Coaching Leadership

Shawn Overcast is a partner at gothamCulture with more than 15 years of experience quantifying the softer side of business by working with human capital departments from small companies to global Fortune 100 organizations. We recently talked with Shawn about the importance of employee engagement, leadership training programs, and effective corporate culture.

What do you Find Interesting About Employee Engagement and Organizational Development?

I started my career as a training designer to develop a leadership training program in a rapidly growing startup. An annual employee engagement survey indicated that employee morale and culture was at risk of declining, and senior leadership wanted to act fast. After I followed this program from design through implementation and then measured the impact on the organization, including the impact of employee engagement, retention, and customer service, I was sold. But this was more than just a training effort. We established principles of leadership, expectations for leadership, and a new performance management system. Employee engagement matters; people are capital inside an organization. Their behaviors affect performance, and performance affects financials.

Finish this sentence: “When trying to improve employee engagement at a company, the thing that you most definitely should NOT do is…”

Attempt to drive the results. If we’re only focused on a single measure, such as employee engagement, we’re missing the full picture of what else is affected and why. We certainly consider employee engagement in our approach, but we also seek to build a theory of change (or logic model) to explore all of the variables that drive employee engagement. Then we determine what other business results they drive.

We continue to work backwards to understand not only what actions led to or affected results, but also what inputs are required to support those actions. We don’t take action until we understand the full system and chain of impact. This rigorous assessment determines the appropriate interventions for the organization.

What is a common example of misaligned priorities between a company’s front-line managers and its senior leadership?

Perspective. Front-line leadership is continually focused on the day-to-day that’s in front of them internally. Their span of sight and control is narrower and more focused on the work that needs to get done by the team of people who report to them: the front line. They are typically concerned with issues of efficiency, productivity, quality, coordination and integration of process, individual capability, employee satisfaction, and even customer satisfaction.

Senior leadership is more closely aligned to the external face of the company: the C-suite, the board, and the customer. Their perspective is more broad and more long-term. They seek to meet the needs of external stakeholders by setting direction and guidance for those working internally. They are concerned about the financial success and viability of the company, the long-term implications of strategic decisions on the market, competition, and customer loyalty. These minor differences in attention and primary stakeholder needs lead to conflict and misalignment between these levels of leadership.

When companies actively assess their corporate culture, what types of surprises do they often discover when they study the results?

There are three “Ahas!” or insights that come from assessing workplace culture. The most frequent discovery is the difference in perceptions about the culture from different groups. This could be differences between levels of leadership,  business units or locations, those with varying lengths of tenure with the company, or (in the case of a merger or acquisition) individuals from the new company and the legacy company.

Another insight is an imbalance in the company’s focus and acknowledgment of their “Achilles heel” or “soft underbelly. “Similar to the point above and the perspectives of senior leadership and middle management, some organizations as a whole tend to be internally or externally focused. A heavy internally focused company typically has a very empowered and capable workforce, likely one with long tenure. They also tend to have strong processes and are very coordinated and aligned on values and approaches to communication and decisions. Conversely, an organization more heavily focused externally has a strong handle and understanding of the market, is quick to adapt to the changing needs of the customer, and innovates and learns from mistakes quickly. The challenge with this imbalance is the risk of high turnover and not having the people around long enough to continue to deliver on what works best.

And third, leadership learns more about what they’ve taken for granted. Senior leaders act with the best of intent by establishing clear direction and strategy to ensure people are aligned, empowered, and capable. They ensure the organization is responding to the needs of the market, and that their processes and systems remain a competitive advantage for the organization. However, there are times where the message isn’t clearly articulated or strategy is lost in execution. This “Aha!” establishes priorities for where to focus communication efforts in the very near term.

How Would you go About Aligning the Corporate Culture of an Organization Which is Plagued by Internal Politics?

Organizations plagued by internal politics often show up as siloed and have low coordination and integration. A culture assessment can objectively tell a story that is experienced every day by the employees working within this environment. We use an empirically-based assessment to capture this moment in time and are able to demonstrate to leaders the implications of their political behaviors and what can happen if interactions remain unproductive. Step one is to assess the situation and dialogue — truly engage in collaborative discussion — about the current state. From there, a handful of advocates or culture ambassadors will likely raise their hands to take action on driving movement in the culture change process. Change starts with one, and momentum will breed momentum.

What are Some of the Roadblocks That you Frequently see When Trying to Transform the Organizational Culture of a Large International Corporation?

  • Loss of momentum and involvement from senior leadership. Often, senior leadership is heavily involved during the assessment and dialogue phases, seeking to understand the problems and making decisions about priorities and level of investment for the culture transformation. But once work is allocated across the organization to continue the process, leadership gets focused on something else. Without continual focus, recognition, and communication from the top, it becomes difficult for new cultural norms and behaviors to take hold.
  • Competing priorities. This is often an output of the first. As leadership focuses attention on other aspects of sustaining (or creating) a high-performance organization, the efforts dedicated to culture become “old news.” Instead, culture and the interventions selected to support the transformation should be baked into the way everything else gets done, including all new efforts, investments, and priorities in the future.
  • Moving on before the new culture has truly taken hold. This is the challenge with looking at a single measure, such as employee engagement. These surveys are simply a snapshot in time. And simply doing a survey does not mean you’re engaging your employees. It is important to follow through and track, manage, and measure key metrics over time.

If a senior executive were to say to you, “I don’t believe in investing resources in a leadership development program, because my employees are likely to take what they learn and go work somewhere else,” how might you respond? But what happens if they stay?

Generally speaking, what will the corporate leaders of tomorrow have to do better than they are doing today in order to succeed?

They’ll need to work on balance, or continue to focus on their organization’s strategic direction and intent, and respond to the changing marketplace. We learn that in Business 101. They must continuously evaluate their processes and organizational structure to ensure work is coordinated and conducted in an efficient and quality manner, and that their people have the tools, skills, and empowerment to do their jobs. They must view their people as an asset, not an expense. But most importantly, they should gain capability in finding balance across all of these.

They’ll also need to grow in agility and capacity to balance structure and sustainability with flexibility and continuous capability development; in other words, to focus on the needs of external stakeholders and stockholders, but not at the risk of compromising internal stakeholders (and sometimes stockholders!). They’ll have to balance the need to set direction, but ensure that their people have the tools, skills, and capacity to execute to that mission. Finally, they must maintain their competitive advantage in how they execute while staying just one step ahead of the competitors in the marketplace.

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