How to develop a leadership culture in your startup

The internet is awash with articles about the importance of developing a positive company culture. What’s less commonly discussed is the importance of developing a positive leadership culture. In this post I explore what leadership culture is and how you can develop it in your business by: having focused executive leadership team conversations, engaging the whole business in leadership conversations, owning leadership culture from the top, and investing in leadership development.

Leadership culture - source

What is leadership culture?

Let’s start with the question of what is culture more generally? The academic literature on the subject is vast (get up to speed with this Harvard Business Review article: The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture) but it can be summarised as “the tacit social order of an organization”. In layman’s terms, it is “the way that things get done around here”:

It shapes attitudes and behaviors in wide-ranging and durable ways. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group. When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive.

Leadership culture refers to how the specific attitudes and behaviours of individual leaders and the leadership team impact the organisation. According to the Centre for Creative Leadership, it is:

The self-reinforcing web of beliefs, practices, patterns, and behaviors. It’s the way things are done — the way people interact, make decisions, and influence others. Leaders’ own conscious and unconscious beliefs drive decisions and behaviors, and repeated behaviors become leadership practices. Eventually these practices become the patterns of leadership culture.

The Harvard Business Review article referenced above emphasises the important link between the two:

For better and worse, culture and leadership are inextricably linked. Founders and influential leaders often set new cultures in motion and imprint values and assumptions that persist for decades. Over time an organization’s leaders can also shape culture, through both conscious and unconscious actions (sometimes with unintended consequences). The best leaders we have observed are fully aware of the multiple cultures within which they are embedded, can sense when change is required, and can deftly influence the process.

Unfortunately, in our experience it is far more common for leaders seeking to build high-performing organizations to be confounded by culture. Indeed, many either let it go unmanaged or relegate it to the HR function, where it becomes a secondary concern for the business. They may lay out detailed, thoughtful plans for strategy and execution, but because they don’t understand culture’s power and dynamics, their plans go off the rails. As someone once said, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Using our layman’s definition, we can say that leadership culture is “the way that we lead around here”. Thinking about it like that hits home its importance but unfortunately it is often neglected. Let’s put that right.

How do you develop leadership culture in a startup?

Both company and leadership culture develops over time. It is already enshrined in established businesses, and so it can be very hard to change (read about the challenges of changing Uber’s culture here and here). But in startup and high growth businesses it is continually developing as the business grows. This can be both a force for the good or bad. It depends on whether you get caught in a positive or negative feedback loop.

As a leader in a growing business, you have a huge opportunity to influence its development positively. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many fast growing businesses ignore it and the whole business has entered a downward spiral. Here are some recommendations to avoid falling into this trap:

1. Focused executive leadership team conversations

Take time out among your leadership team to discuss what culture of leadership you want to create. Ensure that the whole leadership team is aligned. Questions to ask yourselves include:

  • What does it mean to be a leader to be in this business?
  • What are your leadership values?
  • How do you make decisions as a leadership team, and what are the bottlenecks?
  • What is good about your leadership function at the moment?
  • What might you improve or do differently?
  • How do you define your leadership culture in the context of the business’s overarching company culture?

2. Engage the whole business

Your focused conversation among the leadership team should be distinct from broader discussions about company culture more generally. Engage with the whole business, both formally (through workshops and company surveys) and informally (ask your team what they expect from you as a leader, and for feedback on how you are doing). Build as complete a picture as you can about how your current leadership culture is perceived and what can be done to make it better.

3. Own leadership culture from the top

Just like your company culture, ensure your leadership culture is owned from the top: it should be driven by the CEO, closely supported by your Head of People who is responsible for putting all this into action and keeping the leadership team involved and updated.

4. Invest in developing your leaders

Ensuring your leadership team is well supported and everyone is growing as a leader serves to underpin a solid leadership culture across the business. You can consider individual coaching for members of your leadership team and/or working with an executive leadership team coach, which is a great way to facilitate an objective team discussion around leadership culture and ensure alignment on key issues.

If you enjoyed this, you might like:

Leading on the job: advice for new leaders, in which I pass on what I’ve learnt coaching new leaders in venture capital and private equity backed businesses.

A collection of the best articles for new leaders, contains a curated list of articles and books that I share with coaching clients.