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On Change, Culture and Leadership

Earlier this month I began publishing a free newsletter on Substack the content of which has resonated greatly.

You can subscribe to the newsletter here….

While the writing has covered a wide range of topics including loss, learning, love, why libraries are important and what we can learn from jazz the purpose of the newsletter is to help you see think, feel and see differently about how to grow your company, your team and yourself.

To give you a flavor of the writing and also to memorialize some of it on this blog here are thoughts on three things we all grapple with. Change. Culture and Leadership.

A. Leadership.

Over the past four decades I have observed, experienced and read about leadership.

In the end I have distilled my beliefs on leadership down to this:

Leaders acknowledge, face and communicate reality.

People follow people and not titles since titles are bestowed while leadership is earned.

The five characteristics of great leaders are capability, integrity, empathy, vulnerability and inspiration.


A key to leadership is to solve challenges and address problems. This requires confronting issues versus looking away or hoping some form of magical thinking will make them go away.

You cannot hope to get people to follow you if they suspect you are not addressing real issues and challenges however difficult they may be.


Without the hearts and minds of your team you are not a leader but a ruler.

Rulers leverage fear, project power and exploit insecurity.

Employees genuflect, fall in line, salute and pander to the hollow and bloated boss, while they silently seethe, plot insurrection or practice defection.

Five Characteristics.

a) Capability: To be a leader you have to be capable in your field of work or craft. You have to know your shit. You have to keep improving your skill. Doctors will not listen doctors who are not great at medicine. A creative will not respect someone whose body of work they do not admire.

b) Integrity: Can you be trusted? Are you transparent about the ingredients of your decision making. Do you look for and use real facts ?

c) Empathy: Leaders can see from other points of view and they understand that employees are people and work is but a sliver of their being. They understand and they listen. They care. They do this both for employees and for customers.

d) Vulnerability: Great leaders acknowledge mistakes. They know they do not have all the answers. This means they are open to criticism and correction and they surround themselves with skill sets that offset and balance their areas of weakness.

e) Inspiration: How do leaders face and acknowledge reality and hard truth but still get people to unite, align and take the challenges head on? They do so by recognizing that people choose with their hearts and not their minds. They inspire through a combination of personal example and storytelling.

B. Culture

It has been said that “culture eats strategy” and often when companies decay (Wells Fargo) or resurrect ( Microsoft) or have distinctly different outcomes in the same industry ( Southwest versus United Airlines) a key determinant is the culture. What it is like, how it is improving or how it is getting worse.

Once I read that the culture of an organization is revealed in how people behave when no one is looking or monitoring their behavior.

I do believe that that this is right in the fact that culture is about people. Yes it requires leaders to set, correct and support the culture but it is how they treat people and how people feel about themselves, their company and their colleagues that is the fabric of culture.

Companies with great cultures tend to have employees who feel most of the following about their jobs and companies:

Fair/ Good Compensation: If people are not paid adequately or fairly it really hard to have a good culture.

Recognition: Great cultures recognize contributors and leaders do not step into their teams video stealing credit.

Autonomy: People are trusted to deliver with limited monitoring and can access resources to do so.

Purpose: They believe in the purpose and values of the company and see the role of their company beyond that of just profit but doing good for society or community.

Growth: The company is growing, has a plan for growth or even if static, the individual is growing and teams are growing by being given opportunities to learn and build new skills.

Connectedness: People feel connected to each other and to their leadership. They feel free to speak up and share and even joke.

Today most of us are working from home for six months and it is likely that we will be doing so for at least another six months until a vaccine is available broadly.

Have been spending a lot of my time advising C level executives, one of the big challenges they are grappling with is how to ensure the mental and emotional well being of their talent who often feel disconnected, stressed for both work and life reasons as they grapple with children at home and other worries and challenges about their future.

Solving for and focusing on these six drivers of culture is one way smart leaders are working to ensure that in a distributed world the fabric of culture is not torn. They and their talent/HR leaders are planning different ways they get there but recognize it is key to ensure that each of these six seeds of culture are watered.

C. Change


Change is difficult especially for established individuals and businesses since transforming our thinking and doing into new shapes requires one to go through a regimen of pain, mistakes and unknowable twists and turns.

Why suffer sure pain for unknown gain if there is a way to avoid it ?

Therefore it is not surprising that many of us as individuals and companies take the easy way out by pontificating about “change agendas”, hiring “change agents”, announcing “re-organizations for a changed era” and issuing a flurry of press releases and re-decorating one’s digital presence with words like “platform”, “disruption”, “personalization”, “data”, “cloud” “seamless” and other buzz word bingo and mumbo jumbo.

Never works this eruption of vigorous cosmetic application and vocal vociferousness.

The only way a company transforms is if the people in the company transform.

Upgrade the people or upgrade their mindsets.

To gauge if you or your company are really aligning with change ask three simple questions

Incentive plans: Are people being incentivized to change or are the people who get paid the most the ones who run the established businesses, have the biggest existing revenue books, have the deepest current client relationships ? Are some of the best people being allocated to where the company will spend the rest of its life which is the future or is it folks the company does not know what to do with or those between assignments?Show me a company’s incentive structure and I can guess how they behave and if they will really change.The future does not fit in the incentive and power systems of today and yesterday.

Fear: Change is scary but the reason many people don’t change is something is they fear their management and culture even more than they fear change.Management that provides no room for error, or for speaking up or calling out the “turd on the table” will have a difficult time to get people to people to change. Without freedom to challenge and fail, there is unlikely to be any innovation but just a crowd of synchronized head-nodding, bobble-headed people who serve as mirrors to their leaders by reflecting what they believe their leaders need to hear or what will make them look good in their Managements eyes.

Investment in Training : The third key to change in addition to incentive systems and an absence of fear is a significant effort in training. If a company is to change and to upgrade its people it can do so in two ways. First it can bring in and hire talent with the skills they need and second it can upgrade the skills of the people it has.Most companies will need to do both and will require to train existing employees with new skills while training new employees to the company expertise resources and culture.

So next time you or your company speak of change ask if you have got the incentive systems, culture and training to get you to the other side of this difficult transition.

It’s not easy but even though change sucks, irrelevance is even worse.

For more like this subscribe here…

Rishad Tobaccowala ( @rishad ) is the author of the bestselling “Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data” published by Harper Collins globally in January 2020. It has been described as an “operating manual” for managing people, teams and careers in the age we live in and The Economist Magazine called it perhaps the best recent book on Stakeholder Capitalism.Rishad is a sought after speaker and advisor who helps people think, feels and see differently about how to grow their companies, their teams and themselves. More at

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