leadership culture

We did a series of focus groups, interviews, and surveys within a division of a large company to help Chris, the division manager, determine why their culture wasn’t performing at the level he wanted. We found that the shortfalls in the division’s levels of engagement, service, and productivity reflected the leadership team’s effectiveness. Their individual and collective leadership was weak.

After reviewing a summary of our findings with Chris, he recognized the problem. And he realized it started with his own leadership behaviors. If he didn’t change, he’d fall into that trap of expecting different results while continuing to do the same things. So, Chris did a strength-based 360 assessment and built a detailed personal development plan to elevate his leadership.

We also had an off-site retreat for Chris’ senior leadership team to review the organization feedback, begin their own 360 feedback process, and establish leadership and culture development action plans. He was determined to avoid coughing up a culture hairball.

On the first morning of the retreat, Chris started with reflections on his own feedback and the personal development plans he’d started — improvements That many on his team had already noticed. I then discussed all the research showing that an organization’s culture ripples out from the management team leading it. Chris handed out a folder printed with the company logo and the words “Change Kit: Change Begins Here” on the outside. Each manager opened the folder and looked into a large mirror inside. Change begins here.

What They See is What They Do

“Making Change Work…while the Work Keeps Changing” is a research report from IBM summarizing interviews and online surveys they conducted of over 1,400 leaders responsible for designing, creating, and implementing change in their organizations. What are the most effective means of changing attitudes and behaviors? The number one factor — mentioned by 73% of respondents — was the leader’s role modeling.

That’s consistent with many studies on culture change. In their classic 10-year global study of leadership and culture development published in their book Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage (click for my summary and quotes to note), Scott Keller and Colin Price report, “programs in which leaders model the desired changes are four times more likely to be successful. In an organizational context, the key elements of role modeling are transformation among senior leaders, symbolic acts, and developing a cadre of ‘influence leaders.'”

It’s an oft-mouthed truism; a leader’s action speaks much louder than their words. For example, children act like their parents, despite all attempts to teach them good manners. Driver training expert, Pierro Hirsch, found that teenagers drive like their parents, despite putting them through driver education courses. His doctoral research on road safety determined “a parent’s bad driving is the most influential factor in determining if a new driver will be crash-prone.”

Behaviors That Block or Boost Team Effectiveness

An organization’s meetings are its culture. The leadership team’s meetings both reflect and reinforce the culture of the organization they’re leading. Meetings Are a Hologram of Organizational Culture has a chart showing the impact of nine meeting behaviors on the leadership team’s organization/department culture.

The charts below build upon, and add to, those meeting behaviors. We often use this at the start of leadership team retreats when we’re agreeing on ground rules for the session — especially if pre-retreat assessments have surfaced problems with team conflict or dysfunction.

Retreat participants will sometimes call each on behaviors that block the team. At the conclusion of each day, we reflect on the content of what was accomplished and the retreat process and behaviors blocking or boosting team effectiveness.

Behaviors That Block Effectiveness

Hindering Behavior


“Yeah, But’s”

Discredits the ideas of others. Contrarian for the sake of being contrary.


Insists on getting one’s way; doesn’t compromise and stands in the way of the team’s progress.


Draws attention to their personal skills or results with boasting and humble bragging.

Goes Off Topic

Directs the conversation to side issues and changes subjects.


Tries to “run” the group through dictating, blustering, and bullying.


Sulks, withholds information, and doesn’t participate or offer to help/support others.

Malicious Compliance

Goes along with decisions/discussions they know will fail — or declares support while ensuring decisions/plans don’t succeed.


Makes pessimistic predictions, negative comments about people or their ideas, and takes cheap shots.

Personal Putdowns

Criticizes team members and/or their teams — often with sarcasm, cutting remarks, and hurtful humor.


Interacts with personal screens, ducks in and out of meetings — often arriving late and leaving early. Keeps screen off during online meetings.

Behaviors That Boost Effectiveness

Helping Behavior


Listens Actively

Looks at the person who is speaking, nods, asks probing questions, and acknowledges what is said by paraphrasing point(s) they’ve made.


Encourages others to develop ideas and make suggestions; gives them recognition for their ideas.


Goes beyond surface comments by questioning team members to uncover more information, insights, or understanding.


Seeks to understand where team members are coming from and to gain a deeper understanding of their viewpoints; clears up potential confusion.

Offers Ideas

Shares suggestions, ideas, solutions, and possibilities.

Includes Others

Asks quiet team members for their opinions. Ensures no one is left out and all viewpoints are discussed.


Pulls together ideas from several people. Helps to determine meeting progress, agreements, and action plans.


Reconciles opposing points of view, links together similar ideas and points out where ideas converge.

Moderates Conflict

Listens to the views of others; clarifies issues and key points made by opponents; seeks common ground and joint solutions.

Leadership team behaviors speak so loudly, no one can hear their declarations of visions, values, and mission statements. What they DO is what sets their organization’s culture. Changing “them” begins with changing “us.”

As prolific leadership author and “father of modern management”, Peter Drucker put it, “We all want to know how to make other people effective. But that’s not the place to start. The place to start is ‘how do I make myself effective?'”