Another version of this article originally appeared on Learnlight Insights.
As nice as it may sound, why would anyone want to have a learning culture? There are reasons that won’t suffice: HR needing a pet project, the company looking for good PR, or even an edict from above. All these lack meaningfulness for the ones who must carry it out—everyone else.
“What for?” should be answered by combining vision, business objectives and the need for new capabilities when solutions are unknown and conditions are ever changing. It then becomes clear that the only way a company could succeed is to learn. Now that’s something people can get behind.
In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge defines a learning organization as one “that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.” While every company must grapple with what’s to come, the ones that learn have the ability to do much more.
Besides that, to have a corporate learning culture means that learning is in the company’s DNA--not compartmentalized into a particular aspect of the culture, or within a certain department or functional area. All learning organizations have a corporate learning culture, and all corporate learning cultures lead to learning organizations.
What does a learning organization do?
Published by The Leadership Quarterly, Gary Yukl describes the essential processes of a learning organization as:
“the discovery of relevant new knowledge, diffusion of this knowledge to people in the organization who need it, and application of the knowledge to improve internal processes and external adaptation.”
This goes far beyond training programs. This is why so many L&D departments follow the Center for Creative Leadership’s 70-20-10 guideline (on-the-job/relationships/training). For learning to occur on a large scale, culture--with its power to influence behavior, perceptions, and interactions--must drive it.
As professors Victoria Marsick and Karen Watkins write in a forthcoming publication:
“Research and practice suggest that organizations focus…on cultivating a learning culture and environment that, in turn, motivates and incentivizes integrated work and learning architectures. This trend is consistent with a view of learning organizations that emphasizes the learning culture as key to strategic goal achievement… there is a significant relationship between a learning culture and organizational performance.”
People look to their leaders when culture change is imminent. Employees want to know where leadership stands and how they will lead. Leaders’ responsibilities don’t end there. They must actually follow through in guiding the organization before, during, and after these changes. They do this by:
1. Setting the vision. As the decision makers of the organization, leaders initiate change by communicating the vision for the future. According to Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ classic Harvard Business Review article, vision is made up of core ideology (values and purpose) and the envisioned future (a vivid description of Big Hairy Audacious Goals). Setting the vision happens while building the case for a corporate learning culture, but needs consistent reiteration and communication.
2. Empowering employees through co-design. Leaders may have started the transformation towards a learning organization, but their people finish it. Forcing change from top-down has proven problematic time and again. Involving people as equal partners in co-designing a future they are expected to deliver shows greater promise for change adoption.
This is not about leaders bestowing an act of benevolence. It is about recognizing the limitations of one’s own perspective and utilizing talents and capabilities of the whole, à la Appreciative Inquiry’s Wholeness Principle, as described by the Center for Appreciative Inquiry:
“Wholeness brings out the best in people and organizations. Bringing all stakeholders together…stimulates creativity and builds collective capacity.”
Using a co-design framework that emphasizes learning, such as Design of Work Experience in Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work, will provide the guidance and discipline for productive co-design of the learning culture.
3. Deploying resources. Leadership must understand that sufficient access to necessary resources will set the conditions for success. Resources can come in the form of budgetary support, talent, technology, space (physical, virtual, or psychological), and their own time and attention. The organization must scale resources collectively identified (and thus properly vetted) during co-design.
4. Demonstrating leadership. An organization pursuing transformation requires visible and demonstrated leadership. True leadership doesn’t come from a job title. It is granted by people on a continuous basis. They want leaders who role model the changes and behaviors with consistency throughout the transformation and beyond. Doing so gives them the credibility to set expectations, recognize and reward success, and ensure accountability. Anything contradictory erodes trust.
The job doesn’t end there. According to Yukl in the same Leadership Quarterly article, leaders can directly influence collective learning by:
“…encouraging the use of procedures that increase creative ideas, nurturing promising ideas that are initially vague or controversial, obtaining resources needed to develop new ideas, encouraging members to experiment with new approaches to assess their utility, using after-activity reviews to analyze team processes, and monitoring external events that are relevant to innovative activities by the team.”
Notice how much partnership, facilitation, and empowerment of others is embedded among these day-to-day behaviors.
5. Learning with Agility. It stands to reason that a learning organization requires leaders who learn, especially agile learners. Learning agility is about learning from experience with speed and flexibility, as evidenced by research from Columbia University’s Dr. Warner Burke that resulted in the Burke Learning Agility Inventory (BLAI).
