Are role models always positive?
I was working with a client in the financial services sector recently on a series of leadership development workshops. These had been instigated by a requirement to change the culture of the organisation due to externally changing demands.
One conversation went something along the lines of:
Participant: ‘in our part of the business the culture is very fast-paced and competitive. It can be fairly aggressive and testosterone driven and not everyone can handle it. People just need to fit in or leave.’
Me: ‘That may culture well have brought success historically however might there be times that talent could be leaving due to this culture and how might this impact on organisational performance?’
Participant: ‘I guess so, but my boss adopted that approach. He’s done pretty well for himself and is well respected by the business. I don’t see any reasons to do much differently.’
Whilst this conversation progressed with the group into some illuminating areas what it got me thinking about is when role models might be identified with in a way that inhibits positive change and performance.
The unintended consequences of role models
A role model, is someone who is looked up to and revered by someone else. Someone who other people aspire to be like.
This is great when the role models that people look to have a leadership attitude (beliefs, values and a mind-set) that is aligned with the leadership attitude of where the organisation needs to be.
What the conversation above brought to my mind are times I have noticed people promoted into senior positions based on WHAT they achieved rather than HOW they achieved it. Rewarded based on outperforming hard targets without to much focus on the upheaval left in their wake.
When their way of acting is in conflict to the espoused attitude needed for future success, and yet they are still ‘rewarded’.
These people will still be held up as role models and there in lies the issue.
Choosing a role model is very personal. Even if an organisation ‘appoints’ positive role models people will still choose their own based on what they believe will be a good outcome for themselves.
If the role model that people aspire to doesn’t represent the organisational attitude needed for future success, then there are a number of potential consequences.
- Some of the next generation of leaders, who closely align with the old way of doing things, will use these role models to support their belief that the old way of doing things is still great and will bring success. At worst this will undermine any attempts to shift culture and at best it will create micro-climates in the organisation that are likely to be in conflict with the wider organisational attitude being aspired to.
- Disconnects between the aspired leadership attitude and what appears to be a rewarded leadership attitude can create a block to change. In order to support change one thing that is required is a sense of dissatisfaction with the current state. If people are perceived to be rewarded, or held in esteem, based on an old way of working then there will not be a big enough reason to change and hence a new paradigm will never be achieved.
- Disconnects can also cause confusion with-in the organisation about what leadership attitude is expected. Anything that contributes to a lack of clarity in ‘what is expected of me in my role’ will impact on personal motivation and performance and have a wider impact on team and organisational performance.
How to create the right role-modelling in your organisation.
In helping organisations change their culture to be fit for the future needs, I usually go through three steps:
- A detailed analysis of the current leadesrhip attitude to identify prevailing values, beliefs and mind-sets and to examine how these have helped or hindered the organisation to the present day. Ideally this should examine attitudes at the level of the individual, the team and the wider system.
- A clear articulation of the leadesrhip attitude that is believed will be required to meet the future challenges of the organisation. This needs an analysis of the internal and external context the organisation will be operating in.
- A clear strategy of development interventions to bridge the gap between these 2 places. These development interventions need to target the individual, the team and the wider system.
There are many ways I have found to help support the change in culture and create the right role-modelling in your organisation. Here are some to get you going.
- Go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ when carrying out your initial analysis. Take soundings horizontally as well as vertically in order to get robust internal data from all levels. This will give you a systemic view rather than a data filtered by a few limited points of view.
- Be creative in defining the new organisational attitude. Harvest diversity to get views on what might happen that might otherwise be in your blind spot. Invite your external stakeholders into the conversation to find out what they would value from your future leadership attitude and integrate this into your strategy
- Make sure you address the individuals who might be perceived as negative role-models going forwards. As Jim Collins said in his book ‘Good to Great’; get the right people on the bus.