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Follow the leader: Creating an engaging culture


leadershipOrganisations that promote engaging leadership styles are usually also the most successful. So what can HR do to encourage and support a healthy culture with inspirational leaders? Lucie Benson reports.

The prime minister’s future as leader of our country may be in doubt at the moment, but perhaps HR can learn some lessons from the time that Gordon Brown is spending at Number 10; after all, HR has a critical and strategic role to play when it comes to leadership development, and is in a significant position to influence and create a healthy and engaging culture within an organisation.

But how can HR go about encouraging managers to develop positive, engaging and inspiring leadership behaviours? And just what is an ‘inspirational’ leader anyway?

“Somebody who shows selective vulnerability is more attractive to us than somebody who appears to be super human and perfect, because we can relate to someone if there is vulnerability involved.”

Joanna Knight, Berkshire Consultancy

“An inspirational leader is somebody who focuses more on their personal power to win the hearts and minds of the workforce, rather than relying on their positional power,” remarks Dan Archer, a senior researcher at the Leadership Trust. “It is somebody who has the ability to make people want to work for them, rather than have to work for them, and it links to the ability to make people feel valued.”

Archer believes that an inspirational leader is actually in the eye of the beholder. “That might sound a bit wacky, but it is to do with charisma – what makes people charismatic and inspirational?” he asks.

Joanna Knight, director of the Berkshire Consultancy, would argue that it is not entirely about charisma, and more about authenticity. “An inspiring leader is someone who is authentic, which is important because there is the sense that people know who you are and what you stand for, and what you aspire to as well,” she says.

“That authenticity is also about being human, so not needing to be perfect. Somebody who shows selective vulnerability is more attractive to us than somebody who appears to be super human and perfect, because we can relate to someone if there is vulnerability involved, and it is therefore more engaging.”

Got to have faith

A successful leader must also create and engender trust, says Archer – a statement which is backed up by a recent survey of UK professionals by HR consultancy BlessingWhite, which showed that it is vital for employees to have faith in their senior leaders. Yet the findings revealed that while 71% of workers trust their immediate managers, less than half feel the same way about their organisation’s senior management team.

“Inspirational leaders give people clear boundaries to work within, but they don’t necessarily dictate how people are going to go about their business. Instead, they make it absolutely clear where they want to be, what the outcomes are and what the vision is, but then trust people to get on with it,” comments Archer.

“Our research showed evidence that if the culture of the team is perceived by the team members to be one of high levels of engagement, those teams were the most successful in delivering performance.”

Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, Real World Group

However, Andrew Kakabadse, professor of international management development at the Cranfield School of Management, turns it on its head by stating that an inspirational leader has not actually been defined. “The whole concept of inspirational leadership is a bit of nonsense. The truth is that in mature markets, where competitive advantage is very tight and where making the difference is distinctly challenging, many organisations try to find that competitive advantage by being disciplined in terms of cost.

“Living and working in such circumstances can be de-motivating and thus the concept of inspirational leadership has emerged almost as a hope that leaders can nurture better working conditions and make work fun, yet that is almost an impossible task due to competition in mature markets.”

Kakabadse adds that inspirational leadership is viewed as someone who possesses skills of communication and projects a charismatic nature, whereas, in fact, it means being clearly focused on targets and deadlines, whilst also displaying the skills of influencing people. “In reality, inspirational leadership is the combination of business and people skills, with the emphasis on business skills.”

Leadership and productivity links

One of the largest studies into creating a culture of engaging leadership has recently been completed. It was a three-year study and one of the first to show a significant link between engaging leadership and productivity. Beverly Alimo-Metcalfe, founder of the Real World Group, was one of the key conductors of the study.

“Our research showed evidence that if the culture of the team is perceived by the team members to be one of high levels of engagement, those teams were the most successful in delivering performance,” she says. “The research also found that the top performing teams were those that also had the highest morale and lowest stress.”

Knight adds that if you can tap into the discretionary effort that each member of staff can give an organisation, that is over and above doing a competent job, you are going to get significantly extra performance out of the individual. “Collectively that will affect the bottom line,” she says. “Intuitively, this is something that leaders understand and know, it is just how to do it that is the real challenge.”

“Values are the easiest thing to put down on a piece of paper, but they don’t belong there, they belong in the way people go about creating the atmosphere of any organisation.”

