21st century leadership and creating an ideal culture

This blog post comes to AFS from talent management expert Margaret Graziano. Graziano, an engaging speaker and an authority on workplace leadership, will bring her program, “Mastering 21st Century Leadership,” to the 2018 Future Leaders of Metalcasting Meeting, Oct. 15-17 at Dotson Iron Castings in Mankato, Minnesota.

One of the most compelling and disturbing issues affecting the workplace today is the lack of employee engagement. The media call it Blue Monday Syndrome, psychologists call it employee resignation, and business leaders call it poor performance.

Margaret Graziano
Margaret Graziano

The best way to shift Blue Monday Syndrome is to create the type of culture that people want to be a part of—the kind of culture that inspires people to be their best.

Improving employee performance and raising the engagement of the workforce requires strong leadership and a constructive culture. 21st century leaders must pave the path for highly functioning, progressive teams to perform. Developing the level of skill to bring out the best in their people and hold accountability for both performance and effective operating behavior is a primary component of how our leaders will need to spend their time. 

Ultimately, it is the chief business leader’s responsibility to shift the culture and raise the level of competency of the leadership team to be in alignment with that culture. The way people are led, the way they interpret their relationships with their bosses, and what they witness must be congruent with the spoken core values, operating principles and mission of the enterprise, or effectiveness will not improve. While business leaders are the ones who set the tone of the culture, it is the managers and supervisors who directly impact the way it feels around the workplace. Team members who experience incongruence with how they are treated or how things are done in the business will most often talk to each other first and turn to gossip rather than take the perceived risk of going up against poor management.

Creating or turning around unified corporate culture is challenging as it is, and when people are not fully aligned with the values and operating styles, it becomes quite a painful journey. To get people more productive, smart leaders need to create a culture where people are connected to the company mission, vision and purpose, and convey the employee’s unique contribution to the fulfillment of it. To do that takes up-leveling the leadership acumen of the entire team of business leaders.

Today, up-leveling the leadership team’s ability to actually lead requires a clear assessment of how leadership competencies impact culture. The top leadership competencies that drive culture are encompassed in the following seven leadership categories: Envisioning an Outcome, Understanding Your Supporters, Communicating the Vision, Serving Others, Inspiring Others, Guiding Others and Developing Yourself.  Encompassed in these seven categories are multiple underlying competencies that drive leadership performance overall.

1. Envisioning an Outcome–Leading begins with realizing and clearly envisioning the overall mission to accomplish. A mission is what is going to happen, not how. Realizing your mission leads to the understanding of where change is required and why it is needed now. It takes initiative and determination to solidify the vision and set goals around its achievement. "Starting with the End in Mind," as Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, is how you point the way for others who can't see it yet.

2. Understanding Your Supporters–Understanding how your vision satisfies peoples' perceived needs is crucial to engaging them. You must know what changes others are receptive to and ready for. Listening carefully and objectively will ensure that your mission is one that others will embrace. Without followers, you can't be a leader, and followers will only voluntarily engage in something they think satisfies their needs as well as your goals.

3. Communicating Your Vision–In order to engage people to follow, you must clearly communicate your vision to them. The most powerful movements for change are created by people who have an emotional commitment to the mission and are passionate about it. Therefore, you must be able to communicate with people not just through logical arguments, but in a way that touches them emotionally. You must first have that passion for your mission and to allow others to see your passion. It takes a certain amount of courage to champion a new idea which, by definition, others can't yet see.

Understanding how your vision satisfies peoples' perceived needs is crucial to engaging them.  You must know what changes others are receptive to and ready for.

4. Serving Others–People will not chase a difficult dream for very long unless they think it supports their own personal goals. You must ensure that people connect both your vision and your actions with their own goals. They initially chose to follow you because they thought by helping you they would help themselves. Now that they are engaged, you must work at reinforcing the initial faith they placed in you.

5. Inspiring Others–Embarking on difficult and uncertain journeys requires a special kind of energy to continue for the long-term. Inspiration draws forth that special energy that can only come from the individual. Therefore, leading others for the long-term requires that you be able to recognize and bring this energy. People become inspired when they start believing they have more ability than they thought they did. Therefore, leading includes challenging people to do more than they have before, and empowering them to make efforts that will yield a positive result. Sharing hope and courage will keep people motivated to continue on with the mission, even when it seems like the goal is still a long way off.

6. Guiding Others–In taking action and moving toward completion of your mission and vision, there will inevitably be surprises and unexpected results. A person skilled in leading will continually assess the plan for achieving the stated goals and make course corrections along the way. Part of this process is to test, in the real world, the initial assumptions that were made. Leading requires a focus on the milestones along the way, not only on the long-term mission. Followers require some indication that they are on the right track—this builds confidence in the leader. A leader requires great courage and character to be tenacious about moving forward, and not exhibiting loss of confidence, even in the face of disappointment.

7. Developing Yourself–In order to understand, motivate and lead others, you must first understand yourself. As Chris McCusker, chairman and CEO of Motorola once said, "Leadership is going first in a new direction—and being followed." So, before people can lead others, they must lead the way. This applies to helping people become better. Leaders must practice what they preach and be able to see and develop themselves before they can do so for others.

Elevating corporate culture and improving employee engagement are tied to raising the level of leadership competency within your organization. Gallup’s recent poll on leadership reported that less than 18% of people in leadership roles actually are qualified to lead. This means that the biggest constraint to improving culture and raising the level of employee engagement within your organization is the lack of leadership ability.

Margaret Graziano is chief evangelist for KeenAlignment, a global people consultancy firm.