A case study in embedding learning, collective leadership and cultural change in an organisation.
After introducing a transformative collective leadership program for its senior leadership team in 2017, Singleton Council faced a common problem: how to embed the learning in ways that would create pervasive cultural change across the organisation.
Having recently been presented with an Australian HR Excellence Award for the Best Change Management Strategy, the council believes that an innovative learning design, a structured deployment plan of ongoing learning application, and the participation of the senior leaders in the learning integration process, were all key success factors in the culture change initiative.
Here’s how they did it.
Collective leadership and ownership
The opportunity for change was clear to general manager Jason Linnane when he first joined the council in 2016.
Linnane vividly remembers walking into his first executive meeting with his senior leadership team to find an empty seat at the head of the boardroom table and his team of leaders waiting to be told what to do.
The experience sparked one of his first initiatives in the new role – asking his HR lead to look for a leadership development program that could move the culture towards systems thinking and collective ownership.
“I’ve always known that wisdom is not up to me – it lives in the collective,” says Linnane.
“As a keen systems thinker, I wanted a team that could take a collective leadership approach. An approach that would harness the energy, the wisdom and strength of our individual leaders to make a much stronger organisation.”
It was time to move from hierarchical to collective, and say goodbye to the traditional ‘hero on the rock’ style of leadership.
Making new behaviours real in daily workplace life
The high impact, experiential leadership program that the leaders undertook propelled them into a new cultural paradigm of collective, systems-aware leadership.
From their very first workshop, there was a significant change in the senior leadership team. The participants focused on self-awareness, awareness of others, expressing oneself fully and authentically, and discovering their leadership impact.
This foundation is essential: leaders learnt that showing up fully is an obligation in collective leadership; team members need to trust that everyone in the system is fully engaged and speaking up, even when that takes courage. If the team cannot trust that they have that from each other, collective leadership just won’t flourish.
“We couldn’t believe it when the team returned,” says HR manager Alison Bodiam. “We noticed a huge shift in how they were behaving and working together, and how connected they were. [They were] seeking opinions, exploring strategies, bouncing ideas around.”
“The program achieved exactly what we needed as a leadership team,” says Linnane. “Now the question became how to keep embedding it and how to roll it out to the rest of the organisation.”
Working closely together, the council’s HR team and consultancy Leadership Coefficient customised an employee version of the leadership program to roll out to their next level leaders, those who report to the managers.
The employee program was designed to create ongoing application of the learning over a 30-week period. It began with virtual pre-learning and then a two-day offsite workshop facilitated by Leadership Coefficient, with the senior leaders supporting in a coaching role.
Following each workshop, employees attended a 1:1 coaching session every four weeks with a member of the senior leadership team. Interspersed with the coaching, the senior leaders co-facilitated 90-minute learning integration modules to refresh key learning points and commitments from the program, reinforcing the new collective leadership behaviours and how to make them real in daily workplace life.
Senior leaders had the added benefit of keeping their own learning vibrant, as well as raising their visibility as role models for collective leadership across the organisation.
Training that pays back in spades
As a result of its success in embedding the collective leadership program, Singleton Council achieved an impressive increase in employee engagement and a transformation in its broad leadership culture.
Employee engagement increased from 42 per cent in 2018 to 72.5 per cent in 2020. Other leadership scores also increased significantly. ‘Evidence of effective leadership from senior leaders’ rose by 70 per cent and believing ‘senior leadership provides clear direction for the future’ increased by 74 per cent.
The new culture was palpable, even to newcomers. When director Sharon Hutch joined the council, she was amazed to find senior leaders “working at a level that is not common” and “managers really looking at the big picture, strategy, coming up with great ideas outside their patch”.
The culture is not only more enjoyable, it is more productive. Enhanced empathy and understanding have led to greater honesty and collaboration. Personal confidence and commitment have grown, sparking a desire to show up and contribute. This, in turn, drives the responsiveness of the organisation as a whole.
This impulse has been especially powerful in the face of the disruptions of COVID-19 and has positively impacted community stakeholders as well, with customer satisfaction continuing to rise in spite of the challenges.
Jane Weber is a learning and development expert specialising in organisational relationship systems. She is a director at Leadership Coefficient.