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Learning Culture Is Built Together with Clients and Employees

Janne StrömbergIt’s easy to speak about customer focus and putting the customer at the center of your business. Unfortunately, in most cases these concepts will just be empty words in the corporate strategy.

When we’re busy running our business as usual, it’s easy to forget that if we honestly want to put the customer at the center, not just the customers but also the employees have to be put at the heart of all your business. As the amount of knowledge increases, technologies and markets are changing at the same, accelerating pace. The so called clock speed of the company, the working rhythm, should adapt to the pace of the change. Companies must be able to create new capabilities as a reaction to the constant change.

Engage and Motivate with Shared Goals

All the employees and the entire organization has to be engaged and ready to face constant change and fulfill the customer needs. In order for the competent and professional employees to stay motivated and engaged, it’s crucial to create the goals and the vision together. When employees are given the chance and power to affect both their own professional path and the path of the company as a whole, goals become considerably more personal. This approach requires the leaders and managers to think in a new way: instead of tightening control and focusing on decision-making, leadership should be more about enabling and creating opportunities.

Enabling is all about genuine presence and listening and decentralized decision-making. Instead of protecting closed management structures, the drivers of change should be found in the customer encounters, where the customer experience is delivered. It can be hard for a traditional leader to accept the fact that the best knowledge and understanding of the business environment isn’t necessarily in his own head.

On the other hand, the employees are also responsible for the building of the shared future, if this chance has been given to them. Goals and visions that have been built together will most likely meet the market demand and customer needs better than plans that just the CEO or a small closed group has come up with.

Learning Culture Requires Trust

If a company wants to put the customer at the center and make continuous improvement possible, the company should build a strong learning culture. In an ideal situation, the learning culture allows the organization to become self-guided and the organization will automatically fix its course towards the shared goals. This can only happen if the organization’s employees share the same mindset, communication is active, knowledge is being shared, and trust is being built, which makes all the aforementioned things possible.

The values that support the birth of the learning culture are created by leading by example and sharing positive experiences. Trust in the organization is a requirement in order to create this kind of culture. If the employees can’t have their say on decision-making or their publicly expressed views lead to negative feedback, trust naturally grows weaker and knowledge sharing and participation decreases.

However, changing culture and modifying the values that support the culture is difficult. It’s hard to tap into the values, as behavior is the consequence of the way individuals and networks work. Both employees’ and leaders’ personal values have to change to some extent, which demands strong self-knowledge and self-leadership at all levels of the organization. You’ve got to be able to adjust your own values to meet with the values of the organization. Change will not happen, if the individual is unable to adapt her actions in relation to the feedback she has received from her surroundings.

When it comes to adjusting values, it all comes down to setting an example: the way you act in different situations will have an influence on your own network of people. Unfortunately negative values stick more easily than positive. You’ve really got to be awake, so that behaviors and procedures that encourage distrust are not supported in the organization.

It’s easy to scapegoat the employees for all the problems related to the cultural change, when you encounter some resistance to change. Yet there are two types of resistance: well-grounded and groundless. It’s important to remember that management practices that are not based on the shared values can also block and slow the change.

In the end, changes in culture and in values can’t be successful without the right kind of leadership. The most important thing is to prioritize and look for the root causes in the right places. The causes are rarely unambiguous in complex communities. Humility and renunciation are needed in leadership in order to successfully create a learning culture, but at the same time it will bring significant new opportunities with.

The writer has a Master’s Degree in Industrial and Knowledge Management and he’s working as a development manager at MPY.

In the Midst of Cultural Differences – Leadership in Europe and in Asia

Juuso HämäläinenOver the past 18 months, I have had a great opportunity in being given the responsibility for a mix of teams from Europe and Asia and I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned in the process of effecting change.

One of the first things you often run into are people being dismissive or skeptical about how things can be applied to different cultures. People who lack cultural awareness and don’t see employees as human beings tend to categorize others based on stereotypes, whereas people leaders just see human beings with different social values but with the same basic feelings and needs underneath.

To explain some of the skepticism I’ll explain briefly my usual leadership style:

  • Be human. Openly talk about emotions, and expect others to do so too.
  • Extend a high level of trust and offer autonomy.
  • Focus on the bigger picture and alignment.
  • Caring and demanding – take people and their feelings and needs into account but keep raising the bar. Treat people as if they had already realized their near term potential and keep them out of their comfort zone.
  • Show appreciation frequently and remember to be thankful for successes.

Many people were telling me this approach is bound to fail in Asia, because:

  • people are afraid of failure and will be too petrified to even try
  • the manager needs to have all the answers
  • the employees will not speak up about their concerns to a person in a position of authority

However, following just a few basic principles of leadership and team dynamics it was possible to achieve great results also in Asia with the same approach. Briefly covering the 5 dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni:

  • Absence of trust leads to invulnerability. Address by going first and being human by showing vulnerability.
  • Avoidance of conflict leads to false harmony where people will not disagree out of fear of losing face. The leader needs to mine for conflict to ensure disagreements are aired.
  • Lack of commitment leads to ambiguity. The leaders should force clarity and closure on matters and areas of responsibility.
  • Avoidance of accountability leads to low standards. The leader needs to confront difficult issues and demand accountability for both behavior and results.
  • Inattention to results leads to being ego driven. It’s important to drive for collective goals where the team’s success helps the individuals succeed.

All these dysfunctions seem to be exactly the same in Asia as they are in Europe. Also the approach to addressing these is similar – as a leader you need to go first, show initiative and ensure that you’re being seen as a human being. The most difficult thing and difference in leading people in Asia was establishing a deep enough trust with the whole team that the people feel comfortable bringing up their concerns and disagreements or uncertainty in a group setting.

Some things worth trying in a situation like that are:

  • Personal stories to get to know each other (leader goes first) outside the work – how people have ended up being shaped into the person they are today
  • Feedback sessions – both good and improvement areas, can be anonymous at first but the deeper you go the more it should be face to face
  • Appreciations and feelings covered at the end of a meeting as a topic in itself to draw attention to things that are not directly related to results

Applying similar leadership principles with Asian cultures as with European cultures proved very effective and the outcome has been a major increase in engagement and significant improvement in results.  As in my experience, the key to good leadership is to remember the people and their feelings underneath the culture façade.

The writer works as the Senior Manager of IT-services at F-Secure and is based both in Finland and Malaysia. He helps executives to develop their leadership skills and competencies by coaching, listening and challenging. You can connect with Juuso on LinkedIn.