Lack of Leadership Commitment to Culture Stunts Growth

If you are a North American, you may be unfamiliar with the term parapet. The expression ‘put your head over the parapet’ is used to describe being brave enough to state an opinion that might upset someone. I learned a different version of this expression while conducting interviews about changing the organizational culture in a UK-based multinational company. The phase was: ‘Do not raise your head above the parapet’.

This reference to a parapet – a low protective wall at the edge of a balcony, roof, or bridge – is relevant because it alludes to how a company’s culture can either provide support and encouragement for growth, or hold it back. For this company, the perception of the employees was that the leadership commitment to culture was holding them back.

Case Study: UK Multinational Company Culture

I was brought in by the CEO who was critical of his company’s organizational culture and said that he wanted to change it. After meeting with the CEO, I conducted a number of interviews with employees in different positions at various locations. One of the questions I asked was, “Give me a phrase or word which best describes the culture here.” The most frequent answer was, “Don’t raise your head above the parapet”. The first couple of times I heard this phrase I would ask for more explanation. Invariably, the replies involved the punitive nature of the executives’ actions, along with the comment “Don’t stick your head up or you will get shot”.

File source: parapet in a European castle

Actual vs. Stated Values

Organizational culture is the manifestation of an organization’s actual values. These are the values which are displayed and reinforced daily. Employees pay much more attention to the actual values, not the nice words printed on posters. Employees will echo to disregard what we say our values are, and just consider what happens.

Organizational culture matters because it tells employees how to be successful and what not to do. In the example described above, the message from the culture was “do your job and don’t challenge or state an opinion which might upset someone”. A common expression employees use for this is “We are told to check our brains at the door”. Not very inspiring, right?

Further, this type of organizational culture is reflective of a command and control style of management in which employees are expected to do only as they are told. The implicit assumption is that the managers and supervisors know best how the work is to be performed.

While this may appear logical, it’s often not accurate. Usually, those who are doing the jobs best understand how to improve the work. In this case of the UK company, the supervisors and managers were dealing with an unacceptably high level of errors in processing customer materials. These errors were damaging the brand, giving ammunition to competitors and increasing operating costs due to required rework. The management’s assumption was that the answer was threats and punitive consequences. This approach had been tried and, over time, the problem was becoming worse rather than better. Yet, even with their own data saying this approach was clearly not working, the practice continued. The approach to improve performance was being thwarted by management techniques and the organizational culture.

Ironically, in the office where I was conducting some of the interviews there was a large poster on the wall which stated the organization’s values. The stated values were so different from what was being described by the employees. Finally, I asked about the poster. A high level manager said, “Oh that? It is from a program started by XXXX. He got fired and the whole thing stopped. We have just not bothered to take the posters down.”

Culture Supports or Stunts

Organizational culture will either support the successful execution of growth strategies or it will stunt them. It’s up to leadership commitment. By definition most growth strategies imply doing some things differently, since there is little reason to expect growth to occur absent change. Further, growth which creates substantial value and is sustainable over time will undoubtedly involve substantial change.

So what is going to be? When your people speak up, will you listen and encourage them and foster growth, or shoot them down? It is your choice, but just remember that the culture that your leadership commitment reinforces, might just be the culture that is holding you back.


If you want to learn more about what characteristics and roles leadership plays in the success of any organization, download our whitepaper: ‘Successful Strategic Execution Begins With Leaders’.

In it, you will learn:

  • The two hallmarks of an effective leader
  • The most crucial value for leaders to possess
  • The greatest contribution a leader provides
  • The most valuable ‘tool’ for a leader to wield
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5 Essential Leadership Commitments in Communication

Leadership and communication are so intertwined that they could be thought of as synonymous. It is important to remember that in this case, the term communication is shaped more by what employees feel, hear and perceive, rather than what the leader says.

People in the organization observe the verbal and nonverbal communications from executives. They look for clues as to the authenticity of these executives, and whether they can be trusted as leaders. The people also look at the congruence between what leaders say and do. They look to determine if “the walk matches the talk”.

