Creating a Culture of Leadership: CultureShiftFeb 20, 2023
I was three-quarters of the way through my interview for police chief when Commissioner of Public Safety Dave Blackburn asked me this question, “What is the greatest challenge facing the Dixon Police Department?” I think my answer completely took him by surprise.
Here is what I said, “Imagine we are in game seven of the World Series. It’s the bottom of the ninth. The game is tied. We are up to bat. The bases are loaded, and there’s one out. You step up to the plate. The guy in the on-deck circle is hoping that you strike out, so he can get the game winning hit and be the star.”
This was the culture of the Dixon Police Department in December of 2007 when I applied for, and was interviewing to become, police chief. While we were accomplishing great things in the areas of community policing, putting away pedophiles, and arresting drug dealers, the culture of our department was divided and broken. There were two distinct camps, and it was every man for himself. People were hoping others would fail so they could succeed. Don’t judge too quickly. There is a nasty police subculture that haunts many departments, and if we were to be honest with each other, that haunts many organizations across our entire country.
Our culture was completely resistant to change, and team members had one primary focus, “me.” People were very territorial, and trust was low. The administration was not on the same page, and directives and strategies were often conflicting through the chain of command. Officers were upset by a complete lack of communication and a sense of favoritism.
Many on our team just kept their head down, stayed in their lane, and found safety from doing their job in a very conservative way. For most, leadership development was non-existent until a person attained a supervisory position. Promotional evaluations were based on the skills that made a police officer or detective successful at their current role, not skills that would make them successful at the next level.
So how do we, as leaders, not only lead a specific change but lead a CultureShift to leadership? How do we create a CultureShift that transforms the mindset of “me” to “we”, distrust to trust, and territorialism to inclusiveness? How do we create a shift from resisting change to embracing change, and that shifts leaders from power and control to service and empowerment?
Preparing for a CultureShift:
Step 1: Getting the Pulse (Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood - Stephen Covey)
Knowing and understanding the pulse of your organization is essential for leadership success. We have to be in touch with what our people are thinking, how they are feeling, and what challenges they are facing on the front lines. We may say that our organizations are driven by specific values, but we must be sure our values are driving behavior day in and day out. Perception can be very dangerous, especially when it does not meet reality. This creates blind spots, and our blind spots are landmines for leadership disaster.
In Stephen Covey’s “ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, habit five is “Seek first to understand, then be understood.” This has guided me and continues to guide me every day in my pursuit of leadership excellence. Former President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Combine these two powerful mindset tools with Maya Angelou’s famous quote, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”, and you are ready to lead an incredible CultureShift in your organization.
There is no better way to convey to another that you trust them, you value them, they are important to you, and they are an important part of the team than to ask for their help, their insights, and their solutions. This connects you directly to the pulse of the organization. This was the first step of the blueprint that transformed the culture of the Dixon Police Department into a culture of leadership.
Strategy: Listening Sessions
At 33 years old in early January of 2008, I was selected to serve as Dixon’s Police Chief. I would have a six-month transition period with the current chief and would assume the official duties on June 1, 2008. My first action was to perform “one-on-one” listening sessions with every member of our department. The purpose of these meetings was simply to listen. My goal was to fully understand what each member of our team felt was going well and what needed to be fixed. I wasn’t only interested in the problems; I wanted to hear their solutions. I developed a series of open-ended questions and just listened. I really didn’t know what to expect. I had hoped to get 30-minutes of every person’s time. A few people told me that no one would share what they were really thinking.
This was the greatest investment I have made in my entire leadership career. Over the next 3 months, I spoke with nearly every member of our department. Not only did people open up and give me their true thoughts, feelings, and solutions, there wasn’t a conversation that lasted less than 2 ½ hours. Most of the conversations lasted longer than 3 hours. Every person I spoke with said that no one had ever asked for their opinion or cared to listen to what they had to say. This was very powerful and created significant mutual trust and respect. I thanked everyone for their time, ideas, and service and promised action.
From these conversations, I learned what I already knew. We had a team full of purpose-driven police officers hungry to be inspired and empowered to reach their full potential. Each of them had a desire to help the Dixon Police Department become one of the best departments in the country. Most talked to me about the problems outlined in the opening paragraphs and were as passionate as I was to fix them.
