With Leadership Principles Set, Focus on the Culture – Listen First, Act Second – For Success

May 16, 2012 by  Filed under: Management 

“Culture drives your business, period. It’s not the other way around. Get your culture right, hold firm to your values, and the financial results will follow.” – Ingar Skaug, Former CEO of Wilhelmsen

As profiled by Susan Tardanico of Forbes, Ingar Skaug took the reins of Wilhelmsen, an international shipping company, after the top two levels of the company’s management team were killed in a plane crash. To guide Wilhelmsen’s fractured employees through the turmoil that plagued the company, Skaug didn’t rush to change direction. He first did a lot of listening. Skaug was successful- overseeing revenue growth from $250 million to $5 billion and 3,500 to 23,00 employees in his 20-year tenure- because he understood the importance of culture. This is not to downplay his business-savy, for the sustained results are impressive. The question is, would Skaug have been as successful if he did not first take the time to understand his company’s unique culture, endear his employees to him by making the grieving process a priority, and move beyond this horrific event as Wilhelmsen’s unquestionable leader?

Most of us will never face the leadership challenge that Ingar Skaug welcomed as an opportunity. While challenging, senior management brought in from outside can, however, understand an organization’s culture and remove roadblocks to success by following the Skaug template- first intently listen and then act for ideal culture change. If the culture is not primed for success, it will turn in that direction because employees will feel appreciated and look for guidance. And for those employees in a management but not senior management position, it is imperative to understand what type of culture changes the boss is making and support this shift.

Being a young professional, I haven’t had the opportunity to shape an organization’s overarching culture. I have, however, had the opportunity to impact a small piece of organizational culture:

The design of the Air Force’s enlisted promotion system is exceptional- objective, quantitative, and it places responsibility squarely on the individual for their performance. Unfortunately, the reality often doesn’t match the intent. Using a Likert scale rating, “Firewall 5’s”- rating employees with 5’s (highest score) across the board- were commonplace because a cultural mandate was in place to rate all employees with the highest score. This undocumented policy normalized performance of superstars, standard performers, and under-achievers alike and in general, undermined the meritocracy of an intelligently designed promotion system that rewarded excellence.

I became determined to make an impact on my unit by rating personnel according to the intent of the promotion system and thus enabling the individual’s true performance to match up against others to evaluate those best suited for greater individual and management positions. First I listened to the complaints of the superior performers that their extra promotion efforts were for naught. Second, I acted and rated people strictly in accordance with their performance, not on an inflated rating system. Other junior officers in the unit followed my lead, resulting in a cultural change- with respect to promotions at least- for the better. Listening, it turns out, is a great way to begin to shape culture.

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