Blog – Culture Change: What effective CEOs do

Written by Corinne Canter

Rightly or wrongly, CEOs are judged on everything they do as much as on everything they have not done. They are on stage 24/7 and are continually critiqued on their voice, their tone, their turn of phrase, their body language, what they have said, and how, as much as what they didn’t say. While it is all part of the job description, being the one in charge has its burdens, is challenging and not for the faint hearted. All that judgment is a lot to deal with. So clarity of role and what ‘effective’ looks like in action is important.

When we have talked with the CEOs who have been successful at turning an organisation around culturally, we have observed that they share some common behaviours; (in no specific order); Effective CEOs:

i)   Authorize and back the change. This includes everything from ‘walking the talk”, to being honest about their own challenges, to signing off on the resources required (time, energy and dollars) as well as visibly advocating for culture. Talking about it, and making space in their daily routines to back the rhetoric with action. (AKA role modelling)

ii)    Explain clearly why change is needed in a way that makes sense, and how it will help not just the organisation but their people and their stakeholders and why it should matter to each person in the organisation.

iii)  Emphasize growth|aspiration – the opportunity to develop to another level vs emphasizing the uncertain language of “change” which can make it sound like everything we have ever done up until this point is ‘bad’. Growth is more inclusive. It offers a home for everyone while honouring past achievements.

iv)  Demonstrate “3 Zone Consciousness”: While they are grounded in the present and have taken lessons from the past, they are essentially about creating a better future and passing on an organisation that has evolved to a level beyond the level that they had inherited.

v)  Understand the need to create and capture sustainable value in a way that is socially responsible and that creates shared value. We need our leaders to be in service to something bigger than their own interests!

vi)  Are open-minded and open-actioned. They seek and accept feedback (even when it hurts, maybe especially when it hurts). Effective CEOs involve others in developing their thoughts, and they are able to regulate their emotions so that they can rise above the heat of the moment, to provide a more measured and considered response. Focusing on the long term goal helps anchor their priorities and efforts.

vii)  They are congruent and consistent: CEOs become trustworthy and credible when they say what they mean, and do what they say.

You cannot talk your way out of bad or variable behaviour. Actions speak louder than words, and people listen to action.

viii)  They can admit their mistakes and are prepared to say “ I got that wrong”. There is a humility in these CEOs that is not falsely modest or political– it’s just owning up to the fact that they too are human and will not always get it right.

These actions and commitments collectively provide the level of ‘psychological safety’ and stability required to help people (leaders and employees alike) choose to join the path of change, the path of difference over comfort.

Effective CEOs of culture change understand that the organisation requires willing advocates, not reluctant prisoners, when it comes to shifting the culture or indeed achieving any of the organisation’s objectives. The notion that people will do what they are told is only true to a point and beyond that, it is just flat out wrong. You cannot demand discretionary effort, it simply is not ours to command, people will choose whether they want to gift it to you.

Effective CEOs understand that discretionary effort is a gift and when given, it is a vote of confidence that needs to be respected and not taken for granted.

If CEOs can apply these principles in how they lead, it is a tremendous start. People don’t expect perfection, just congruence.



About the Author:
Corinne Canter is a Senior Consultant with Human Synergistics Australia. She has over 25 years of working with leaders to create high performing, toxic free teams, and workplace cultures.

Get in touch with Corinne on email or LinkedIn. Read about her research on Extreme Thinking.


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