When you become the culture: How C-suite leadership style communicates organizational norms

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Culture is one of the most critical, and often least clearly communicated, forces in achieving institutional priorities. Organizational culture is commonly understood as the way people in an organization go about their daily activities and interpersonal interactions. These seemingly benign daily moments ultimately become the shared norm and determine to the organization’s success. What often goes unnoticed is the role leadership communication plays in guiding the culture.

As a culture consultant and executive coach, we’ve found that leaders are often the primary influence of the culture their teams take on collectively. Based on that experience, as well as our combined experiences as leaders, we’ve identified three immediate strategies leaders can employ to communicate culture change from the C-suite and beyond:

  • Magnify the reach of your voice
  • Culture problems? It could be you
  • Use your style to intentionally shape the culture

The most important take away is that how and what a leader communicates will shape the organization’s culture. If leaders are not mindful of what they are communicating, the culture will go in an unintended direction.

Amplify what you communicate

Communication occurs through voice and action. The leader’s voice and actions travel across the organization to shape the culture. In consulting with executives, the dialogue almost always begins with a question about the priority outcomes of the organization as that is what gets communicated most frequently.

These desired outcomes need to be communicated directly, frequently and with measurable clarity across the entire organization. Thriving cultures begin with a clear understanding of the goalpost and why we want to get there. To generate buy-in around the organization’s priorities, leaders must create a compelling narrative of why they are important and how each employee’s role is important to their achievement. The leader’s actions must then match the narrative.

Once leaders align the organization around priorities, the next step is to communicate how the organization will hold itself accountable. For example, if the goal is to improve diversity, the plan must include clear steps toward achieving that goal while continually reinforcing why it’s important. The leader is now cultivating and operationalizing a culture that help reach the new goal. From there, the leader’s message and desired results travel out across the organization from direct reports to frontline workers.

By voicing, living and reinforcing priorities, the culture will take shape to facilitate a move in the desired direction. Voicing, living and reinforcing is what creates the amplification effect.

Culture problems? It could be you

Whether you lead an institution, a division, a department or classroom, culture begins with leadership. If you are in a leadership position, you should first evaluate your actions, standards and values. Conducting a cultural leadership audit is a good first step to assessing what culture exists and how the leader’s communication has shaped that culture.

In conducting the audit, there should be an objective assessment of the organization’s culture mapped against the values communicated by the leader. Any incongruities should be addressed and corrected.

For instance, if an organization publicly promotes a culture of inclusivity, but leadership isolates individuals or makes decisions by sequestering behind closed doors, then the values do not match behavior; and behavior is a powerful, non-verbal method of communication. If this situation occurs – in which stated values do not align with communicated values – the organization will be left directionless as employees will not know what to value, how their work will be evaluated, and leadership will lose credibility. The culture through this misalignment of communication and stated values will manifest a culture of distrust and apathy.

Any public statement regarding priorities and values should be matched by behavior and processes that reinforce those values. If a leader notices that the culture does not support the company’s priorities, or that employees do not buy-in to the company’s mission, the leader should evaluate what they are communicating and how.

Using your style to intentionally shape the culture

If leaders are the primary source of driving the culture, they can also strategically use their leadership style to move the culture in the right direction for results. The first step here is acknowledging where and how you’re strong. If you have a gift for communication, continue to share the vision and connect the culture change to the future state the organization hopes to achieve.

If you happen to be a leader strong in driving shared accountability and getting things done, this is a perfect opportunity to spend time pulling the organization together around measuring the results and progress. Perhaps you are a leader that is skilled in relationship building. Leading culture is people business first, so use the opportunity to learn more from employees about their key perceptions and experiences across your organization.

Regardless of where you are strong, you can build a strategy that aligns with your strengths and include your key leadership team members to further develop the strategy using their own strengths.

Whether their teams are exceeding the results or falling short, C-suite leaders have the front-and-center ability, platform and responsibility to communicate the desired state of the culture. Effectively leading culture is one of the most impactful results hacks a leader can implement – make it a top priority.

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Alicia Friday is executive director of organizational development at Lone Star College (Texas), where she leads employee development and culture consulting for nearly 7,000 employees. She also advises executives on communication and culture change.

Kyle Scott is vice chancellor of strategic priorities at the college and has spent most of his career in the private sector where he has helped lead operational and cultural change initiatives.