Culture Makes Leaders or Leaders Make Culture?

Culture Makes Leaders or Leaders Make Culture?

Leaders are the true custodians of culture, the ones at the helm of affairs and leadership has by far the largest and most direct effect on any company culture. In this article, the author explains how a successful leader shows his commitment to people, becomes a role model, influences the culture of the workplace and empowers employees to achieve the company mission.

Shalini Nataraj is the Global HR Head at Maersk GSC. With over 18+ years of experience in leading HR functions, Shalini has vast expertise in influencing cross-functional teams, strategic leadership and change management. In the past, Shalini has led the Human Resources function overseeing all areas of the HR function – generalists, talent acquisition, organisational effectiveness, pay and benefits, mobility, compliance and operations, along with communications, diversity and inclusion and community relations. Shalini graduated in Psychology from Bangalore University and has a Master’s diploma in Human Resources from Symbiosis Institute of Business Management.

We have all heard the saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, technology for lunch and everything else for dinner.” While that might be true, I think leaders have had culture on their menu for a long time. Culture helps shape leadership and leadership in turn shapes culture. They are both intertwined. However, I don’t think we have given culture the attention it deserves.

I have worked in organisations which have and are currently going through massive cultural shifts. While everything starts off with framing the strategy, arriving at a vision and rolling out behaviours, however, is enough energy spent in shaping the one true custodian of company culture – OUR LEADERS?

I ask around to find out how people perceive their culture as. Some say they have a competitive culture, others say there is a lot of hierarchy in their culture and a few others talk about flexibility and friendly culture. When we dig deeper to understand why they feel this way, everything seems to boil down to how their leaders treat them or others around them. It is not something they see on the bulletin board or read in the newsletter but culture to the team members is what they experience through their leader. It is the responsibility of a leader to set the culture for the team.

But are we doing enough to ensure our leaders are managing this huge responsibility well? Do they even realise they are the true custodians of our culture? I hadn’t realised this until very recently. And here are the things great leaders do that I am trying to cultivate.

1. Say less and do more 

This was the hardest for me to learn and follow. I like to talk, I think I am good at it too and that makes me want to use this skill all the time. But when it comes down to action, not many of my talks materialised into something concrete. So I stopped and assessed myself. When do I talk more? What makes me do that? How is it being received? This introspection led to self-realisation and helped me change my behaviour. Now I am never the first person to speak or ask a question in a meeting; I focus on other important things that need to be done or spoken about and not spend time on other things that are only fluff. Most importantly, I build enough confidence to believe that I am adding value, even when I am not talking.

2. Listen and truly care about what your team is saying and more importantly not saying 

When I coach leaders, I make sure one of the sessions is on listening. I try to explain that employees want leaders who will not just hear them, but really listen to them. Listen, not to respond, but to understand.

The most successful leaders have made it a habit to listen. Listening has helped them expand their understanding and make a positive impact on culture. The best tenet of coaching is that we need to spend 80% of our time with our teams listening and only 20% talking. As our listening gets better, we not only listen to what they say but also to what they are not saying. So after every conversation, I measure myself on how much did I speak versus listen and that has helped me a lot.

3. Coach instead of tell

I used to believe that becoming a leader also meant that I had to tell people how to solve a problem. I assumed it was part of my responsibility. Only with time and experience, I realised that my team would be better off if I coached them in arriving at a solution instead of being told how to solve something. Leaders need to invest in coaching their teams to create a self-sustaining team. The more we spend time making ourselves redundant, the more successful we will be. So, I now spend a lot of my time listening and coaching and asking insightful questions that are thought-provoking and consciously try to avoid giving a solution, unless really required.

4. Never assume you are the smartest person in the room 

Oftentimes, a leader is perceived as the smartest person in the room. However, a good leader is one who fills his team with people who are smarter than him/her. The best leaders hire smart people to work for them. Not being the smartest person in the room and accepting the fact, is the most liberating feeling as a leader. Create a team that is smarter than you, push them to think differently and never be the first one to provide a solution.

5. Most importantly, bring your true self to work every day and encourage that within the team.

Earlier, I used to have two personalities, one at work and one outside work. We usually switch between our different personas, which can become quite exhausting. But soon I realised it and since then, I bring my true and full self to work every day; I show up authentically, all of who I am, all the talents, the fears, the vulnerabilities, the insecurities, and the things that matter most to me. I also make sure I encourage my teams to be themselves come what may. When people have the freedom to be who they are, they will also have the freedom to think, create and excel at ease.

To conclude, being a leader is not a job but a lifestyle that one needs to adopt and enjoy! As SpiderMan rightly said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”


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