I met with a leader recently who has just been appointed to his first CEO role. The company he will lead has delivered poor performance in recent times, and he’s been hired to instigate a turnaround. His early interactions with his future team members have led him to conclude that he is walking into an environment with high levels of entitlement among senior leaders, and low levels of personal accountability. He asked me for advice on the fastest way to transform this kind of culture. Without hesitation, I shared the story of Patrick, a former client.

Patrick was appointed to be the CEO of an underperforming American technology company, that needed a commercial and cultural turnaround. Week one of his tenure happened to coincide with the company’s annual sales conference, which was at a venue ninety minutes by plane from head office. It was attended by the whole executive team and the 75 sales managers.

At six feet-six inches, Patrick made an immediate impact when he stepped on board the plane, walked past every member of his executive team in first class, and squeezed into his seat in economy among the sales managers. Patrick never had to say a word. That one action, which was both practically and symbolically significant, set the tone for his leadership and became legendary in the organisation.

Patrick used symbols very intentionally to advance his turnaround of the company and shift the culture. In my experience, however, most leaders are not so intentional. If you’d like to leverage the power of symbols, this blog will help you.

There are five main categories of symbols

The five key categories of symbols are;

  • Time, money and resources; the allocation of resources to signal what is really important to you.
  • Policies and procedures; the rules you impose to enable or constrain how work gets done.
  • Myths and Legends; the stories you tell to influence behaviour.
  • Rites, rituals and ceremonies; the milestones and events you choose to acknowledge.
  • Physical or virtual environment; the spaces you create for work to get done.

Symbols are a dominant reference point for others, about what you value and expect as a leader. For example, if you say that your people are your most important asset, then you can’t cut the training budget every year. If you value collaboration, then you can’t reward those who compete with their colleagues. If you say times are tough and money’s tight, then you can’t have executives flying around in first class.

Think about it this way; every symbol you send is an act of integrity, or evidence of hypocrisy.

Identify and eliminate unhelpful symbols

It’s great to implement symbols that reinforce your agenda, but it can be even more powerful to identify and eliminate the unhelpful symbols you are sending today.

Think about the stated purpose, values and goals of your company, then ask yourself the following five questions;

  • How do you spend time, money and resources in ways that are misaligned with your aspirations?
  • Which of your policies and procedures are misaligned with your aspirations?
  • What stories do you tell that are misaligned with your aspirations?
  • Which of your rituals, ceremonies and events are misaligned with your aspirations?
  • What parts of your physical and virtual environments are misaligned with your aspirations?

If you want your actual culture to look like your desired culture, make sure that the symbols you send are supporting you, rather than undermining you.

If you’re looking for some bite-sized leadership insights, inspiration and tactics in between these long-form blogs, I’m now posting daily to Instagram. You can get access by following me here.

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about PETER

For two decades, Dr. Peter Fuda has been a Sherpa to leaders, teams and organizations across the globe. He’s coached more than 250 CEOs to measurably higher levels of performance. His consulting company has delivered dozens of cases of business transformation and thousands of individual cases of leadership transformation, at a success rate of greater than 90%.

Find out more about Peter

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