“As a leader, a lot of your job is to make people successful,” wrote Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google. Nowhere does this principle hold truer than in modelling organisational culture. The values you communicate and reveal to your team, they will imitate. The values you reward, they will work for. The culture you carry, they will pick up.

The trouble is that as leaders, we are often unaware of how much we are influencing the corporate culture. Reflecting on our values becomes secondary to completing everyday tasks.  As Peter Senge said, “We often spend so much time coping with problems along our path that we only have a dim or even inaccurate view of what’s really important to us.”

But culture is an urgent matter. If we want our organisational culture to support innovation, inclusivity and even financial success, we need to address our own values as leaders. There is no other option.

Change management starts at our core

“…it is no great feat to write down a list of values. It’s far harder to live by them, especially when they are not self-evidently aligned.” – John Pepper, What Really Matters

In the study, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, first authored by Geert Hofstede, the differentiation is made between the outer and core layers of our culture. The outer layers are the most visible part of our personal practices and are easy to identify. “New practices can be learned throughout one’s lifetime: people older than seventy happily learn to surf the web on their first personal computer, acquiring new symbols, meeting new heroes, and communicating through new rituals.”

But if we are to evaluate our core values, the ones that most impact our organisation’s culture, we need to look at the core layers. “These were learned when we were children, from parents who acquired them when they were children.” For these core layers, “culture change is slow,” but all the more meaningful.

This requires a willingness to ask ourselves difficult questions, to evaluate our behaviours. As Adam Grant writes in Originals, “The starting point is curiosity, pondering why the default exists in the first place.” Why do we react to conflict the way we do? Why do we want to appear in control? Why do we dislike feedback? Dr Brene Brown’s says vulnerability is “not a weakness but rather our greatest measure of courage”. Once we ask the uncomfortable questions, we can start to make meaningful steps towards change.

Vulnerability changes everything

“For better and worse, culture and leadership are inextricably linked. Founders and influential leaders often set new cultures in motion and imprint values and assumptions that persist for decades.” – HBR, The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture 

Our Associate Partner Catherine Bardwell shares a significant occasion where the story she told changed everything:

“I was leading a workshop on leadership development for some wonderful participants in Denmark… Then, I received a text from a dear friend of mine… she only had a few more days before she would leave this world… I was overwhelmed with sadness and spent the whole of my lunchtime crying. But, I decided to carry on with my workshop.”

Although not all of us have experienced such tragedy in the midst of our working lives, many of us know what it is to grit our teeth, hide our pain and carry on working as if nothing was wrong. How Catherine acted next though, turned the culture of the room upside down.

She chose to tell those she was leading what had just happened.

“What I didn’t know was the knock-on effect this would create. An immense sense of trust emerged across the room. A sense of belonging and caring that I have never seen before. We collectively somehow allowed ourselves to share our vulnerability for the rest of the workshop, and as a consequence, dug deeper into each other’s meaning of leadership.”

Storytelling shifts corporate culture

“An important foundation of leadership is for leaders to settle on their own story.” – Stephen Denning, The Secret Language of Leadership 

What are the stories your board shares in meetings? What do you tell to your wider teams? Are there any common themes? The stories you tell reveal more than you might think.

In Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, Annette Simmons says all stories are “values in action”. If

our success stories never feature elements of failure and learning, we suggest that we do not tolerate mistakes. If we tell stories of heroically working through the night, we risk alienating those who work flexibly or part-time. But if we tell stories that reveal vulnerability, if we honour failed experiments, if we recognise risk-taking, then we will encourage those same qualities in our team.

As leaders, corporate culture is on us. We cannot delegate it solely to an HR department. We need to pause to take time to reflect. To evaluate our true values and whether they conflict with our habits. Often we need help. We need someone to help us hit the pause button, and help us see the wider picture. Get in touch with your local TPC Leadership branch to begin talking through the process. The inner work we do now will affect the culture we leave behind in years to come.