The capability reveals itself in enabling behaviors identified in the BLAI, such as: seeking feedback and information, performance and interpersonal risk taking, collaborating, experimenting, reflecting—and of course, speed and flexibility. As the most visible learners, leaders must demonstrate these behaviors to an observable degree everyday.
So if a corporate learning culture is truly desirable, leaders (and the HR and L&D professionals supporting them) should look to fulfill these five responsibilities—or, more boldly, obligations—to ensure that they play a pivotal role in creating learning organizations out of their companies. Combined with vision and culture, learning is unstoppable.
I’ve been beating the drum about the role of culture in mergers and acquisitions since graduate school, when I worked on a deep dive into the 2001 HP-Compaq deal and saw just how “largely incompatible” (my words) the two cultures were. Even then, 18 months after the closing, the culture clash was evident. All employees felt the impact regardless of their legacy employer. Three years later, the headline was, “Why Carly Fiorina’s Big Bet is Failing.” In 2016, it was “Worst Tech Mergers and Acquisitions: HP and Compaq.” One could argue some sort of vendetta keeps bringing this particular deal back into the dialogue. Another explanation is that the effect has been long lasting and there’s a lesson to be learned here. This particular merger failed for a number of reasons, but low and behold culture has been named as one of them (see examples here and here). This merger is one of many who experienced the culture clash. I would even go so far as to argue that all mergers go through it because every organization has its own unique people, context, and culture regardless of all the “synergies” between two parties. Bringing them together will never be a seamless fit, but intentionally managing it will make a difference. Here are a few things to consider when it comes to M&A and culture, and how Design of Work Experience (DOWE) can help you navigate through it all.
Make culture a part of due diligence. If every organization is different and a culture clash between two entities merging into one is inevitable, then doing this should be a given. Evaluating culture is just as important as looking through the books, IP, assets, business operations, etc. as part of due diligence. For each organization, determine where and to what degree these differences exist through DOWE’s Culture Study before the decision to merge or acquire. Are there cultural strengths to leverage on both sides? Does the buyer actually want to acquire the culture for sale? Are there red flags that could signal a deal breaker? This helps the two sides to go into their new world with eyes wide open.
Forge a new shared vision and culture. During the highest peaks of M&A activity, the focus isn’t typically on the aftermath—it’s all about getting the deal done from a legal and regulatory standpoint. This myopic view leaves organizations ill prepared for the fall-out, despite the fact that all employees care about is what happens to them afterwards. Instead of having two cultures forge a battle royale or see one culture cannibalize the other, partner with your employees using DOWE. You’ll be able to articulate a new vision and culture as well as design new employment experiences that reflect them. Create a new identity that employees from both sides are proud to join. Instead of a mass exodus of talent, you might just garner enough attention to attract new talent at a time when business performance is so critical.
Deploy Change Management early and continually. Use of full-on change management is shockingly low during business as usual, despite the need. After all, change is constant in business. Something as huge as a merger or acquisition makes disciplined, well strategized and executed change management an imperative. With the culture studies in hand, DOWE helps organizations determine the distance and the path from the current to the future state. This brings people along for the journey as engaged collaborators throughout the integration. Isn’t that preferred over force-feeding the new state with all the pain that comes with disengagement and attrition of your best talent?
Sustain Changes. If you’ve gone through all the trouble, then you’d want to make sure your changes stick for as long as you need them. The positive aspects of the new vision, culture, and experiences post-merger need to be the new norm. The way to do that is to continue managing change well past integration. The DOWE process creates the opportunity to ensure that enough is done to set the conditions, support them systematically, and measure progress.
So before you go into your next merger or acquisition, think about how you want history to remember it. Then consider how these steps might help you. Thanks for reading!
I was recently asked my two cents on executive succession, so I thought I would share them with all of you too. These thought starters are by no means exhaustive, but taking action with these in mind can improve the effectiveness of your succession programs.
First of all, there’s lots of research out there that spans the range from big firms to academia. They offer good foundational knowledge of the concepts, but they fall short of considering context. That’s because it’s up to every organization to incorporate—only many don’t. They skip this critical next step and go straight to implementing best practices. I believe what's missing is organizations' ability to uniquely define what they need out of their current and future leaders. This is why a leader might be successful in one place, but a failure in another. I make the argument in the book to begin with building organizational self-awareness and a deep understanding of the context. That way, solutions are customized for the needs of the business and its people. This is the initial approach to my client engagements.
