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Culture Chameleon

Scholars examine the impact of new leadership on an organization

Can the effect of a leader on an organization be overstated? Yes and no. An organization’s strategies, as well as its plans and goals for the future, are largely determined by its chief executive and the members of its C-suite. But any organization is much more than its strategic plan.


“There’s an old saying: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast,’” quips June Schmieder-Ramirez, director of the PhD in global leadership and change program at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology (GSEP). An organization’s culture, she says, includes a variety of components, such as values, beliefs, and even artifacts. “The celebration of Founder’s Day at Pepperdine, for example, is considered a type of ceremonial artifact,” she explains.

Miriam Lacey, a business consultant and professor of applied behavioral science at the Graziadio Business School, identifies organizational culture as an institution’s “norms and values,” underlying everything it does and how it is experienced by its constituents. Traditions, attitudes, behaviors, and all manner of implicit understandings go into the melting pot of an organization’s culture. Culture is at the crux of moving an organization in any strategic direction.

Because an organization’s culture is so foundational to its effectiveness and productivity, a new leader in an ongoing institution must endeavor to understand the business’ norms. But this is no small feat. Lacey recommends that new executives make a significant and concerted effort to dig deep into an organization’s culture as soon as they arrive on the scene.

“You have to join them before you can lead them,” says Lacey. This means that a new leader will want to speak with multiple people at every level in the organization. If the business has a number of locations, the leader must also visit as many as possible. To collect comprehensive data, she recommends asking everyone the same set of questions, such as, “What is it like to work around here?” “What particularly helps you get your job done?” “What do you value most?” and “What gets in your way?”

Schmieder-Ramirez agrees that developing relationships with staff and demonstrating genuine interest in their most basic needs in the workplace is crucial.

“Most of the studies I’ve seen show that the number one reason that particular leaders don’t last long is that they either don’t understand the culture or it takes them too long to learn the culture,” she says. “Many organizations are bureaucratic or they’re siloed, so one major challenge is to get into each of those silos and dig down into the grain—not just the leaders at the top but actually talking to staff members.”

Both professors stress mastering culture in their respective academic programs. Schmieder-Ramirez notes that the most successful students in GSEP’s doctoral programs are generally those who perceive that a new chief executive needs to have an open mind. They recognize that immersing oneself in a group’s norms is much more effective in building trust than to start off by identifying areas for improvement and forcing change.

At Graziadio, particularly in the presidents and key executives and executive MBA programs, executive students prepare a cultural assessment of the organization that they’re running, and they create a change plan for ways to meet their goals. Lacey and her colleagues also train leaders to release the narratives and assumptions they have about how an organization “should” be. Rather than rely on their traditional decision-making criteria, they’re taught to “pay attention to what they’re paying attention to”—in other words, to examine how they create a particular narrative or mind-set and to explore information that supports a shift in that mind-set.

“The whole idea,” says Lacey, “is to be innovative and agile in their thinking. It involves a lot of self-reflection, self- awareness, and mindfulness.”

By being open to the behaviors and values that are endorsed by an organization and recognizing how they shape it, a new leader creates an opportunity to effect change. Lacey offers the example of a product manufacturer that wants to ensure product quality by having each person involved in the process “own” the quality of his or her work. Because this type of personal accountability is not a part of the organization’s current culture, the leader will need to shift the group mind-set to one where everyone is in charge of meeting quality standards.

To effect this type of “thinking, acting, doing” change, the leader must devise a method and provide training for the new process to occur. But perhaps more importantly, the executive will need to also show his or her commitment to the change, to repeatedly communicate the reason(s) for and importance of the shift, and to personally demonstrate the degree of accountability that they want others to adopt. A new behavior or value will become a part of the culture only when the leader takes it on. Here again, proving oneself a member of the team is crucial for success.

And so, like seeds in the soil, once embedded in their institution’s culture, new leaders become the impetus for new growth to arise. “An organization’s culture is not mysterious,” says Lacey. “It’s a manifestation of its leader’s personality. But you have to join them before you can lead them.