This article was first published on Inside HR in June 2016.
HR leaders need to put more focus on hiring leaders that are a better cultural fit rather than focusing on skills and experience alone, according to an expert in the area.
One of the biggest challenges organisations face with leadership happens at the very start of the process – during recruitment and induction, said Tim Ferguson, facilitator and partner at Leading Teams, which specialises in helping companies develop high performing teams and leaders.
“Leaders are often recruited based on their skills and experience, but not necessarily on their ability to fit the culture of the organisation,” he said.
“While there isn’t a perfect science to measuring cultural fit, organisations that are clear about the culture they are trying to create are more likely to be able to be clear about the sort of leader they need.
“It can help to build in behavioural questioning into the interview process, and to put time and effort into asking the right questions of referees.”
Likewise, Ferguson said the induction of leaders is often based around business processes, such as corporate strategy, governance, KPIs and performance measurements.
Ideally, however, this should include communication around the culture and the sort of expected behaviour that will underpin the desired culture, he explained.
“Even if the leader doesn’t necessarily fit the mould right from the outset, it is possible to develop cultural fit,” said Ferguson.
“Firstly a proper induction process must take place where culture and behavioural expectations are properly communicated, and then an ongoing open review process that can effectively support the leader to align their leadership to the organisation’s cultural values is crucial.”
Support from other leaders is also an important component of leadership development.
“Also, remember that values are what we aspire to, but behaviour is what we actually see,” said Ferguson.
“Being clear about the behaviour we expect leaders to model, reward and challenge, helps an organisation achieve congruency between values and behaviour.”
The organisations that are getting it right are the ones who look for cultural synergies with new leadership hires, know and explicitly communicate what leadership means to their organisations, understand what it should look like and also are actively supporting their leaders to get there.
“I read articles which describe the changes that different generations bring – that Generation Y is different to Generation X, but I don’t really buy into that”
Outside of an open and ongoing process of review and feedback, Ferguson said building strong relationships and trust is also critical.
Leaders need to be able to have an understanding of the people they are leading, if they hope to create an environment where team members are comfortable discussing challenges and concerns.
“The fundamentals of strong professional relationships lie in having clear expectations and high levels of trust,” he said.
“Leaders and team members all need to know what’s expected of them, and if expectations aren’t being met – there needs to be an open forum for discussion and feedback and team members need to trust they can provide feedback without negative repercussions.”
Some leaders may not be natural relationship builders, but Ferguson said a leader who chooses to manage without building trust is doing so at their own peril.
“The ability to adapt their own leadership style to the needs of the individuals in their team is a key attribute for a successful leader,” he said.
“If a team has clear expectations of their own individual roles and also the part they play in the wider collective of the team, have built solid relationships right across all levels of their team regardless of hierarchy, have an open and trustworthy environment to flag challenges and also give feedback, there will be positive impacts on the performance of the team.”
Similarly, if a leader doesn’t address poor relationships and negative culture within an organisation, Ferguson said it will then gain momentum and can impact negatively on performance.
If a leader has the ability to have a conversation – at the right time in the right way, issues that impact on the team can be addressed before they have a major impact on performance, he added.
“The in-house barista and the communal table tennis table might float the boat for some, but these can often just be fleeting attractions that are soon forgotten if the environment isn’t a supportive one”
Ferguson also downplayed the importance of generational differences in the workplace and the impact this has on performance.
“I read articles which describe the changes that different generations bring – that Generation Y is different to Generation X, but I don’t really buy into that,” he said.
“I think the environment we operate in is continuing to change, but I’m not sure people have changed that much when it comes to what we value – being valued.
“I think the fundamentals are still the same; people still want to be valued when they come to work.”
Employees are potentially more mobile in today’s working world, and Ferguson said the days of one job and one career appear to be over.
“That would tend to indicate that the culture of an organisation is all the more important,” he said.
“If the mechanics of one job are similar to another (for example, wage and conditions of work) then perhaps the key difference between staying in one role or moving to another, is the environment we work in, and culture plays a key role in that.
“The in-house barista and the communal table tennis table might float the boat for some, but these can often just be fleeting attractions that are soon forgotten if the environment isn’t a supportive one.”
People are also increasingly more interested in why a business does something, rather than just what it does, he added.
As such, an organisation that is clear about their reason for existing (their purpose) will often be in a better position to keep their employees engaged and passionate about coming to work and making a contribution.
“There’s an interesting analogy about a time John F. Kennedy toured a NASA facility in the early 60s,” Ferguson recounted.
“He stopped to ask a cleaner what his job was. The cleaner replied, ‘I help put people on the moon.’
“Kennedy was struck by the cleaner’s connection to NASA’s purpose, regardless of the individual role he played within it.”
“There are a significant number of organisations still using review processes like anonymous 360 degree feedback, and my advice is that this process can be more damaging than productive”
HR leaders can take a number of steps to improve this process, according to Ferguson – the first of which is to change is the way they collect and disseminate feedback.
“From my experience there are a significant number of organisations still using review processes like anonymous 360 degree feedback, and my advice is that this process can be more damaging than productive,” he said.
“The reason is, if the data from your anonymous feedback shows that 80 percent of your staff are happy, but 20 percent aren’t, then you can’t address the issues.
“And also, it’s more likely to result in you making assumptions about who the feedback might have come from and you might start to work with them differently, which isn’t necessarily fair and certainly isn’t helpful.”
While making assumptions can be human nature, Ferguson said this can be very counterproductive.
“Instead, I encourage HR leaders to work to create an environment where staff feel safe to give real feedback,” he said.
“Giving negative feedback should not be a career limiting move.
“There is certainly a way to do it constructively, and this is the role of the HR leader as well – to help guide that process.”
Feedback should be encouraged, and it shouldn’t just happen once a year, or every six months even, but on an ongoing and regular basis, according to Ferguson.