Your leadership can kill your culture – here’s how to avoid it

The intangible value of culture plays a big part in how a company can function. For example, you significantly influence how well you can empower your teams to use the tech and resources they have within the organisation to innovate your core product or service. But culture goes well beyond the espresso machines, ergonomic desks, and a foosball table and is instead concerned with “Shared values, goals, attitudes, and practices that make up an organisation.” It’s how people characterise and feel about an organisation.

So, how can you ensure that you create and nurture a learning culture that gives your business an innovative edge?

Different leadership expectations

Before deep diving into the components that make up a culture of learning, here’s a quick breakdown of how you’re expected to lead from different angles:

Leading strategy: leaders should take advantage of short-term market opportunities within the confines of the existing strategy. But, simultaneously, they must be able to detach from the old strategy to build a new one and know which approach to use.

For example, a client that developed white-label mobile apps struggled to deliver to as many clients as needed. They sought help from a consultancy to come on board and help them define new strategies that would allow them to have higher throughput in development. The consultancy delivered a proof of concept on how they should do things differently, which involved ditching the native mobile development and adopting ReactNative development. They had a React team, so it was a change in their approach regarding market dynamics. They changed their delivery focus, equipping them to serve as many clients as possible. 

Leading execution: is the ability to drive flawless execution, replicating best-in-class routines while simultaneously letting go of those routines to experiment. 

Some companies ensure clear communication across multiple teams and constant feedback exchanges with the client. Letting go of routines reflects the company’s ability to adapt to their ways of working and being open and responsive to the client’s style. Doing so enables delivering value in the shortest amount of time possible. 

Leading stakeholders: a leader’s ability to know how to follow formal procedures to deal with stakeholders, yet can work through their network informally because of their cultivated relationships to achieve mutual goals.

There are cases when your client may need help understanding a project’s development process, which is the reason for low levels of trust or friction. This can happen when a client representative joins the project mid-cycle, for example, and has expectations that need tangible outcomes before they feel reassured. There are situations where outcomes can’t be seen yet because of backend engineering work which doesn’t translate into something meaningful just yet. 

To manage your stakeholders well, the best thing you can do is to accommodate their concerns via regular catch-up sessions and lay out clear explanations of how things work to build their confidence. Overcommunicating is better than under-communicating. To build key stakeholder relationships is to know and accept your client’s reservations. Once that’s fully grasped, you can manage your attitude and approach through clear communication to win their trust with the reassurance and transparency you provide throughout the project lifecycle. 

Leading people: when managing people, ambidextrous leaders have both the capacity to lead from the front, advising people what to prioritise and action to achieve business goals, as well as stepping back to be a listener and function as a coach by asking the right questions for individuals to come up with answers and approaches.

Leading self: is the capacity to make courageous leaps while also having the ability to put yourself back in equilibrium to find your quiet centre. 

Many leaders nowadays have seized opportunities even before they felt ready. To lead yourself,  you must be hyper-aware of your limits and proactively push further with a growth mindset to achieve more and do better. 

Practice technological innovation

Your business may have a highly differentiated product that initially excites and delights consumers; however, over time, it is inevitable for new technologies to pose a risk for the business to be left behind if they don’t meet the consumers’ expectations. If your customer had a bad experience with your product or service, they don’t expect to experience the same mishap twice. 

For example, Amazon continually tries to find their flaws and improve so that customers don’t even get to identify these flaws at any touchpoint. A business’ success lies in how it can continuously delight its customers, which entails the target experience having to be better than the expected experience. 

Therefore, ambidextrous leadership is the key for businesses to keep customers, stay competitive, and even outperform competitors.

The importance of ambidextrous leadership 

Organisations must be ambidextrous to support innovation effectively. Ambidextrous leadership is defined as “Achieving the dual goals of making your current business more effective and efficient while developing new revenue streams for the future.” 

Your business goal to innovate a product or service to achieve customer delight is impossible without talent. The organisation must be open and willing to learn from its people and customers and develop individual career progression and sense of fulfilment while achieving business goals. The challenge for many organisations is changing from a culture of delivery to one of learning. 

Organisations need to sustain their innovation the best they can while running their businesses, and this is achieved by employing people with a strong drive to learn. According to Netflix’s former chief talent officer, Patty McCord, “Real company values are shown by who gets promoted or let go.” (The Company Culture Club – Netflix), which is how you reinforce the behaviours in your organisation. 

How to guide the transformation in your organisation
  • Choose your adventure: To guide the transformation in your business, the first thing to do is solve the easy problems using your organisation’s technology and teams.
  • Strategy and solution: Be deliberate in telling people what the roadmap looks like, the return on investment, and what clearly needs to be achieved at each stage to succeed. For example, if you’re a publishing company, your focus can be the following: To overtake the rival publication; this goal can be achieved by:
    • Reducing page load time
    • Adopting AMP to drive more traffic
    • Providing users with an offline platform experience as well as online
  • Start small: You must iterate on your findings when trying to transform and solve a specific problem. One example is how Paypal spent six weeks changing its operating model, starting from its checkout page. Every Thursday for those six weeks focused on interacting with customers and studying the information and insights derived from the collected data. Their iteration of refining Paypal’s product and customer experience helped the organisation find the ideal solution. They worked best by working two-week sprints throughout the project. They succeeded and grew by focusing their roadmap on customer insights and scaling their solution.
  • Reinforce your wins: Inform your stakeholders how you achieved your goals and potentially explore the growth opportunities by outlining the proven effective process in solving the initial problem. Leaders must nurture the new way of working and drive the organisation forward to a new operating model. 
Scaling the approach 

This is where many issues surface, and we probably have teams that hold on to their legacy systems because it’s comfortable, therefore, resist change. To avoid this issue, tackling team interdependence early on will avoid premature migration when trying to innovate technology. For example, building a proxy enables teams to iterate on legacy systems and use the proxy as the start for data strategy. 

  • Methodology: The methodology goal should prove the new way of working is successful and can be repeated. Measure its effectiveness from positive investments from executive sponsors and maintain positive performance despite any delivery pressures. 
  • Career Framework: It’s all about your people, so ensure that you’re early in creating a framework for progress and learning for your people so they don’t leave your business. Motivate your people to make the best out of the programs that you build. Make systematic learning leverage for improving the organisation and invest in an academy early to reinforce methodology, tech, and culture. 

Innovation can succeed when organisations genuinely appreciate the role and implementation of culture. If culture is absent, a business cannot scale because the likelihood of inefficiencies in management may be present. 

The best strategy will only win if the execution is perfect through the proven methodology your people have come up with that supports the market, investment, and internal dynamics. A business’s ability to endure the evolving marketplace is only possible when it can balance growth and costs through ambidextrous leadership. 

YLD are a software engineering and design consultancy offering services in software engineering, digital product design and training programs to help move your team to a culture of learning.


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