Leading Through Cultural Change

In the world of executive coaching, Marshall Goldsmith is considered the best of the best. At the recent Thinkers50 gala in London, he was recognized as the world’s No. 1 leadership thinker, No. 1 executive coach and No. 5 most-influential business thinker. His most recent book, Triggers, is a No. 1 New York times and Wall Street Journal best seller and was an Amazon business book of the year. His knowledge of leadership and abilities as an educator have been lauded by publications including the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Inc., BusinessWeek and the Economist.

Goldsmith has a Ph.D. from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management where he was the Distinguished Alumnus of the Year and he teaches executive education at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Through his career, he’s worked with more than 150 major CEOs and their managing teams – one of the few executive advisors to have reached that benchmark. With the release of John’s new book, Cultural Transformations, and Marshall’s gracious endorsement (he had this to say about the book: “Saturated with insights and findings on organizational leadership that you can apply immediately!”) we wanted to check in with a seasoned leader in cultural change. Goldsmith offered a few minutes of time recently to talk leadership. Here’s what he had to say:

What’s your leadership philosophy?

“Leadership is working with others to ensure objectives are met,” he says. Great leaders are more concerned about the growth of their employees and the organization rather than their own development. There are three things that need to happen in order for leaders to improve, Goldsmith says. They must have the courage to get feedback and to look in the mirror and ask whether their behavior aligns with what they’re teaching; they must have the ability to improve and they must have the discipline to followup and do the hard work to make the changes.

Why is a vibrant culture so important to the success of a business?

Culture is important because employee engagement is a function of whether they feel they can live their own values at work, Goldsmith says. “When people feel their work isn’t consistent with their values they don’t work as hard,” he says.

What are the key ingredients to a vibrant corporate culture?

“I would say one key ingredient is leadership from the top,” Goldsmith says. Leaders to to make sure they are great role models and that they embody the company culture day to day. If they don’t do this, leaders will have a difficult time establishing credibility.

What should leaders be doing to not only create a more engaged corporate culture, but also sustain it?

From the perspective of the organization and the leader, Goldsmith says they should get feedback on how their perceived and the feedback should be aligned with the organizations culture. They need to answer the question, “does leadership behavior align with culture?” and talk openly about what they learned from the feedback to develop positive change. “When leaders do this they tend to be more effective,” Goldsmith says. And employees should take responsibility as well. Each day employees should challenge themselves to say, “Did I do my best to set my goals? Did I do my best to achieve my goals? Did I do my best to stay fully engaged?” “When the leaders focus on improvement, there’s increased engagement,” Goldsmith says. And when employees do it, there’s positive change as well.

What are the biggest challenges to transforming a corporate culture?

The challenges are in translating the broader concept of culture to day-to-day practice, Goldsmith says. It can’t be just some broad theoretical statement about what the organization wants to be; people must understand what the culture is and what it means to them.

What are the biggest missteps leaders take when attempting cultural change?

“I think some leaders are not willing to stand behind what they teach,” Goldsmith says. When leaders become too focused on the numbers it sends the wrong message. It’s very important that the top management is willing to step up and deal with employees whose behaviors are inconsistent with the culture – even if that person’s numbers are good.

What business leaders do you think have been especially adept at managing cultural transformation? What can we learn from them?

Goldsmith had two picks. Alan Mulally who led the transformation of the Ford Motor Company. At the start of his tenure shares for Ford were trading at a $1; by the time he left they were $18. Goldsmith says, that Mulally began by establishing clear guidelines for leadership behavior and then made sure that leaders adhered to those guidelines by sending observers to meetings to watch their behavior. Next, Goldsmith sited Frances Hesselbein who transformed the Girl Scouts of America. Hesselbein realized that success in the past did not guarantee success in the future. She established clear new behaviors and stepped up to make sure they actually happened.

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