Here are 5 essential leadership commitments that must be made in communication to transform organizations:

1.) Develop High Integrity Capacity

The level of congruence between words and action is essential in establishing the credibility of the executives. Petrick and Quinn call this congruence “high integrity capacity” — a coherent unity of purpose and action in the face of moral complexity and conflicting values. Building the level of integrity capacity is crucial for action and communication in transformation, given that a transformation invariably includes challenges as well giving up the comport of old ways of doing things.

In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner point out that this important congruence includes the relationship between the leader’s stated values and priorities for constituents and his/her own behavior. “If customer service is important, find time to spend with customers. If your message is that ‘we’re all in this together,’ then make certain your own actions reinforce this message.”

Too often I have seen the stated purpose and values be horribly at odds with the executive’s behavior. As an example, I was working at a paper mill in Louisiana that was in the midst of a very difficult market and was having major operational problems with a capital expansion. The COO of the company concluded that job cuts were required to lower costs, even though this facility was not particularly overstaffed. On the morning that these difficult actions were to occur, the COO came flying in on a very expensive private jet (the latest Gulfstream), delivered a speech about the importance of cutting costs, and then jumped on the plane and flew back out. Needless to say, the executive’s actions were highly inconsistent with the words. Until the point when credibility is established, leadership communication will be ignored by many people in the business. In the example just described, the executive’s presence and speech made things worse for the facility management, rather than better.

2.) Align Communication with Transformation

Accountability is demonstrated by leadership communication that is designed to promote the transformation. This transformative communication includes a clear, comprehensive description of the reasons for the transformation, what the transformation will accomplish for the business and what the impacts will be on employees and other stakeholders. Leadership communication is not a one-time thing. Nor is it putting a video on the employee’s web sites.

Communicating with others about the transformation is a prime means of establishing and sustaining accountability. Ultimately, communications matter when people know what is expected of them, how this change will affect them personally, how you are enabling them to be successful in managing the change, and how the transformation will benefit the business and employees as a group.

3.) Learn to Acknowledge

Acknowledgement is a key element in effective communication and accountability. Yet a conversation for acknowledgement is often hard for people in business. We can usually describe all of the defects and limitations. Even in the face of a big accomplishment, we are prone to look at all the things that could have been done better. As an executive leader of transformation, you want to be aware of this tendency to focus on the problems and what is wrong.

Leadership Communication and accountability promotes acknowledgment, candor, forthrightness and honesty. All of these are attributes of effective leadership communication. Leadership accountability is essential in building and sustaining a climate of trust in leaders. Leadership inspires via communication. Communication is both action and word. As an example, acting with accountability is a strong communication. The opposite is valid as well, that is acting with a lack of accountability is a strong communication.

4.) Promote Ownership

A company with thriving accountability promotes “ownership” by employees of their portion of the business. This means developing ownership of the problems and lack of results, of creating innovative solutions to address the problems and increase results. It means taking ownership of the initiatives, people and results. These are all the things that a leader wants to see in a business, and are examples of what is evident when a business is transforming.

5.) Establish Metrics and Accountability Structures

Accountability establishes metrics and ultimately the needed measure and controls. Through the accountability structures, the employees and the leaders can see what is and what isn’t on track. Through accountability structures, employees and leaders can make important observations:

  • Whether they’re on the right course
  • Whether they’ve got the right people, and people in the right places
  • Whether they’re achieving goals
  • What is needed to institute change and target new results

Accountability leads and promotes transformation. Communication by leaders is essential in transformation, and accountability is at the heart of empowering people to become engaged in performance improvements and transformation.


If you want to learn more about what characteristics and roles leadership plays in the success of any organization, download our whitepaper: ‘Successful Strategic Execution Begins With Leaders’.

In it, you will learn:

  • The two hallmarks of an effective leader
  • The most crucial value for leaders to possess
  • The greatest contribution a leader provides
  • The most valuable ‘tool’ for a leader to wield
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Why Leadership Accountability is Critical in Breakthrough Projects

Perhaps you have heard the expression: “I can’t hear what you’re saying because who you are being speaks so loudly”. This implies that the ‘being’ of a leader is a stronger force than any words the leader uses. Consider that for leaders, accountability is an essential ingredient in their being.