Step 2: Unifying the Leadership Team (Create Clear Expectations)
Healthy cultures are driven by unified leadership teams. These teams have aligned their purpose and work together to accomplish the mission of the organization. When there are high levels of trust and an unwavering commitment to shared values, these leadership teams can move at the speed of light. If your team is not unified, this problem needs to be solved first.
The Problem: We Must Speak with One Voice
One of the biggest problems facing our department was a disconnected and dysfunctional leadership team. This team had not been on the same page, and it was causing significant problems for our team members. Nobody wants to be in the middle of conflict. Who were they to listen to, their front-line supervisor, middle manager, executive leadership team, the CEO? When the leadership team is not on the same page, it creates uncertainty. Uncertainty creates dissension, drives fear, and destroys psychological safety. This destroys teams. To make things worse, confidential information from leadership meetings was being leaked and weaponized for personal gain.
As human beings, when we don’t know the answers, we tend to automatically go to the worst-case scenario. When we are receiving conflicting messages from different levels of the organization, it causes people to choose sides and divides teams and cultures. When you are trying to lead change and your leadership team is working against each other, the change is doomed to fail.
The Solution: One Voice Leadership
Every leader has to know their “gun line” and they must communicate this expectation clearly to their leadership team. A gun line is the line that cannot be crossed. The gun line is non-negotiable based on what you value as a leader. People who intentionally cross this gun line cannot remain on your leadership team.
For me, my gun line was One Voice Leadership. This was the first and most important expectation I set with our new leadership team. We created an inclusive environment where every member of our leadership team had a seat at the table to provide input on major decisions. We would come together as a team to discuss the current issues or proposed change. Everyone had an opportunity to provide their insight and their opinions. The time to express their opinions was during the meeting. During these meetings, we had to be brave and in the words of Brene Brown choose “courage over comfort.” In a short period of time, our team became very good at this.
Once a decision had been made, either by consensus or by the top leader, the entire leadership team owned it, we spoke with one voice, and delivered the message to our teams as if it was our own. This is where expectation and accountability meet. After delivering this expectation, I presented it to the team in writing. We were all required to sign it. This document set out the clear expectation of speaking with one voice and created a confidentiality expectation for these meetings. People cannot feel safe to share their true thoughts and beliefs on sensitive matters if the other people in the room are going to leak the information. The confidentiality expectation significantly improved participation and honest input in these discussions.
Step 3: Share The Vision
Everything begins with vision, but it is how we communicate this vision that changes the game. When you need to change your culture, and you decide to create a culture of leadership, sharing your vision for this change is where it all begins. And, it all begins with getting your leadership team on board at the very beginning, one person at a time. This is my vision of a culture of leadership:
Imagine a leadership team that values service before self, empathy before judgement, challenge as opportunity, solutions instead of problems, and an unwavering commitment to excellence. Imagine a culture of highly dedicated team members who always put “we” before “me.” Imagine an environment where everyone has each other's back. Imagine an organization where leaders develop each team member to their full potential. Imagine a team where creativity, progressive thinking, and innovation are the expectation, not the exception. If you are picturing this in your head, you are seeing a culture of leadership. You are seeing a culture that is primed to achieve and sustain excellence.
Step 4: Aligning Mission, Purpose, & Values:
Armed with an incredible amount of valuable information from the listening sessions and clear expectations that would guide our leadership team, we were ready to get to work. This team consisted of myself, two lieutenants, and five sergeants. By this time, I already had conducted “one-on-one” conversations or spent significant time engaging them.
Purpose, Mission & Goals:
Aligning the purpose of each member of your leadership team to the purpose of the organization is essential for creating connection and Ownership. Everyone on our team had great pride in our department and was driven to create a safer Dixon. They were driven to create a department that would be a great place to work, and they were driven to be the best police department in the country. While the mission statement has evolved to a laser focus over the years, the mission was to create a safer Dixon.
Based on the feedback received in the listening sessions and the discussions that followed during the leadership meetings, our leadership team created three primary goals that would give clear direction on our pathway forward. They are still in place today and are as follows: Exemplary Citizen Service, Proactive Police Strategies, and Community Policing Initiatives. Our leadership team’s involvement in creating our mission statement and goals drove a significant amount of commitment and prepared them to lead incredible change.
