Focusing on Culture to Drive Leadership Strategy

In Fall of 2018, Gary Anderson was hired to be the CEO of Nova Mutual Insurance in Ontario. This was a new position as Nova Mutual was a newly merged organization.

Now two and a half years post merger, Gary in his first C-suite role is clearly writing his own playbook. Gary and his team at Nova Mutual are doing things a little different, and they believe that culture will drive results, so although the results matter, culture trumps results.

Gary is not the typical CEO, and in fact carries the title of Chief Empowerment Officer.

But is that just a cute play on words, or are there significant differences in the role he plays in the office? At Nova Mutual, one of their chosen core values is empowerment, and according to Gary, the title change seemed to fit the mold. At Nova they pride themselves in doing things differently so much so that even now Gary is considering the next evolution of his role. 

There are several pieces to the puzzle of culture and transitioning from a traditional office to an office driven by culture, and Gary believes it starts with servant leadership.

Servant Leadership

A servant leader could be well-compared to the scrum master. If you haven’t heard of this term before, a scrum master is an individual that facilitates good discussions, but isn’t the expert. Their primary goal is to listen and remove obstacles that are hindering the real experts from creating the best team or outcome  possible. 

If a traditional office structure is a hierarchy like a triangle, servant leadership means turning that triangle bottom up. As a servant leader, you’re removing obstacles, allowing the superstars to do their thing, and in turn they’re going to make things more efficient because they’re making the decisions about their job and how to streamline it.

Instead of having one leader at the top, with all of the pressure and control, there are many minds figuring out the details of how to get done what needs to be done in the best way possible. By removing the top down approach you start getting all sorts of ideas that no single ‘top-dog’ would ever have the time, freedom, or energy to think of.

When you have this kind of participation, it paves the way for buy-in, rather than begrudging (or worse, apathetic) compliance.

Issues with Traditional Top-Down Leadership

We know some of you might be wondering if this change is even worth the effort. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right? However, there are a few clear issues that come with traditional top-down leadership, and there’s one in particular that is impossible to avoid and that is poor communication. Top-down leadership means there’s someone at the top with typically three people as next-level leaders, who in turn relay information to 10 other employees, and continuing down the line. 

Usually, this process of communication doesn’t go well, because somewhere within the middle management, details start to get lost, twisted, or added to.

Like a classic round of the popular party game Telephone, the message totally changes by the time you’re done. That’s exactly what traditional top-down management communication does.

Transitioning to a Different Leadership Strategy

When transitioning to a completely different leadership strategy and structure, you have to start by gathering information about the existing culture. By using preliminary surveys, you can reveal a lot of information, mostly from the comment sections. The typical click type answers can lead you down a general path, but it’s the comments that are key.

You’ll find, as you get to know the existing culture and individuals, there is a wide difference in beliefs, priorities, talents, and expectations. Somehow, you have to convince this group of diverse people to buy into a new culture and a new identity. But before that, you’ve got to decide what you want that culture to be. 

Culture will happen regardless of what you do. It’s constant. You can either be completely invested in constructing or influencing it, or you can do nothing and it will create itself. 

Gary used the first year as the transition year, and his goal was simply to bring everyone together. Not transforming anything, or making big moves, just getting everyone accustomed to these new concepts. 

One step in this transition is getting your team involved by participating in conversations about purpose and values. It takes time, but it’s vital to create a safe space to have these conversations, because during transition periods, your team members are all asking themselves the same questions: 

Where do I stand? 

Am I staying, or am I going?

They may find out they’re not a fit. Maybe there’s not a career opportunity for them with the direction you’re going. You want the culture to be a genuine place for conversation and empowerment, so if one of your employees discovers something new they want to do, they will be supported. If they can do that within their current position in the team, great, let’s do it! If they can do it in a different position on the team, also great. If they can’t fulfill that goal with your team, they’re going to have the support they need to find a new job that gives them what they need to grow.

The change is gradual. Some team members might have never been put into a work situation where they could speak freely. Some team members might not believe you mean what you say. Everybody’s watching to see what moves are actually going to stick, and it comes down to trust. You have to build up the trust in advance, before you start making claims or taking chances.

This transition period, where you’re focusing on communication with regular, inclusive conversations is not just for building rapport and practicing for the “real thing.” As the leader listens and the team talks, culture is co-created. You’ll notice patterns in how the team communicates, what they talk about, and why.

Purpose, Values, Culture

Rather than simplifying it as a traditional mission and vision statement that you see on everyone’s website, Nova Mutual chose to alter it. 

They started by answering the question, ‘What is our purpose?” and “Why do we exist?”

Then, they boiled it down to core values. These are catchy buzzwords, and they can sometimes be put on a plaque and ignored, but it’s getting the team members involved in the discussion. Instead of a CEO saying, “We’re going to believe in these three things, and if you don’t like it, hit the road” that’s what this process is all about.

Nova Mutual came up with six values, but Gary made it clear that they could change at any time as the team changes. Here are the words the Nova team  chose:

  • Integrity 
  • Courage (to make decisions that were never made before)
  • Empowerment (to realize you can do it, and you can get your buddies to do it as well)
  • Respect 
  • Service
  • Community

This, they decided, was their true culture.

Ultimately, the servant leadership strategy leads in one direction. However, ater the transition phase, the goal (at least, for Gary at Nova Mutual) was to also create self-managing teams.

Many people think the idea is madness, and wonder how anything gets done, but really it’s just the natural extension of culture-driven strategy. 

At first, you keep it simple with functional management. When the team has a discussion about potential changes, the servant leader (traditionally the “functional manager”), gives options of how these changes could be implemented. Then, they give them a small structure to work with, using examples from what they’ve been doing as a larger team up to this point. For example, meeting together every day, talking about stuff, taking 10 minutes to clarify who is doing what, and being intentional about problem solving within the group.

If self managing teams are going to be high-functioning teams they have to want it. They have to be ready to give 100 percent, especially at the start. As you build trust, the goal is to be able to rely on anyone on your team at any given time. 

Even with loads of experience in the field, this sort of experimentation requires agility. You have to be more infinite minded. The leader will have to identify certain things for the team to achieve that are aspirational. Agile, self-managing teams figure it out together and are highly efficient and collaborative.Creating a culture of servant leadership simply lays the groundwork for the magic to happen. 

For more resources from the combined genius of Sandi and Jennifer, check out Management Possible and Satori Consulting Inc.

Jen is the owner of Management Possible® focused on training and coaching multi-level management and leadership individuals and teams nationally and globally. Sandi is the owner of Satori®  Consulting inc. a global consulting firm focused on helping organizations solve complex problems in strategy, leadership and governance.

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