For many, the previous statement will be hard to understand so let’s unpack it a bit. The role of leaders is to align people, communicate goals, seek commitment, motivate, and inspire. Empowering accountability, as created by leaders, serves that purpose. It is quite distinct from management accountability, which is designed to produce consistency, control and order. Empowering accountability is designed to enable employees to be extraordinary in pursuit of the exceptional. Empowering Accountability by leaders is essential for success in Breakthrough Projects that lead to organizational transformation.

So let’s explore what Breakthrough Projects are and how they lead to transformation.

What are Breakthrough Projects

Breakthrough Projects are a strategic intervention harnessed to transform of an organization. The intent of a Breakthrough Project is to:

  • Be a vivid demonstration of leader’s commitments to the business and organization
  • Be a source of organizational learning
  • Disrupt the status quo
  • Demonstrate accomplishment and performance which was previous thought not possible
  • Develop organizational and technical capabilities
  • Develop leadership capabilities of those involved in the Breakthrough Projects
  • Produce exceptional business and financial results

In the beginning of a business transformation, it is important for executives to remember that people in the organization have seen many examples of executives saying one thing and doing another. Even when people have not seen it in your organization, they will infer it from what they have heard from family and friends. The expectation you are walking into is that you will ultimately not hold yourself to account, nor will you require that other executives and managers hold themselves to account.

Role of Accountability

Given the magnitude of these changes, a key design element for Breakthrough Projects and Organizational Transformation is accountability.

Continuation of the existing forms of accountability is probably a mistake. In a business transformation, I recommend that a formal ‘Structure of Accountability’ be created to demonstrate new forms of accountability based on leadership, rather than management. This new Structure of Accountability will assure openness and transparency in how the Breakthrough Projects are conducted. In my firm, we call these new structures Results Leadership Teams. A Results Leadership Team (RLT) assures openness and transparency during key tasks such as making the charters of the teams publicly available, creating scorecard and value capture documents, formal and informal communication, and open town-hall style meetings with employees.

Accountability and transparency are stronger when the executives establish an expectation that the actions and results of the Breakthrough Projects and organizational transformation will be kept open within the company. This is essential, since transformation does not occur in private or behind closed doors. It is a very open and public phenomenon. The leaders want to make sure that their action and communications are directly linked to the business results for which they are accountable. A leader steps forward to assert that she/he is accountable, and invites others to observe and eventually join in.

Modeling Leadership Accountability Regarding Results

Leadership Accountability is demonstrated when the executives and managers hold themselves to account for success of the Breakthrough Projects in a public manner. The RLT provides an excellent forum for this Leadership Accountability to be displayed. This practice of executives and managers displaying their Leadership Accountability is a powerful communication of their commitments to Breakthrough and Transformation in their organizations.

The public display of leaders being accountable and personally committed may not seem like a big deal. Yet for many organizations, it is a pivotal step for leadership when executives promise to publicly hold themselves to account for Breakthroughs in the business. In many organizations, executives have a history of blaming lack of results on circumstances and other peoples.

Executives demonstrating Leadership Accountability and personal accountability for results is a crucial building block for organizational transformation. Embowing the organization happens when leaders “own” their circumstances and business results, regardless of how good the results are. Kouzes and Posner state that the starting point for leader accountability is being willing to accept personal responsibility for personal actions and those of the organization.

“In the final analysis, accountability means embracing your full responsibility for results and remaining answerable for your progress in attaining those results, regardless of how or why you managed to get into your current situation.”

Too often executives think that they cannot show any signs of weakness, must always be right, and appear strong. While this is a common concept, it is simply not useful for executives who desire to provide leadership for their organizations. If you paint yourself into a corner of needing to be right, strong and never vulnerable, you have lost any hope of being perceived as an authentic and genuine leader. Rather, you will appear to your people as fake, overly ambitious, and untrustworthy. You will give the impression that you are petty, small and working your own agenda. Regardless of what you say, most of your people will interpret you as a two-faced liar, and view you as simply another empty suit or ‘hot air’ executives that they have seen before.

And a leader viewed in this manner can never transform an organization.


If you would like to understand better how to introduce a Breakthrough Project in your organization, download our white paper, “7 Elements for Chartering a Breakthrough Project”.