Dan Archer, Leadership Trust

So how can HR help to develop and support an engaging leadership culture? “HR has got to influence managers in terms of realising that there is a business case for it, and the managers then have to enact that,” says Alimo-Metcalfe. “HR also has to scrutinise the recruitment, selection and promotion criteria, rewards, and appraisal processes, to make sure that everything the organisation does is done in a way which is consistent with the values of engagement.”

Knight says that HR teams have to be role models too. “They are heading up the function that focuses on the people in an organisation, so it is quite difficult if they are saying ‘this is what we want the leaders to do’, and they themselves are behaving differently.”

The DNA of an organisation

Yet even before HR thinks about these issues, there is one matter that needs to be discussed – what is the culture of an organisation? That is the million dollar question, says Archer. “Whilst there are long academic answers, in a way it is the DNA of an organisation. What is it in an organisation that glues people together? Very often, it is the organisational values that are so important and the way the leaders and senior people behave. Values are the easiest thing to put down on a piece of paper, but they don’t belong there, they belong in the way people go about creating the atmosphere of any organisation.”

Archer believes that HR is in the ideal position to create that atmosphere by encouraging people and giving them the necessary skills to, first of all, lead themselves and then create leadership at every level of the organisation. “What is becoming increasingly evident is the importance of developing leadership at every level, not just at the top. It is a combination of that leadership at all levels that creates the culture of the organisation.”

It is also vital to get the top managers on board, behaving in ways which reflect the values and principles of engaging leadership, says Alimo-Metcalfe. “They have got to be individuals of enormous integrity, but also great transparency. They create a culture where people are encouraged to question the status quo, contribute their ideas, and work in collaboration with other teams on building a shared vision and achieving it.”

Kakabadse echoes this view. “Creating an engaged and healthy culture is an absolutely vital skill and the first step towards that end is to ensure that the senior management group share the same vision and beliefs about the future.”

So, it is clear that HR has a key role to play in contributing to leadership development and continuous cultural improvement. To do this, HR must be strategic and effectively engage with senior management, whilst developing an engaging leadership culture at all levels within the organisation.

Archer concludes: “For HR, it is to do with focusing and developing leadership at every level, and that combination helps to create that competitive edge, to recruit and retain people at a time when the competition for talent is becoming greater and greater.”

5 Responses

  1. Not complicated
    Let me tell a story.
    There was a large international corporation that wanted to start doing business in the UK. They hired consultants to do a survey on what people wanted and averaged out the needs of the population.
    The launch date came and the corporation launched with shoes in two sizes – one male and one female.

    It’s attention to individual needs that counts not statistics.

    Its not difficult – but it is complicated!Find a guide who has travelled the way before!

  2. If the boss can’t go there, HR probably can’t either.
    From my personal experience, I would suggest that if a CEO can’t authentically engage and inspire, and does not have the right type of self-esteem, then the HR team will be wasting their time trying to take her/him there. I have had the privilege of working for some great bosses, and some awful ones. The awful ones just did not have the overall capability of exploring themselves and their impact on others. The great ones did. The article starts by refering to Gordon Brown. He strikes me as the Finance Director who was promoted to CEO, and who thinks that the behaviours which made him successfgul as an FD will work perfectly well in the CEO role. Haven’t we all seen that?? (I’d better not mention names).
    The article also mentions the differences at different levels. There’s some interesting stuff in Cass’s Change management work which highlights that the issues for those at the top of big organisations are so different from those at the sharp end. Maybe the top should not be trying to “inspire” the whole organisation. maybe it can’t be done??
    A footnote….
    As one the those “sad” folk who have read Kierkegaard and Heidigger wrote about “authenticity”, I have a problem seeing that word in this context. I won’t bore you with the reasons. Does anyone have a better word?

  3. Engaging Culture
    There is reference to a huge survey having been completed. Is there a chance someone can publish this survey for perusal, especially the questions asked and who they were asked of. I am sure that would be greatly appreciated. Cheers.

  4. Engage with a Proposal?
    Engaging works with immediate managers but not distant bosses but I would ask where’s the mustard? What’s in it for me?
    If organisations are to try and bridge the gap across levels of management then perhaps recognise it’s tough to always build relationships. Sure, try and develop communications and “engage” but find something substantive to for people to bite on. Otherwise staff, employees, colleagues get suspicious about motives. That’s why in a cynical new click and instant world, immediate relationships are one of the few things to be relied upon.
    So my point is, offer something more than words to people. For example involvement in projects, ask opinions and that kind of thing. The rather jargon laden marketing term integrated comes to mind but it is appropriate ie do something then publicize what’s going on.

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