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Leadership, Engagement and the Culture Change Pyramid

We spend a lot of our time with leaders discussing issues like trust and delegation.  What leaders need to do – more of, or less of.  Taking big decisions about strategic direction and what to stop doing.

Leaders need to work out what to pay close attention to.  And what they need to let go of.

Yes leadership is about the balance between control, influence and acceptance.  But importantly, it’s also about paying close attention to what matters.

The Culture Change Pyramid is inspired by my work in the field of health and safety for over ten years.  In that field they talk about the ‘Bird Pyramid’.

The Lego Pyramid: leadership, engagement and culture change

The Culture Change Pyramid

In my Culture Change Pyramid (right) the bottom rows represent the everyday; the 2 green pillars are priorities.  The larger bricks above are the things that go wrong when the priorities and the everyday aren’t to the team’s highest standards.

It’s also a great way to make the distinction between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’.

It sounds lyrical but, in essence, the Bird Pyramid is just a way of saying that, if you have a high number of low-level H&S incidents, you increase the likelihood of having a higher level incident and fatalities.

Made popular by Frank Bird in 1969, it’s a way of categorising behaviour and helps people to challenge the prevailing culture.

Some people viewed that as a predictor, I see it more as an indicator.  I also believe that the same is true of staff engagement and behaviours.

Towards the bottom of the pyramid are the behaviours that staff display every day.  As long as we’re happy that they are competent and making intelligent decisions; sticking to agreed processes and protocols, there’s no need – as leaders – to micro-manage.

What happens, however, is that poor practices slip by un-noticed in the busyness of the everyday.  These only come to the attention of management when something visibly goes wrong.

  • A deadline slips
  • The auditors turn up
  • Customers complain

These are good indicators of something going wrong at the fundamental level.  Unfortunately, the behaviour itself may not be significant enough, in isolation, to be picked up.  That’s why monitoring of low-level problems is useful.  You can see the overall picture.

And when we have these negative outcomes, the tendency is to deal with them in isolation, rather than to see the bigger picture.  If a customer complains, we’ll deal with that.  Possibly tracking back to the root cause of that single issue.  Rather than asking “what’s the pattern here?”

Because if we don’t deal with a negative pattern of behaviours – the cultural norms – they’re going to create the bigger negative event.  In health and safety that’s typically a fatality.  In a business it might be the loss of a customer.  In the public or charity sector, the loss of a grant – or a programme of work.

One way of achieving this is to increase the pride in work delivered.  Acknowledging staff for their effort and their successes – at the same time as nailing the issues.  Not allowing poor quality to go unchallenged.

  • By partnering pride with productivity, people feel more engaged with their work.
  • Put simply – we all need to feel appreciated.

We feel fairly treated and happy to be part of teams when leaders and managers acknowledge our effort.  Especially when rewards and promotion are harder to come by.  This is what culture is – ‘the way we do things around here everyday’.

So what’s the difference between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ in this context? 

For me it’s about leaders paying close attention to what matters: the pillars. Managers are entrusted with the responsibility of seeing that the everyday gets done.  Leaders have the luxury of stepping back and seeing patterns and priorities in that busy-ness.

They also need to demonstrate that trust in their managers.  Leadership is often about subtle course-correction, not wholesale change.  This means acknowledging what is working – and just shifting where it isn’t.

Leaders need to ask questions that will identify what creates success in this situation or context:

  • What works?
  • What do people do well?
  • Which behaviours contribute to success?
  • What matters?

Even in asking those questions, most leaders will also hear about what’s not working; what isn’t going well; what’s contributing to failure.

The answers give those vital clues to leaders about what to pay attention to.  In all the day-to-day pressures, there are some priorities that are greater than others.   By setting, and upholding clear standards and goals around successful behaviours – and not diminishing other good work – leaders create a culture of engagement and success.



Leadership: Busting the 6 Myths

I’m sitting here in Izmir, Turkey.  The sun has just set over the sparkling Aegean Sea.  Our partners have finished delivering our Ignite leadership coaching skills course, to some very happy customers.  Everyone worked really hard, and I saw the personal and professional transformation in these people over 2 days.

Apt then, that I’m reviewing my notes for my forthcoming book on transformational leadership, collating all the myths that people have shared with us when they start their workshop with us.

  • “Leadership is complicated”
  • “Decisions are difficult”
  • “There are too many conflicting priorities”
  • “Win-win conversations are impossible”
  • “Leadership needs to feel hard – otherwise it’s not working”
  • “Transformation never takes off or gains traction”

Yes, leadership development is a complex area, never more challenging than in today’s environment. Leaders are under pressure to deliver more for less, get the best from their teams and achieve at full potential.

The world of work is complicated enough.  But just because leadership is challenging, it doesn’t mean it has to be overly complex, or feel hard.

As Steve Jobs once said “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Continue reading

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Leadership Priorities – the people or performance?

I had one of those ‘I have a dream’ moments last week: I want managers and leaders to have more supportive conversations with their staff.  But I know that people tend to compartmentalise – people OR performance?

I had this lightbulb moment as we were driving to the country house hotel in the heart of England where we run our coaching skills courses.  A drive is a great way to explore and discuss ideas.

Why more supportive conversations?  The benefits are huge – both for achieving high performance and maintaining it.  leadership conversations Continue reading

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What impact are you having as a leader?

What impact are you having as a leader?  This is a scary question for me because I know that, sometimes, I don’t have the impact I intended – and sometimes, noticing other peoples’ impact helps me reflect on my own.

Over the weekend we took family members shopping to a pleasant local town with great facilities.  The highlight of the day, for me, was intended as a browse through a branch of an internationally-renowned designer clothing company.  Dressed head to toe in their products, I went looking for inspiration to brighten up the wet winter days ahead.

What I noticed was that the experience wasn’t as pleasant as usual.  Continue reading


Top ten leadership lessons from the summer of sport

For us Londoners, it’s been an amazing summer of sporting achievement.  Whether you remember the Queen apparently leaping from a helicopter, David Beckham racing up the Thames with the Olympic torch, or any one of the remarkable athletic achievements, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.  Some of the most profound lessons in leadership, for me, came from the Paralympic games.

There’s so much to learn from the courage, commitment and athleticism of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and here are the leadership qualities I saw.  Continue reading

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Social Responsibility and the Leader

I’ve just come out of a strategy meeting with our global team and consolidated a number of conversations I’ve been having recently with our business partners, and leadership coaches, from around the world.

Corporate Social Responsibility is described as the third element of the ‘triple bottom line’: corporate profitability; the people element and the environmental (or ‘planet’) account.  The third of these three ‘P’s was first created by a British environmentalist, John Elkington, in the mid-1990’s and the argument goes that only by taking into account these three elements is the full ‘cost’ (by which he meant more than just the financial element) of doing business. Continue reading

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Leadership fundamentals: trust, empathy & connection

As leaders we need to create connections with people that go beyond the superficial: building on empathy we need to achieve trust.  Trust is an indicator of prosperity and when we feel it, we are more confident that we can do business, get things done and achieve our mutual goals with others.

There’s a neuroscience to trust, that lies behind team spirit, personal and team effectiveness.  Rather than write a lot this week, I’m going to invite you to spend 15 minutes watching this video from the recent TED conference in Edinburgh.