborations to grow. It was a chance for many startup founders in the room to get a better understanding of what their next challenges may be as they move from start-up to scale-up.
Mark was joined on the panel by Emma Southwell Sander, who heads up Harwell’s EnergyTec cluster, Peter Finnie, European Patent Attorney from Gill Jennings & Every, and Erik Nygard, CEO and Co-Founder of Limejump.
Mark was there to offer his views on the importance of character and culture as a business goes from a few people to many in a short period of time. He discussed the psychology of the founder and how they can suffer when growing their businesses together with ways they can offset this. He also touched on the importance of character diversity across teams and businesses and that so often, by design or not, teams tend to mirror the exact characteristics of the founder.
Let’s do a quick recap from the earlier blogposts. We’ve seen that there is no definitive list of ‘leader traits’: leaders are as diverse as humanity. We’ve also seen that there is no neat list of leader behaviours or skills. Instead, we’ve seen that a focus on why we have leaders gets us real traction:
In this blogpost, we’re going to focus on leadership and make it personal: to pick up the ‘how’ questions. How do leaders lead? How do people showing leadership do it?
As we have seen, the list of qualities leaders apparently need to show quickly becomes overwhelming and self-contradictory. Depending on who you read, leaders are visionary, entrepreneurial, practical, have integrity, make people feel special, and so on into a long list. But we can simplify all of this with the observation that people follow people. That leadership is at its root about one person choosing to follow another person.
Leadership is personal: people follow people.
Which leads immediately to the question ‘why would someone choose to follow you?’
Leaders inspire leadership from others. This means inspiring people to be prepared to put their heads above the parapet, to take a stand, to call out what isn’t working and what can be improved. Leadership is not the same as the exercise of power. For sure, when someone has power it can make it easier for people to follow if that person’s role gives them the authority to direct. But if we think it through, what is being followed is the authority invested in the role rather than the person.
When a police officer directs us to do something, we are following the authority we as a society have invested in the police as an institution, enacted in the role of the police officer. We are interested in something different here. It is when people feel they have the option not to follow that leadership becomes particularly interesting, because people are choosing to follow. Leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin.
At the heart, leadership involves you and your colleagues actively shaping the environment within which you are working and living – the network of relationships, the physical environment, the psychological environment, the culture of the team – taking active personal ownership, rather than seeing it as someone else’s responsibility.
Yet as we explored in the last blogpost, doing this isn’t without risks: what if others don’t follow your lead?
If leadership is a personal act – people follow people – it is helpful if we can give other people good reason to want to follow, and this takes us into an exploration of why it is that one human being might choose to follow another. What are the qualities that make it more likely for followership to happen and which qualities are less relevant?
There are indeed many ways of leading, but that there are certain qualities of a person that make it easier for one person to follow another. These are your distinctive, personal pattern of strengths of character and intelligence. People will follow your lead because of your own, authentic, distinctive character.
For some, this will be their charismatic ability to energise people and give them a sense of optimism. For others, it will be because of their seriousness, responsibility and determination to deliver on their commitments. For other again, it will be because of their ability to find fresh angles, see into the future and their willingness to try, to experiment.
We see our role at CharacterScope as helping you understand and build confidence in your leadership contribution, and then to develop it. We help you to recognise, value and play to the strengths that make it easy for others to follow your lead.
We provide the tools and insight to help you understand why people will be prepared to follow your lead, and to have an idea what your ‘natural’ leadership contribution is – the one you will feel most comfortable and confident making. Yet we go beyond self-awareness and provide the content and tools to help you actively develop your character strengths, whether it’s your self-belief, resilience, optimism, your ability to think ahead, to build perspective, to develop your spark of originality.
For all of the 34 strengths in our CharacterScope framework, there’s a 25-day development plan. We don’t pretend it’s easy developing character, but we do know it’s a prize worth working for.
Rather than start this, the third blogpost in our series of articles doing a deep-dive into leaders and leadership, with an exploration of what leaders do, we’re going to start with an even more basic question: what are leaders for?
saw in the last blogpost that trying to pursue a definitive list of
leadership attributes (‘what are leaders like?’) seems inevitably
set for failure. As an alternative route, many have argued that
focusing on what leaders do will bring us the insight we need. Yet at
CharacterScope we think that going this route quickly leads to a
glance at the leadership section of an airport bookshop shows us a
few textbooks on leadership next to multiple biographies and leaders
describing ‘what they did’ and why you should copy them. If you
read these, you’ll find that the list of what to do becomes
exhausting, long and contradictory. Leaders need to show charisma, to
pull people towards themselves; they need to show great self-belief
and yet have humility at the same time; they need to be dispassionate
yet emotionally intelligent; they need to sustain the strategic
overview yet be close to the executional detail, and so on. There are
loud, impassioned leaders and quiet, reflective leaders. Bold ones
and cautious ones. Leaders with extraordinarily attuned emotional
sensitivity, who ring with others’ emotions like a glass, and
leaders who are no more able to resonate with another person’s
emotions than is a lump of wet clay.
