Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How to be a Leader in a Crappy Culture

It’s easy to be a great leader in a company that values leadership, develops leaders, and is full of role model leaders to earn from.

You’ve seen the lists:

2011 Top Companies for Leaders

The Top 20 Best Companies for Leaders

40 Best Companies for Leaders 2012

25 Top Companies for Leaders

These companies, while not perfect, tend to have great hiring and promotional practices, and invest in succession planning and leadership development. If you somehow slipped through the dragnet and got hired or promoted as a lousy manager, the cultural antibodies would eventually find and dispose of you.

However….what about the rest of us? What about those aspiring wannbe leaders that happen to work at one of the other organizations that don’t make the leadership honor role? Is it impossible to develop into a great leader, and to BE a leader, in a bad company with a crappy culture?

I’d say difficult, yes, but impossible, absolutely not!

I’ve been conducting and managing leadership training programs for over 20 years. In classes where participants are all from the same organizations, it’s inevitable at some point in the program the group gets into a pity party about how their managers, division, or company doesn’t model or support what they are learning.

When I would track the performance of participants after the program, there’s always a handful that somehow manage to implement the new behaviors or skills and achieve positive results, despite having to overcome all of the exact same barriers as the rest of their peers.

Somehow, these outliers are able to establish their own little bubbles of leadership excellence within a culture that doesn’t value and support great leadership.

When I ask these outliers how they manage to do it, their answers are always consistent.

So - other than updating your LinkedIn profile and finding a new company, here are a few things a manager can do to be a leader in a company with a crappy culture:

1. Clarify your non-negotiable leadership principles and stick with them no matter what.
In a tough economy, more and more employees find themselves dug into a position or company that they just can’t afford to leave (at least for now). If you’re in a situation like this, you have to ask yourself how much are you willing to sacrifice when it comes to your leadership principles and values? If you’re not sure, chances are, like a frog in a pot of boiling water, at some point, you’ll end up violating every one of them until you wake up one day, look in the mirror, and not recognize yourself.

If you haven’t already, take the time to develop your own list of leadership principles, values, or rules. Then, given your current culture, ask yourself “which ones am I willing to be fired over?”

It’s not as scary or risky as it sounds. Everybody has a line they won’t cross – yours just happens to be your leadership principles.

2. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” - Mahatma Gandhi
When it comes to developing and encouraging leadership, actions speak louder than words. Be a safe haven for other aspiring leaders to come out of the closet. In a crappy leadership culture, role model leaders are few and far between. If you’re being a leader, people will be lining up at your door looking for advice, coaching, and mentoring.

3. Keep a positive attitude.
In a crappy work environment, complaining becomes the norm because there’s so much to complain about. Without going overboard and coming across as out-of-touch or not caring, try to avoid the sarcasm, cynicism, finger pointing, and complaining. They’re all toxic behaviors that will suck the life out of yourself and those around you.

4. Protect your employees.
In a crappy culture, bullies think it’s OK to disrespect and abuse people. After all, that’s the way they were treated. Don’t let it happen to your employees. Let the bullies know that your employees are off limits, and if you need to, pick the biggest bully and give them a bloody nose. Metaphorically, of course. (-:

5. Be an advocate for your peers.
Leadership isn’t just about standing up for your own employees – it’s about standing up for your peers as well. In an environment where people are used to being routinely stabbed in the back, having someone stand up for them will be like a breadth of fresh air. Once they realize you’re sincere and have no political agenda, you’ll begin to establish productive relationships and plant the seeds for their own development as leaders.

6. Establish and maintain your own standards of performance and behavior.
Sure, the company may have set the bar so low that any warm body can meet expectations. High performers can give up and poor performers can settle in. That doesn’t mean your standards can’t be higher – much higher. Assess your team using a performance and potential grid and put a plan in place to develop those with potential and gradually weed out the bad apples.

7. Do what’s doable and within your control.
Regardless of company culture, a manager still can control how often and well he/she:

- listens

- shows respect

- praises

- involves others

- celebrates success

- shows appreciation

- develops others

None of these require approval from top management or HR and don’t cost a dime.

Still think it can’t be done? Stay tuned for this week’s guest post, from David Marquet, who captained a Navy submarine crew and took them from “worst to first”.


Keith Johnston said...

Very well said. This is a great article, it needs to get out to all those who are suffering in crappy cultures created by this current economic environment.

Team Building Speaker said...


Terrific post. I completely agree that we are in control of the cultures that we are a par t of -

Culture is a combination of people and thier attitudes... and as leaders we can influence people and help to change attitudes if we are determined and consistent in our efforts. leadership is far less about position than it is about influence and relationships.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, a true leader in a crappy company gets crushed.

As Geary Rummler siad, “If you put a good person against a bad system, the system wins every time.”

Karen Sieczka said...

Thank you for giving us some simple guidelines. Very pertinent for today's work climate.

Karen Sieczka said...

Thanks for these simple guidelines. They are very pertinent for today's work climate...unfortunately.

@TheZombiePigeon on Twitter said...

Invaluable article

Dan McCarthy said...

Keith -
Thanks, hope it helps!

Thanks, well said.

Anon -
Thanks. My experience has been usually, but not always. There are always pockets of excellence.

Karen -
Thanks! Agree.


Ashok Vaishnav said...

The article is well timed and ought to create a much wider debate. There should be no need for a well-designed research to know the ratio of “leadership-Value versus “Leadership-two-hoots” organizations. There exist known case studies, certainly few and far between, where a leader has transformed an Leadership-two-hoots” organization. Again, no study has probably been conducted to find out what sort of leadership style has worked in most of such cases and what has been the fate of leadership culture after that leader’s direct influence was taken out from the organization’s ecosystem.
“Do what’s doable” should go a long way in instilling the requisite “street-smartness” protective cover-guard to be able to nurture the growing plant from the seeds of leadership that would have been planted. The other tips in the article provide other necessary tools for the development of the ecosystem.
At the end of the day, it certainly makes sense to have tried and failed, rather than not having tried at all.

Online Mania said...

Great article. I cannot agree more!

Having said this, I think for organisations to survive in the long term, they must have senior managers who demonstrate a strong commitment to its core values.

Recently, I happened to stumble upon a brilliant article that talks about the core values for organizational success written by Kumar Parakala, Partner & Chief Operating Officer, Advisory for KPMG

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks. Nice points and advice.

Thanks. I agree, and in the absence of strong organizational values, a leader needs to establish their own.

Jae Sampson said...

I deeply appreciate your thoughts, as it can indeed be so easy to fall into a trap. Whatever may be happening, you should not let your environment wholly dictate your actions.

Dan McCarthy said...

Jae -
Thanks,I'm glad you liked it.

Karin Hurt said...

Fantastic list. In every culture, there are great and bad leaders. I think find it very important to pay close attention to which behaviors I find inspiring and to recognize (up, down and sideways) as well as to emulate them.

Dan McCarthy said...

Karin -
Thanks, good for you!

Andy Phillips said...

Unfortunately this is more often the situation that not. I would add a few more: Leave it better than you found it. You won't fix it but you can improve it. Also remain true to your personal integrity. Silence is complicity!

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks, great adds!

hr consulting firms said...

Managers as leaders must understand how to gauge and measure their personal time, efforts and resources as well as those of their employees. This can only be accomplished through effective organization.

SophieBrunner21 said...

Our society is truly leaning toward leaders who produce results and get the most money. Though, this is very sad because good leaders are those who care for their coworkers, clients, and customers before they care about the money or results.