What Do We Value:
A culture is simply a set of values that are put into action through consistent daily behaviors. Your culture is how you implement your goals and accomplish your mission. Clearly stating and defining the values of your culture is an important aspect of any CultureShift. For leaders who want to create a culture of leadership, these nine values are a must, and your leadership team must embrace and instill these values in their teams at the beginning of this shift.
Involving your leadership team in the creation of your organizational values drives an investment that creates commitment. Empowering your leaders through engagement and issuing a call to action to your leadership team transitions commitment to the next level of Ownership.
Step 5: Change Leadership (Involvement = Investment = Commitment)
The importance of change leadership cannot be understated. Many leaders completely ignore change leadership strategies, and because of this, often face significant opposition to change. I have developed a simple formula that has proven successful time and time again. Not only will it generate buy-in for small change, but it will generate buy-in and Ownership for a CultureShift.
The formula is Involvement = Investment = Commitment. You cannot get people committed if they are not invested, and it is very difficult to get people invested if they are not involved. We must get people involved very early in the change process, even if their involvement is input during a proactive communication session. This leads to investment, which leads to commitment. And, very high levels of commitment transition to Ownership.
After unifying our leadership team, aligning purpose, and coming to consensus on our mission, goals, and values, we were ready to take this CultureShift to the entire organization. We created several strategies that were to be consistently carried out by our front-line supervisors, middle management, and CEO.
Leadership Strategy 1: Share the Vision
Armed with an incredible amount of information from the listening sessions, our leadership team was ready to implement positive change for our department. Our first step was to share our vision and the new number one goal of the administration, which was to make our department a great place to work. The buzz word was “morale”, but the goal was what is now referred to as employee engagement.
Messaging is very important. Through the listening sessions, our team had asked for this change, and we were answering the call. Leading with the primary goal of creating a great place to work significantly diminished any pushback to this change. Followed up with the message, “The number one goal of our administration is morale” drove incredible buy-in for the change. This demonstrated that their leaders cared about them and valued their input.
Leadership Strategy 2: The Power of One Word: TEAM
Our words have incredible power, much more than most of us realize. Consistently using powerful words that have a universal meaning has an even greater impact. While there can be minor differences in how we define team or teamwork, when we use the word team there is a positive feeling that most people experience that is very similar to the word family. Creating a CultureShift to leadership is heavily dependent on creating a team environment, because leadership is all about serving and helping others. That is what great teams do. They help when needed without being asked, they have each other's back, they are there to pick you up and dust you off when you fall down, and they are there to celebrate your successes.
In 2008, we created a simple strategy that many in our leadership team doubted. The fact that it was awkward for them to use the word “team” further demonstrated the need to use it. It further demonstrated the need for this CultureShift.
Our leaders were to intentionally use the word “team” at least four times a day. They were to catch their teams in the act of teamwork and label the behaviors through the words team or teamwork. From there, they were to use their words to demonstrate how working together as a team accomplished a greater impact.
Leadership Strategy 3: You Get What You Expect, Reinforce, and Reward:
A lack of recognition for good work was one of the issues identified in the listening sessions. People didn’t feel as if they were appreciated. For this, we created a strategy that would kill two birds with one stone. We implemented a new strategy to catch our officers in the act of doing something good through teamwork. When we did, we gave positive reinforcement, verbally, in the presence of their team. When we observed actions and behaviors that we considered going “above and beyond”, we recognized these actions with a formal “Letter of Commendation.” This letter came from the top executive, in this case me, and was posted on a bulletin board in a highly visible area of our building.
While there was generally one officer who made the difference-making action, for example found the drugs or got the confession, there was always teamwork that went into building the case. In times past, when this situation arose and a letter of commendation was issued, it would only be issued to the officer who made the most significant difference-making action. Now, we would recognize everyone who played a meaningful role in the success. Instead of the letter of commendation being issue to one person, for example, “Officer Howell”, it would be issued to many, for example, “Officer Howell, Detective Richards, and Officer LaMendola.” This sent a clear message that we were recognizing the teamwork that went into the great work, not the individual action of a single person.
