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ATD Blog

How to Leverage Leadership Development to Accelerate Culture Change

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

For leadership training to create real culture change, it requires roll-up-the-sleeves, executive-level sponsorship.

If the senior vice president of sales (SVP) thinks leadership training is a distraction, their sales managers will show up late and multitask.

But what if that same sales SVP were to kick off the training with a powerful story then remain to engage with the team? After the training, what if they checked for understanding to ensure their team understood the new techniques and why they mattered? What if they celebrated when they saw the new learned behaviors in action?

Leader-supported training has a high probability of making real culture change. Now, imagine if leaders at every level were doing that with their teams.

As organizations flatten and people continue to work remotely, more than executive sponsorship is needed to turn leadership development into sustained culture change. Leaders at every level must engage with the training as culture accelerators.

Leaders as Culture Accelerators

Leadership training paired with a culture accelerator program provides leaders a structured way to model what they've learned and cultivate those competencies in their teams. By teaching and reinforcing the skills they're learning, leaders facilitate practical conversations about how the team can take performance to the next level.


Wait, What? Who Has Time for That?

We get it. No one has time for meetings that don’t directly impact learning outcomes and business results. But busy leaders embrace culture acceleration because it’s a high-ROI engagement that achieves multiple business outcomes.

As culture accelerators, managers practice skills that apply to their daily leadership: asking questions, drawing reluctant team members into the conversation, listening without bias, reflecting about what they’ve heard, and running productive meetings.

Culture-accelerator conversations focus on business priorities and outcomes. They’re practical. They make work smoother, improve team dynamics, and increase productivity.

And training ROI increases significantly as managers teach what they learn. When managers attend a leadership program supplemented by a culture accelerator, you train them and everyone on their teams. Training for a few turns into impact for all.

Here are two culture accelerator models that create sustained culture change:


1. Challenger Groups: Senior Leaders as Cross-Functional Culture Accelerators
Challenger groups leverage senior-level leaders to mentor and support participants, helping them apply what they've learned. One or two senior managers who have taken (or are taking) the course lead a challenger group of seven to 10 participants to discuss what everyone is learning and applying from the formal, instructor-led training. Conversations focus on applications in their day-to-day work. Ideally, these participants come from different regions, departments, or areas of the business.

Support challenger group leaders through mastermind sessions and an easy-to-follow facilitation guide. These informal sessions help create psychological safety for the team and build your leaders' confidence in facilitation.

Challenger groups create sustained culture change in four ways. First, there's no better way to reinforce a skill than to teach it. Second, challenger-group participants learn from one another about how the leadership techniques work in different contexts. Third, participants see senior leaders modeling tools and using what they learned. Finally, participants develop a network of trusted strategic peer relationships.

2. Team Accelerator Programs: Video-Based Guided Learning for Managers to Accelerate Culture
In this culture accelerator model, managers guide their teams through a collaborative learning and application process. Managers take an hour each month with their team to watch a short video or learn a new concept or skill, then use a provided discussion guide to help their team apply the concept. The team ends each meeting by creating a mutual behavioral commitment based on the topic. By the end of the program, they have a robust, co-created team agreement.

Between sessions, the manager and team members watch for opportunities to celebrate when they follow through on their commitments and call each other back to their agreement when they don’t fulfill it. For example, our clients use a seven- to 10-month team accelerator program to supplement our instructor-led leadership training. Topics include aligning on key priorities and behaviors, holding accountability conversations, taking appropriate risks, developing deeper connections, and helping the team share their ideas. As leaders facilitate conversations on these topics with their teams, everyone develops the skills—not just the manager.

As in the challenger group model, managers continue to hone their own leadership and facilitation skills while they work as culture accelerators. And employees learn practical skills to become more productive team members and prepare for continued responsibility and leadership. Teams work on practical, tactical ways to improve their performance, while managers become more accountable for the leadership skills they learned.

To ensure your leadership development program creates real culture change, turn your leaders into culture accelerators. If you’re interested in learning more or have best practices of your own to share, join us at ATD22 for the session Training That Sticks: How Leadership Development Creates Sustainable Culture Change.

About the Author

Karin Hurt, founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has more than two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc.'s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.

About the Author

David Dye, president of Let’s Grow Leaders, works with leaders to achieve transformational results without losing their soul (or mind) in the process. As a former executive and elected official, he inspires audiences with practical leadership inspiration you can use right away. The award-winning author of Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results Without Losing Your Soul, The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say, and Glowstone Peak, David is a sought-after leadership speaker who believes everyone can master the essentials of influence.

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Great techniques that are especially relevant in higher education. Looking forward to incorporating in several upcoming learning experiences planned for upper level management.
Excellent Audrey!
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Having seen these principles in action with several organizations, I couldn't agree more with the ideas shared in this article. The fact is simpoe: when leadership engages and adopts practical, visible actions in their day to day interactions the culture moves in a positive direction and over time the organization improves.
Thanks, David!
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