Leadership when Driving Change

Back to insights

Whenever we talk about corporate culture, assumptions and beliefs, we often end up talking in the ethereal layer. We wax lyrical about concepts and intangibles – all that fluffy stuff. Is it any wonder that many leaders find it hard to talk about what culture is, let alone understand how they influence it. And yet there seems to be a cottage industry in redefining and communicating many organisation’s new ‘culture’ in the vain hope that things will change if we produce a critical mass of propaganda.

It’s all about behaviours 

The only real currency of culture is behaviours, and behaviours define the culture (note it is not the culture that defines the behaviours). Not convinced? How many times have we seen “accountability” written on the wall as a company value, alongside a mandatory training course on accountability, various rituals proposed on the intranet – and a complete lack of accountability in the organisation? The belief that behaviours follow a mindset shift is not reliable. Ask anyone who has tried to lose weight, stop smoking or exercise more – knowing it has health benefits. Knowledge of something rational does not necessarily lead to sustainable behaviour change. However, if certain positive, proactive ownership behaviours are observed happening frequently and consistently, we might be comfortable calling that a culture of accountability. And so it is behaviours that we really need to focus on.

The good news is that behaviours can be very tangible, we can see if they are happening or not, and we can see who is or isn’t doing them.

Plannable doesn’t mean effective 

Most organisations implement change using a very rational approach. They use very plannable and visible tasks like changing the organisational structure, creating new systems and procedures, and new rites and rituals. They may change the physical space (table football and beanbags), start the propaganda machine churning out stories of important people and events and decorate the place with formal statements of organisational philosophy, creeds and charters.

But they always end up wondering why change isn’t happening. The truth is that all of these methods ARE actually useful, but only as secondary reinforcement and stabilising mechanisms. On their own, they create little real change. I once heard a great quote that sums it up – “behaviours don’t travel by Powerpoint”.

Leadership is a contact sport

The primary embedding mechanisms are of course leadership based. This is the bit people seem to forget. Leadership is a contact sport. Culture cannot be outsourced to HR or L&D. This is where many organisations fail. 

So how does a leader affect culture? If we fall back on terms like ‘role modelling’ then we are in danger of going back to the individually interpreted fluffy stuff. Of course the reality is that leaders DO influence culture every day.  It’s just often done in a subconscious way and is therefore unstructured and lacking direction. It is also done without alignment with others, and so there is no consistency across the corporate landscape.  

The primary embedding mechanisms of culture are:

  • What the leaders pay attention to and measure 
  • How leaders act in a crisis (we have just had 6 months to witness this!)
  • How the leaders allocate resources
  • How and what the leaders deliberately teach and coach
  • How the leaders allocate rewards and status 
  • Who they recruit, select, promote and fire.

These 6 are the strongest indicators and influencers of the real culture. And yet many change programmes skip engaging and aligning their leaders on these things in favour of a reorganisation, revamped processes and some new slick values on the wall.  

To implement, these 6 areas can be broken down further with groups of leaders, moving them from broad statements to unambiguous, observable behaviours. Once aligned on a few to experiment with, ensuring we are reinforcing the intended behaviours, and calling out those we will no longer tolerate, it’s then all about consistency and regularity. Only once we have these primary mechanisms underway do we build in the secondary stabilising factors (the structures, processes, rituals, propaganda etc.).


The shadow of a leader casts far and wide across the organisation. Culture is influenced by leaders and yet we often forget to align and engage our leaders in the primary embedding mechanisms, instead relying on simpler things that, alone, have little impact. But they fit beautifully on a deterministic Gantt chart and therefore feel plannable and important. We need to retire the outdated and overly simplistic change management practices of the past and embrace behaviourism and the role of leaders in helping nudge culture in the right direction.

We hope you enjoyed the second article in our change series ahead of the ‘Be Different, Be Change Ready’ event on Wednesday 21st October.

We will uncover the six foundations of change, the strategies required to de-risk change and successfully deliver to your business.

Sign up here: 👉  Be Different, Be Change Ready Event

AJ Circle Crop
Written by Adrian Stalham
Read more from the author