Stepping back, we can see that the leadership literature has been focused for decades on just a few questions: ‘what are leaders like?’ and ‘what do leaders do?’ These are important questions but only become worth answering after we have asked the ‘why’ questions: ‘why do we have leaders? what are leaders for? what happens when there is no leadership? why is leadership a universal of human experience?’ To answer these questions we need to look in a different direction, into ourselves and our psychology rather than into a book.
psychology of leaderless groups
simplest way to answer this is to reflect on your own personal
experiences of being in a group that lacks a leader or where the
person appointed as leader seems unable to lead.
experience is deeply disorienting, like we are waiting for something,
are being busy, trying to be productive, but with an underlying
unease that what we are doing is meaningless. We know that somebody
needs to take the lead and we know we need to find a shared purpose
that the group can form around.
Yet the act of taking the lead on behalf of a group, particularly a
group of strangers is stressful. Not least because it immediately
raises the question of whether anyone will follow our lead. And what
are the consequences if people do not follow? Does it mean that my
membership of the group is compromised, that I have lost my voice, my
influence? What will people think of me?
somebody else takes a lead, what do I feel? Do I feel relief that I
don’t have to take the lead? Relief mixed with resentment about
somebody else putting themselves above me? Do I have an inner
certainty that I could do better, combined with frustration with
myself that I didn’t take the lead? And when in turn someone who
has resisted my lead makes their bid for leadership, will I follow,
or will I resist? And what if no-one is allowed by the group to lead?
intimate connection between leadership and followers, and the
emotional undercurrents that swirl around leadership and followership
provide important psychological insights. We can use these insights
to get to the following key ideas.
create meaning and purpose and help people connect to it.
involves creating, or discovering, meaning and purpose and then
helping people connect productively to this purpose. Being a part of
a group without a purpose is a sure-fire way to feel frustrated and
leaders create the conditions for others to show leadership. Or more
inspire leadership from others
second theme gives us the key insight that whilst not everyone will
become a leader, leadership is for everyone, not just those who have
‘leader’ as their role. This idea, that everyone has a leadership
contribution to make, goes right to the heart of the CharacterScope
endeavour. We exist to help people and their organisations be more
characterful, places where people work productively and flourish
explore this idea further in later blogposts.
For now, take a moment to reflect on your own world. How clear are you about the purpose of the teams and groups you are a part of or lead? If everyone in the team wrote down their understanding of the team’s purpose would they write the same thing? And would it be equally meaningful and motivational for all? And how good are you and the leaders around you at inspiring leadership from your colleagues.
It is time to think again about leadership. In this series of blog posts, we’re going to dig a little deeper into what leadership really is, whether it matters, what leaders are like and how to develop leadership.
all of our fascination with leadership, the TED talks, the
conferences, the money spent on leadership development, there has
been little gained. There are hundreds of books and tens of thousands
of papers describing what leaders are like, what they do, how to
assess their potential, how to develop them. Pay rates for senior
leaders over recent years have shifted from a multiple of 30 times
that of the lowest paid worker to 300 times: the market thinks that
leaders are either far more valuable than they used to be or are a
far scarcer resource. Yet in a recent definitive guide to academic
research and writing about leadership, Richard Nohria and his
colleague at Harvard concluded that there was little serious research
and scholarship into leadership.
businesses spend significantly on developing leaders, often choosing
to send them to the same business schools that Nohria has pointed out
don’t really believe in leadership as a proper field of study. It
is hard to avoid the conclusion that leadership is seen as a money
spinner rather than a serious subject. But given the expense,
businesses increasingly treat leadership development as the province
of the elite, an exclusive grouping, the high-potentials, those with
impact is profound. We live in a time when many institutions, from
political parties to governments to banks and corporates, believe
that a there is a deficit in leadership. We live in a society where
many people feel let-down by their leaders, doubting whether they
care about the society they are creating, a scepticism souring to
cynicism. Too many senior leaders seem primarily concerned with
themselves or their immediate circle rather than shaping a society
and wider world of equity and meaning.
starkly: there are too few good leaders.
the established leadership industry carries on with practices that
evidently are not producing positive outcomes. How can it be that
graduates from the prestigious business schools know so much about
financial structuring yet remain clueless as to why someone might be
prepared to follow them. How can it be that our prevailing way of
talking about people, society and organisations continues to rest on
market-place assumptions rather than an understanding of how people
make meaning, lead fulfilling lives, create happiness? Why is it that
for most people leadership development is reserved until they are at
a stage in their lives when they feel fully formed and their hunger
for learning is dimmed? How is it that leadership is often one of the
last things that people learn in the world of work?
It does not have to be this way. Our aim at CharacterScope is to encourage everyone to think about themselves as a leader, to find and value that part of their identity that does leadership. For some this may feel an alien notion, for others a familiar one. But we believe the world will be a better place if everyone takes the time to understand and develop their leadership.
In the next blog post we’ll go a little deeper into what leadership is really about, and how established ways of approaching this important topic all too often fail, leaving people thinking that leadership is something for other people, not for them.
let us leave you with some things to think about between now and the
next post: why would someone be prepared to follow you? And why are
you prepared to follow others? And finally: what would happen if we
didn’t have leadership?