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Why You Need to Develop 'Informal Leaders' Among Employees

Just as important as getting leadership on board is engaging the company's middle tier of informal leaders, notes expert Jon Katzenbach.
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When Jon Katzenbach speaks, you should listen. 

His essay, "The Myth of the Top Management Team" (originally published in 1997 in the Harvard Business Review), will forever change the way you think about the role and structure of your leadership team (including whether it really is a team, or if it's just you and a group of followers). 

His recent essay in strategy + business (coauthored with Rutger von Post and James Thomas, his colleagues at Booz & Company) demonstrates his deep knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of top teams.

The subject of this recent essay is how to change a company's culture. And one of the essay's main insights is that--while getting the top team on board is important--what really spurs cultural change is engaging the company's middle tier of informal leaders.

3 Elements for Cultural Change

Identifying and working with these informal leaders is one of three elements that Katzenbach, a senior executive advisor at Booz, and his coauthors recommend in any effort to effect cultural change.

The other two are what they call "critical behaviors" and "existing cultural traits." Critical behaviors, they write, "are those ways of doing things in your current operations that can easily spread from one employee to another." Existing cultural traits are the three or four emotional elements of your current culture that do not need to be changed. They are "distinctively clear, wisely profound, emotionally powerful, and widely recognized." 

I recently spoke to Katzenbach to flesh out these ideas. Here's an edited version of our conversation:

In the essay, you give an example of how a company identified its informal leaders and provided them with a "safe space" where they could talk frankly. Crucial to this honest forum was that senior leaders were advised beforehand not to behave as "the boss," but to listen and learn. Who, then, actually leads this meeting in the safe space? 

The meetings work best when they are actually "led" (rather introduced and kicked off) by one of the authentic informal leaders in the group, ideally not the "senior-most" member of the group.  It is important that the senior leader or leaders at each meeting be one or more of the most senior line executives from the relevant employee population. The CEO or his/her equivalent is the one who tells participating senior leaders beforehand "not to act bossy." However, it is important that senior leaders who are likely to be "bossy" anyway simply be excluded from the process. One "bad apple spoils the barrel" quickly. Not all senior leaders can or should plan this role. Some of the best research on "safe space" was done by Amy Edmondson at Harvard.

What are two or three prompts or questions that can help to jumpstart the conversation at a meeting like this?

It is important early on to position the purpose of the conversation. [So prompts could include questions such as]:

  • What do you understand the purpose of this discussion to be? (To learn from others in the group how they see and experience important elements/aspects/or traits of our culture that now drive key behaviors, e.g., emotional forces, positive and negative, that determine how most people behave. That is, how we do things around here?)
  • What do you see as some of the key behaviors that we should discuss today--either because we need more of them, or because we need to change them? Which 2 or 3 are the most important to get more of, or to get rid of? Can you think of examples to share?
  • What aspects of our current cultural situation can energize the most important behaviors?
  • What aspects of our current situation will cause strong resistance to those behaviors?

It also important that they talk about both behaviors and cultural traits as they see them. [So prompts could include questions such as]:

  • What comes to mind when I say "cultural traits"?
  • What specific behaviors demonstrate those traits?
  • How do you now deal with the emotional aspects of culture and behavior?  

So, then, what is the most common stumbling block or mistake they make?

They miss who the real informal leaders are. They [make the mistake of] going down through the hierarchy or using the HR info that identifies good performers and high-potential people. And that doesn't really do a good job of picking out who the informal leaders are. Because the informal leaders have to be employees who are using elements of the company culture that are already in place. You have to tap into who's doing that. And the managers and leaders in the hierarchy are not necessarily doing that. 

It seems like there's no short cut a company can take to finding these informal leaders. That the only way to find them is through so-called "management by walking around" or participating in informal conversations that take place well below leadership levels. 

It doesn't come out easily in the normal HR info that's collected. Someone has to spend time down there, to try to find them. The informal leaders who are the outstanding ones are actually easy to identify because everyone knows who they are. But if you need more than that--and you usually do--what helps is to get [the informal leaders you've already identified] to help you think about who the others might be.

And then you can construct a confidential short survey based on what you learned from the ones who are the obvious choices. What I see companies [incorrectly] doing is that they get a good start with first group, and they're [often] careless about how they spread it through the rest of the organization.




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