In it you will learn:

  • what a ‘Breakthrough Project’ is and why it’s critical to organizational transformation
  • why creating a ‘charter’ is a critical step in the process
  • the critical roles that key people must play in the project to enhance success
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Empowering Accountability in Leadership Communication

There is a common misconception that effective communication is a formal activity, such as a manager conducting a town hall meeting. Further, communication is thought to be what a specific functional group does. That is, communication is what our ‘communications department’ is responsible for.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Communication is a primary responsibility of anyone who seeks to be a leader. Communication is how leaders accomplish their work, including creating accountability which empowers others. Leadership occurs in communication. Leadership involves engaging and inspiring others to act in ways which produce extraordinary results. Absent effective communication there is little to no leadership.

Empowering Accountability

Among the ways leaders engage and inspire others to act is establishing Empowering Accountability. This is an expression of leadership in which employees are given direction and guidance with clear understanding of their purpose and boundaries for inventing and taking risks. Extraordinary results seldom happen when organizations “do what we have always done”. No, achieving the extraordinary requires employees “stepping out” with creativity, innovation, inspiration and prudent risk taking. Employees in most organizations will not step out like that unless they know their leaders “have their back”. Empowering Leadership is precisely how leaders watch their employees backs and encourage the desired risk taking.

Leadership communication and Empowering Accountability go hand in hand. Leaders communicate and make decisions with openness and straightforward disclosure, in contrast to using only “need-to-know” communication. Leaders are acknowledged for talking straight and telling us as much as possible about what we are doing, why we are doing it, what it will mean to me, and how it will benefit our business performance. Accountable leaders act from a commitment to be answerable to their constituents.

Acknowledge Mistakes Without Blame

Leaders also acknowledge the difference between good choices and poor ones. They are in communication about these poor choices and the consequences on the business. This open communication is at the same time complementary and supportive of the innovation and intent of those who made these choices which are later regretted. Of course, that is not the case if those involved in making the decisions were devious and acting with ill will.

At the beginning of an organizational transformation, the leaders often need to address actions and decisions from the past which are now causing issues for the business. Blame should NEVER be part of these leadership conversation. Rather what is needed is a clear, concise statement of what happened. In most cases, the employees are already aware of the circumstances. Yet, something magical happens when the leaders stand and be accountable for past events, even if the leaders were in no way involved. The point to establish is that we will communicate directly our understanding of what happens, will not issue blame, and will support our people’s creativity, innovation and risk taking. This is crucial positioning for both leadership communication and Empowering Accountability.

Leading to Breakthrough Projects

This positioning is important because in most Breakthrough Projects and organizational transformations there will be dramatic moments when something did not go as planned. Leader’s ask the right questions, and their conversations must focus on what was learned and how can it be used going forward. This is in direct contrast to the typical management investigation in the form of “who is to blame?” and “how do we make sure this never happens again?”.

The leadership approach assumes full accountability for events and based on that seeks to promote organizational learning and possible breakthroughs which can occur only through an empowering inquiry into the events. This leadership approach will promote action and learning. In contrast, the typical management approach ends up focusing on who to blame, how to punish that individual and group, and writing additional processes and procedures in hopes of preventing any future recurrence. While common and well-intended, this management approach actually has harmful effects. Blaming and punishing people has a suppressive impact on willingness to create, innovate and take risks. Further, the new procedures usually add onto existing procedures and increase the complexity for employees. Many companies’ procedures have become so complex and voluminous that have the unintended impact of being a burden for employees rather than an asset.

Leader’s establishing Empowering Accountability, which supports employees’ creativity, innovation and risk-taking, is a key enabler of breakthroughs and organizational transformation. These leaders provide a platform for employees to learn, grow and ultimately become leaders themselves.


If you want to learn more about what characteristics and roles leadership plays in the success of any organization, download our whitepaper: ‘Successful Strategic Execution Begins With Leaders’.

In it, you will learn:

  • The two hallmarks of an effective leader
  • The most crucial value for leaders to possess
  • The greatest contribution a leader provides
  • The most valuable ‘tool’ for a leader to wield
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