There should also be integration among succession planning, leadership development, workforce planning, and other people strategies and programs so everything reinforces one another and aligns around common objectives that ultimately support the business mission and strategy. In many organizations these functions live in siloes, each working on different things. All you get as a result is a lot of fragmentation. I recommend the creation of holistic people strategies using Design of Work Experience (DOWE) as the process to drive a common talent agenda.
If your company uses personality assessments or surveys, they should be treated as one of multiple data points for the purposes of building self-awareness and developmental plans. Using them for "predictive" purposes--i.e. to determine whether someone would be a successful leader in the future (or not) has been proven to be problematic per research. If you are going with assessments, choose ones that use or are based upon the Big 5 Personality Traits. They’ve stood the test of time and remain in practice after rigorous scientific study and validation. This is also why Myers-Briggs remains tried and true.
Coaching at the senior levels can be of help (also per research), as long as they are managed well strategically. It can be a costly program from a time and money standpoint, but it does help those that are "lonely at the top" and lack the support systems to gain broader perspectives beyond their own. The challenge with coaching is that there is such a broad range of specialties, providers, and--quite frankly--capabilities. Add in the individual situation of each executive to be coached, and you can imagine how hard it is to make the right pairing. Proceed with caution and celebrate successes.
Just for fun, if I were to choose just one competency to foster, it would be learning agility. This falls under the Big 5's openness factor. Current assessments out there have not been fully vetted, but the new instrument coming out of my alma mater, Columbia University, shows a lot of promise and has been created with academic integrity. Led by one of organizational psychology’s icons, W. Warner Burke (of the Burke-Litwin Model of Organizational Performance and Change), you can learn more from this previous post and stay tuned for updates.
Speaking of organizational performance and change, consider the design of the executive transition experience, and change management for their new and old organizations. This helps to avoid potential pitfalls that prevent smooth transitions. I’m sure many of you out there have examples of where these have not gone well, so I won’t belabor the point.
I also recommend organizations follow though with learning and development AFTER succession--all the way up through the C-suite. I wrote a post back in February that speaks to this very point. Think about what happens next, once they get there.
Start with these six, and you will undoubtedly uncover what else your organization’s needs. As usual, feel free to connect or discuss with me further. Thanks for reading!
I've been asked by a number of startup CEOs about when they can/should begin to think about culture. My answer has always been that if you have a business strategy in place, then you have enough to begin your culture. You don't need a large staff before you can do culture work. I might even argue that by then it would be late. Here's the thing: culture can either enable your business to be successful, or impede it. Designing, realizing, and managing the culture is as essential as setting up business operations. It is never too early. Founders should take the opportunity whenever they can--after all, do they expect to get less busy?
I’ve always wondered why talent management and succession planning ended with the layer beneath the top leadership roles. Once people have what they believe to be a sufficient number of names to fill in for those top slots, the pipeline is declared robust and people congratulate themselves on a job well done. No one ever thinks about talent management and development for the C-suite, which includes the CEO and their direct reports. Many organizations operate this way. Ever notice how there are fewer development opportunities as one moves up the ladder? Despite the terminology, leadership development is often reserved for the up and comers. Lack of leadership development for the leaders themselves is yet another reason why it’s lonely at the top. Leaders play into this as well. They think they’ve made it. It’s always the deeply flawed ones that act like they have nothing more to learn—and there are lots of them.
Once a leader is in place, the assumption is that there are 3 three options left: ouster, retirement, or a better role at another company. I propose a fourth option—the leader’s next role at the right time. Let me explain. If the ultimate aim of “good” talent management is about putting the right person in the right role in the right environment, why not extend that to the top leadership roles? You see, just like all other talent, leaders have their strengths. It’s about matching that talent with the right opportunities. Those opportunities are created by availability of the role combined with particular business needs. Presumably, companies intend to put the right leader in place to fulfill those needs at that point in time. If you need someone to build up a business, you get someone who is good at that. You wouldn’t want someone who is good at maintaining things. Both types can be good leaders, but only in the right environment suited to their capabilities. In other words, there’s a leader for every season. This is how CEOs have built reputations on Wall Street around certain archetypes—i.e. those that specialize in turnaround, strategy, operations, new business, pleasing shareholders, etc. There are very few chiefs in the executive suites known for being “all arounds”. These leaders for all seasons are a rare breed. There should be more of them, hence the need to manage and develop talent at the top.
