Cultural literacy

We have considered the importance of guiding an organization as a leader of transformation — incorporating change into the culture of the institution in order to effectively respond to a changing world.

Building on innate characteristics and life experience, certain skills emerge as part of a leader’s repertoire in order to lead a transformative company to greatness. In addition to the communication and interpersonal skills we have already explored, consistency and keen observation round out these essential abilities.

Done properly, consistent messaging is one of the most powerful tools a leader can possess, because it allows for presenting, in a few words, what the organization strives to accomplish, how it can be done and by whom. Consistent messaging is also a way that you as a leader assert your hopes and aspirations for the organization. It allows others to embrace a common vision, know the direction of the organization and understand how all work is valued and contributes to successful outcomes.

In this context, the culture of the organization transforms to incorporate the language emphasized in the leader’s message. Author E.D. Hirsch popularized this phenomenon as cultural literacy: the ability to understand and participate fluently in a given (organizational) culture.

In addition to being spoken and written, consistent messaging should be modeled. The term that comes to mind here is “walking the talk,” demonstrating beliefs through actions and deeds. Sometimes, this is represented by reallocating resources to fund initiatives. Providing periodic updates through public appearances, such as town hall meetings, publications and social media shows commitment to an agreed-upon course of action. Your physical presence both inside and outside the organization provides opportunities to model consistency in varied contexts.

Besides consistency, being observant is one of the most important attributes you can possess. Noticing details and recognizing patterns can help you be proactive in addressing challenges and responding to trends. The result of being an observant leader is understanding what president emerita of Kent State University Carol Cartwright calls the “rhythm of the organization.”

This heightened awareness takes time to develop but, when established, allows leaders to recognize what is there, intuit what they expect to be there and notice what isn’t there. It is discerning the heart of the organization, its tempo and energy, and perceiving where it may be out of synch.

How do you develop these capabilities? Simply put, resist the temptation to take an ivory tower approach to leadership. Build strong and genuine personal connections throughout your organization and listen intentionally to the perspectives that you receive. Determining what motivates individuals, discovering their preferred communication methods and identifying why they are succeeding (or not) helps you to establish a baseline.

Then, when irregularities occur, you can identify them more readily. Demonstrating consistency in these less-formal interactions also builds trust and respect in an atmosphere of problem-solving and improved teamwork.

Ultimately, these skills represent characteristics that benefit not only a CEO but also every leader — in fact, every employee — throughout an organization. By modeling and encouraging these actions and attitudes, you can be well positioned to meet any challenge as a leader of transformation.

Alex Johnson, Ph.D. is president of Cuyahoga Community College