Clearly displaying these letters of commendation in a visible space was very powerful. It showed that we were recognizing great work. It showed what types of work we were recognizing, and it was very obvious that we were recognizing the teamwork that created these successes. This, combined with the intentional use of the word “team”, set us on a path to create an incredible CultureShift to leadership, teamwork, ownership, and excellence.
Leadership Strategy 4: Proactive Communication:
Knowledge is power; communication is key. I believe proactive communication is a leader’s most powerful tool and a lack of communication is the most significant issue facing organizations across our entire country. In the words of trust expert David Horsager, people trust what they know and distrust what they don’t know. The first phase of the leadership CultureShift is getting your leadership team on the same page and creating a plan. The successful implementation of the CultureShift is heavily dependent on proactive communication.
Proactive communication is a technique where we intentionally communicate relevant and important information to our team in a timely manner. This communication can be done in person, by telephone, via video conferencing, by email, or other forms of communication. However, we cannot let email make us lazy, and we should never communicate anything negative via email.
Proactively communicating with your team tells them that you care about them, and they are important to you and the organization. Sharing information with your team that should have been shared last week is not proactive communication, and when team members hear important information through back channels it creates frustration and diminishes their sense of belonging.
Following the listening sessions and during the leadership team “buy in” phase, proactive communication was my top priority. Intentionally meeting people where they were at and having a positive conversation with them was critical. Every conversation does not have to be a revelation, but consistent communication and personal connection builds trust and strengthens relationships. Being open and sharing what the leadership team is working on tells your team member that they are important and valued, increasing their sense of belonging, which is the second pillar of Ownership.
To formally launch our CultureShift, we decided to have a department meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to clearly demonstrate that our team members had been heard and meaningful change was happening right now. The meeting was very structured and began with sharing the vision of what our department would become. We began with the positives, shared the solutions to problems identified in the listening sessions, and shared a roadmap that would be the foundation of our team members’ success and the success of the organization. We clearly defined the mission of our department, outlined the department’s three primary goals, established common values, and set clear expectations.
Each member of our executive leadership team had a segment of the presentation. This showed unity of command, something that had been non-existent for the past couple of years. We declared a commitment to service and teamwork through a healthy culture that recognized and appreciated the work of our team. The response from our team members to this meeting was overwhelmingly positive and propelled our CultureShift like a rocket ship. This created an incredible foundation for our transition to a leadership culture and the evolution of the primary value that guides the department today, a commitment to excellence.
Leadership Strategy 5: Leadership Development
The final strategy in a CultureShift to leadership is leadership development. There is no greater investment than the investment in our people. Our goal is to help our team members reach their full potential and achieve their purpose. When they do the organizational results that follow are incredible.
We recognize the importance of developing leaders, and most importantly, a leadership mindset very early in a person’s career. In leadership cultures, this begins in the Onboarding process and continues throughout our team members journey. This is done through coaching, mentoring, timely feedback, positive correction, meaningful evaluations, and a leadership development program. By the time a person achieves a formal leadership position in the organization, they have been prepared and are ready to lead on day one.
When thinking about the great responsibility of leadership, I am drawn to Eric Thomas’s quote, “Everyone wants to be a beast, until it is time to do what real beasts do.” Everyone wants to be a leader, until it is time to do what real leaders do. Real leaders serve others. Real leaders sacrifice. Real leaders put their egos and wants aside for the betterment of their team and organization. Real leaders put in the work. Real leaders walk the talk. Real leaders take the hits and fall on the sword to protect their team. Real leaders don’t follow the pathway of least resistance, they create a new pathway full of creativity, innovation, and excellence.
Creating a culture of leadership is not easy. It is not for the faint of heart. The pathway and strategies to create a CultureShift to leadership will heavily depend on the current culture in your organization. Regardless of your current culture, connecting with and listening to your team will ensure you have your finger on the pulse of the organization. While intentionally connecting and unifying your leadership team is important for any organization, it is a powerful component of leadership cultures. Realigning purpose, creating a laser focus on mission, and identifying areas for growth are key for creating and sustaining excellence.
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