Given the speed and fluctuations of business, needs change. Once a particular leader has fulfilled the set of previous needs and new needs arise, it is time to look at whether another leader with different experience and strengths is required. Very few organizations manage this well. The recent announcements of two founding CEOs stepping aside for the growth of their business are welcome examples where succession planning and a leader’s self-awareness can work together. It helps organizations foster the maturity of their business, realize their strategies, and manage change. Think about how painful the alternative is: leaders that won’t let go, political upheaval with boards, businesses suffering under the wrong leadership, bad PR, etc.
If I had my druthers, here is how talent management at the top would happen:
1. There should be an emphasis on the right person, in the right job, in the right environment all the way to the top. It’s not about when someone is due for that promotion or appointment, but rather whether they are ready to fulfill the role in the context of the current business needs.
2. Organizations should focus on building more all around leaders, or leaders for all seasons. That means putting the right leader for the season in place and managing their development to expose them to their growth areas. They might lead in one area, but be a learner in another. Those that want to stick with their specialty or passion as leaders for one season should plan for the next role, internally or externally. In all cases, an organization should plan ahead with their leaders what markers or achievements will indicate readiness to move on. While we’re at it, why don’t we extend this to the boards? Make board members better board members for time that they are there, partner them with the C-suite to manage true leadership development and succession planning.
Remember those 3 other options? They still exist. The complexities of leading companies can’t be minimized. However, this fourth option allows organizations to plan for inevitable change more purposefully, and with less drama. It is my belief that talent management of the C-suite is a green field opportunity, primed for experience design à la Design of Work Experience (DOWE) and additional research.
Reaching the pinnacle of one’s career should be recognized. It is truly an achievement to make it to the C-suite. It is this outsider’s opinion that we should treat these people not as deities or despots to depose, but as what they truly are: top talent.
Here's an interesting news story about the short tenure of the Today Show's GM after 10 weeks on the job. You can click on the pic above to learn more or check out this CNN article that provides some more perspective from behind the scenes. My favorite line was that he was "doing the right thing the wrong way." Something tells me that it was more than just that, but I love the insight. While the buzz here shall pass, it does prompt us to reminisce about other short-lived stints, like Bill Perez's 13-months with Nike back in 2006. Contrary to what the top 10 listers would tell you, each and every one of these had very different circumstances with only one thing in common: job-person (mis)match. Though it is easy to criticize what these leaders did wrong (and they might have), I am more apt not to blame specific people. I'm much more critical of the circumstances, however. How purposeful was the selection? What conditions were set for failure vs. success? Did anyone, ANYONE look at the culture? Sometimes it just doesn't work out, but it behooves us to learn from it every single time. Just my two cents :)
Here's an article that came out today on Why Leaders Should Use Social Media http://bit.ly/1t8V1wD This list is a good start: Show More Character, Making Connections, Engage in Conversations, Create Your Own Content, Create Communities, Promote Collaboration --my only addition is TO LEARN. Leaders oftentimes don't do enough to expand their knowledge base or connect with worlds outside their own. IMHO, they are missing opportunities this way. Just because "you made it" doesn't mean you should stop striving to develop. I may have mentioned a question I posed at a conference to some top corporate leaders, about the "what now?" when they "got there." Their answers told me they didn't put much thought into this question. Social media is an easy way to get access to tons of information. In fact, it almost finds you if you let it. My experience with writing a book has shown me that it takes a lot of work to do research. I've also been lucky to find some really great leads by following Twitter or LinkedIn feeds. These are gifts that I happily accept, and you should too.
Why is it that we humans tend to narrow ourselves down to restrictive definitions of some really good concepts? ”Leadership” is one of them. In the “traditional view” (a common one), it is conceived as describing and belonging to a few individuals, privileged enough to make all the decisions in our hierarchy-driven organizations. I hear it all the time at work, “leadership needs to understand…, leadership needs to do something or another…” Indeed, “leadership meetings” are typically limited to those few people, by those few people. It is a self-perpetuating cycle between those leaders and non-leaders alike. The worst part about it is that it promotes separation, not collaboration, parts and not wholeness, us vs. them mentality. Then there is THE leader, the one on top who is the one to blame. No wonder “it’s lonely at the top.”
Leadership as a concept is a pretty positive one. Attaching leadership to actual people are not always as positive. Those few exceptions have been elevated to sainthood status. Funny how it plays out as a zero-sum game, all or nothing.
So what if we took leadership as a concept and we shared it among people?
I love this quote from Peter Senge, “Leadership is the capacity of a human community to shape or influence its future.” Think about what could be achieved if people acted according to this belief.
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