Samantha Woolven

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"Clean up the fishbowl" and create a leadership culture that shines

October 1, 2019

Great leadership is more than a higher salary, a share of the profits, and the proverbial corner office. These days, great leadership is judged by the quality of interactions with your employees, the decisions you make, and how well you set your business up for its future.  

There are many aspects that go into the future success of your business, and the culture you create underpins them all. If you have to make all the decisions yourself, then you lead people to being dependent on others and operating in a risk-adverse environment where people are discouraged from taking ownership or solving their own problems. You may have created a very “safe” culture that you can control, but you have also created a culture with barriers and blockers to change.  

If your choice of leadership is one that embraces all of the latest ideas and technologies then you will likely create a culture where people are very comfortable with risk and change. You are likely to recruit and reward people who are early adopters, people who look for newness and opportunity everywhere. This may be appropriate for a newer startup environment, yet can become a cultural challenge when you become more successful and need your teams to deliver business as usual.  

No matter your leadership style, a culture will grow around you – great leaders are those who grow this deliberately and consciously. They look around at their employees, their customers and their work environments, and choose to make a culture that shines.   

Clean your fishbowl

Choosing what goes in and on within your culture can be tricky. We’re not talking bean bags and beer fridges, but attitudes and unspoken expectations. One of the ways that we, at t-three, have found to visualise “culture” more easily is to ask our leaders to think of a fishbowl.  

As we progress on our leadership journey we are likely to take part in personal development opportunities – these may be formal programmes, technical training, or simply specific circumstances that offer a steep learning curve and a different perspective. You can think of yourself, or your leaders, as fish that have been taken out of your fishbowl whilst you learn new skills and shine your scales.  

Once you have completed this development, learned your new skill, or heard new perspectives you then dive straight back into the same fishbowl as before. You may have grown, but the environment in which you work may not have. 

We ask our leaders to think of what else is going on within their fishbowl: 

  • Who are the other fish they need to pay attention to? 
  • What are the weeds that are slowing them down? 
  • What’s making their water murky? 
  • How can they, as leaders, clean their fishbowl for all those within it?  
  • What will make their water sparkle? 

Time and again, being able to identify, name, and sometimes even draw a picture of what’s going on around them provides our leaders with a new set of vocabulary they can use to highlight persistent challenges and spot opportunities to make their culture better.  

Breaking culture down into more manageable pieces empowers leaders to think beyond themselves, beyond their direct teams, and open up their own viewpoint so they can see how they can influence behaviours on a much wider scale. 

Let's talk about the weeds  

On many occasions we already know which are the weeds that are slowing us and our business down. There may be a system that no longer works well, legacy relationships that taint the current ones, or an elephant sat very firmly in the room that just won’t budge.  

Common Weed 1: Swimming round and round 

A culture that lacks great leadership will almost always lack a clarity of direction. At best, your fish will carry on with their work, using their own judgement and choosing the paths that feel right to them. Work will likely keep on ticking, as so many of us are programmed to not let the ball drop. We really don’t like to admit our own sense of failing or a lack of understanding, so we keep on trying...but this can lead to us simply swimming round and round with nobody knowing where we are going. We just “hope it’s nice when we get there.” 

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Common Weed 2: The fish with the sharpest teeth wins  

In many environments the culture is set by the person who has been there longest, shouts the loudest, or iseen as the greatest expert. Being a leader in today’s business world is not about knowing everything. Leadership is not about being the expert, but about being surrounded by a group of experts and harnessing their power.  

This is not a new concept, but we are seeing an increasing demand for leaders who value diversity of thoughtfocus on inclusivity, and encourage people to be themselves – letting them play to their strengths for the better outcome. As Blue Planet demonstrated to us, the grouper and the octopus hunt better together; leaders who want to create a business of the future need to be thinking more collaboration and less shark. 

Speaking of her success, Amy Golding, CEO of Opus Talent Solutions at 31 years old said, “I’ve always felt very much part of a team, not running a team. I know my own strengths and I think two of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal as a leader is to say ‘I don’t know’ and to make sure you surround yourself with people that do know, and to not feel like you constantly need to be giving the answers.” 

Common Weed 3: Mistaking proximity for togetherness  

Siloed working and miscommunication are two of the most common weeds we hear about. Much of the time people are too busy meeting their targets to look up to see what’s going on around them.  

Leadership is no longer a one-way ladder you climb until you can climb no further. Great leaders know that leadership is an ever-evolving relationship with the people around you. Responding to the needs and experiences of those around you creates a stark difference between a shoal of fish – who are simply hanging out in the same space - and a school of fish who are working together to eat, grow, and thrive.  

This sense of togetherness, this sense of a shared culture is key. “Leadership is a process that emerges from a relationship between leaders and followers who are bound together by their understanding that they are members of the same social group. People will be more effective leaders when their behaviours indicate that they are one of us, because they share our values, concerns and experiences, and are doing it for us, by looking to advance the interests of the group.” 

You can start cleaning your fishbowl by addressing some of the weeds above. Talk to your teams about which weed is the largest, which is the stickiest, and which slows you down the most.  

Now let’s talk about the sparkle  

Put a name to the weed and you’ve taken the first step to reducing its power. Calling out the elephant enables you to start doing something about it. Really hearing the frustrations of your teams lets them know that you’re listening, and that you care. That makes a start at cleaning your fishbowl, but what else can you do to really make your water sparkle? 

If you aim to be an employer of choice, setting yourself up to attract and retain the best talent for your business – even in an employee’s market - then you need to make sure that your water truly sparkles. What are you doing now to filter out the bad stuff, add in the good, and make sure that your fishbowl is one that nurtures and feeds your fish? 

Employees today are more demanding and have far higher expectations of what their work offers them, no matter their generationFor each and every one of us our sense of sparkle will differ, here are some ideas to get you started: 

  • Lead from a position of trust  
  • Solve issues together  

So how are you going to clean your fishbowl and make your water sparkle today? 

Little book for the connected leader

Topics: Featured leadership leadership culture culture change

  

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