Dress For The Occasion – Tailoring Your Leadership Style For The Culture Of The Organisation By Claire Oatway

For many of us that leads to discomfort, awkwardness even and to the people around us a sense of bemusement, judgement (positive and negative), affection or humour even. Even as you walk into the room – head held high there’s still that self-awareness that lingers.Whatever the scenario, you’ll agree that its not all about you and its not all about your audience.

Leading teams and choosing the appropriate leadership style is an extension. There are so many factors that shape the culture within an organisation – profession, scale, geography, founder philosophy, history, diversity. Typically, we try to simplify culture to just one or two of those elements but culture is really just “how things are done around here.”

If you’re a leader, especially an emerging leader you may have one or two dominant styles. You may be directive and autocratic – feeling responsible for setting direction and chasing up progress to meet business goals. You may work in a setting where group consensus is important – for example in design where you need to harness creativity in the team to prepare the best project. If you’re a consensus person working in a hierarchical command and control culture you may find yourself at odds. You risk not being valued as others in the structure don’t outwardly understand or value the time that you’re taking to people when the work needs to get done. You may also risk disenfranchising the team as they are waiting for your direction and boundaries and feel like your efforts are in vain.

Many leadership texts encourage leaders to develop their authentic voice – to find their style and be true to that. Great advice and especially when you’re in flow you can move mountains by being you and leading others in a way that helps you and them to feel powerful. But culture doesn’t always allow for that. The skimpy sequined dress won’t work at a date horse racing and the power suit won’t work at a Sunday brunch date. As women, we take care to understand the environment we’re going into and match the occasion. We find a way to be all of our sassy self in every situation but to make sure that our outfit doesn’t detract from that fabulousness. Choosing your leadership style is just the same. The little black dress of leadership then – the one that can be dressed up or down is situational leadership. This style offers that dexterity – to frame your approach around the situation to get the most value from you and your team.

If that doesn’t feel like a natural approach for you, these 5 tips by Claire Oatway, might help you to thrive in any culture.

  1. Read the invite – there are many cues to culture in written documents such as the organisation values, vision, reward structure; these all highlight desired traits that you can model.
  2. Bring a plus one – maybe a stretch in terms of metaphor. Find a mentor, formally or informally, who can help you to navigate the culture. To help you to quickly assess the room and to help you to see any blindspots you have that could trip you up
  3. Be gracious to your host but never wear the same outfit – look to senior players in the organisation and find a way to complement their style. That’s not to encourage you to copycat their style. Observe it and bring elements into your own toolkit. Find ways to show that your approach meets the results that they value. Use the language that you do with them.
  4. If you don’t want to dance then say so – expectations are really important. Whether or you’re not it’s a deliberate act you do project your expectations on your team and yourself constantly. If you are bringing a style that needs more collaboration because you think that is going to be most productive – then describe that. If you’re team are used to being kept on a short leash give them permission to experiment, to come up with new ideas and to challenge. Even if its in a short protected time. Similarly, if somethings cropped up and you need results fast – signal that you are changing your style with clear direction and rules and acknowledge that so that the team, your followers can see your desire to be consistent and to return to your normal state. Great leaders build up consensus and encourage feedback in the good times, and if an emergency hits they are able to switch styles and retain, even build loyalty.
  5. Remember not everyone is having the same vibe – even if there is a dominant organisation culture, sometimes individual teams can have their own identity. Even similar teams with different managers can have contrary styles. Trying to stay vigilant, listening to cues, challenging if the dissonance is too great are all ways to protect yourself and adapt to the culture you’re in. There are some cultures that are totally inappropriate but a lot of team friction comes from a lack of mutual understanding and respect. Don’t take for granted that you’re always on the right side – sometimes both sides are right.

Above all, be aware of your own flaws and fabulousness. Play with different styles and you’ll be great.

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