Building a Leadership Culture at Work

Why Developing a Common Leadership Language is Key to Developing a Leadership Culture

This post is written by Emily Thornton (Senior Project Leader) and Heidi Marshall (Marketing Manager EMEA) at AchieveForum.


Building a leadership culture is not easy, but if you get it right it can dramatically accelerate organisational success. In-depth planning rightfully precedes any leadership development initiative. Learning professionals pore over which coaching model works best – GROW or 3Ps? What is the best 360 feedback tool in the market? Which psychometric is going to help you understand people more – DISC or MBTI or Firo-B?

Here’s a different question. How much does it truly matter? Are we as L&D professionals spending too much time debating the content and the models, and too little time on the much tougher job of mapping out how knowledge and behaviours will be diffused and then embedded in the organisation?

The impact of a leadership development programme is often only really felt months after the formal learning journey has been completed, the evaluation forms are filed in the archives, and participants are once again buried in the stresses and challenges that are the reality of everyday work life. That impact, as any seasoned learning professional will testify, is tricky to identify and understand, let alone prove.

We partner with some exceptional clients and help them to go full circle to see the impact our research-based leadership development initiatives have on the capabilities of their people.

One striking feature that we believe is worth its weight in gold is how creating a common leadership language can transform relationships, culture and efficiency. Here’s why.

Common leadership language helps to:

Drive productivity

When it comes to working on a project, setting up a new team, or simply driving business as usual, being able to focus you and your team’s time on what to do, rather than discussing how to do it, can be a critical factor in success. As Chris Woodroofe, Chief Operating Officer of Gatwick Airport Limited, puts it, ‘Everyone being taught the same process…[means]…you burn less time in the debate.’ There’s the risk otherwise that ‘you could spend time talking about models, rather than your business challenges.’ Of course you do need to spend valuable time understanding your objective, discussing the models and tools and deciding what that common language should be. Once you have done that you will find everyone using the same tools lends a kind of shorthand to work that gets your focus where it needs to be – to create the most value for your team and ultimately your organisation.

Remove barriers and break down silos

Multiple factors such as flattened hierarchies, new technologies, and the ‘VUCA’ (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world in which we work, mean we are increasingly working in cross-functional teams. In the Digital Age, knowledge within the organisation is often dispersed and in order to fully leverage capabilities, our leaders are tasked with leading projects that involve several business functions. Indeed, business units are likely to have different strategies, goals and priorities and the chances of conflict in high stake projects are significant.

Identifying common ground in terms of the language we use to lead such projects goes a long way to mitigate the risk of misunderstanding and misalignment derailing the initiative. This is arguably even more important for global team projects when the added complication of diverse languages and cultures comes into play. By using the same terminology, models and approaches we are better able to build trust and understanding within the cross-functional team.

Create a powerful sense of belonging and purpose

As Google’s quest to create the perfect team shows us, teams can come in all different configurations and it’s certainly not simply about having the smartest people involved. Their research shows that empathy and ensuring equal airtime for the team members are central to success. Establishing group norms that prioritise these and create a sense of psychological safety can be what makes the difference. Having a common leadership language, knowing that you understand and someone else understands you, help to build this environment.

Business jargon can often (rightly, some would argue) be derided, but knowing how your company talks about strategy, what coaching model everyone is familiar with, and being able to tell your D from your I (DISC) all help to foster a sense of connection. Conversely, being in an organisation that has a small group of people who use their own shorthand that you don’t know? Nothing can disconnect you faster than not speaking the same language.

Develop your talent

Having a common frame of reference for your leaders can play an important role in developing your talent pipeline. As leaders throughout the business start to ‘speak the same leadership language’, those around them will inevitably hear it, experience it, and start modelling it themselves. When their time comes to take a step up the career ladder, they will already have forged an understanding of how to approach leadership – both of teams and projects.

Support sustained learning

L&D success stories arise when the learning is transferred back to the workplace and then consistently applied. When do we tend to see this happen? When a group of peers have been through the same experience, learned the same approaches and models, and use the same language. It is so much easier for that learning to be brought to life if you’re not the only one talking about and applying it!


“What does it mean to have a Common Leadership Language? As leaders throughout the business start to ‘speak the same leadership language’, those around them will inevitably hear it, experience it, and start modelling it themselves.”


So how do you go about creating a common leadership language? Here are 3 areas to focus on.

1. Pay attention to the ‘golden thread’ of the learning

When it comes to applying new skills that you’ve learnt, line manager engagement has been identified as a key lever, yet it’s rare that this occurs. We believe that paying attention to consistency between learning programmes is key.

If you have your senior leaders learning one feedback model, your mid-level leaders another, and your first-line managers something different again, it can only undermine the effectiveness of the learning application back on the job. By teaching everyone the same model, by equipping everyone with the same tools, leaders can support their direct reports by building your organisation’s culture of what a leader is and does.

This does not mean simplifying or complicating or even repeating content – a leader should be able to rise through an organisation, attending each level’s programme, and learning new skills. We recommend keeping your content consistent – but updating the context.

For example, a Feedback model could be introduced to all individual contributors, helping to build a culture where feedback is given amongst peers and upwards, as well as to direct reports. For new first line managers, practise how this can be used to give developmental and reinforcing feedback to help people develop in their careers. Coaching your team on how to give feedback to their own direct reports can be important for middle managers. Finally, for the senior leaders, the model can be used again, for instance, how to adapt it when you have a large and dispersed team, who you may not see regularly – how does feedback change in this context?

As you can see, although the challenges may change, it’s the same language, allowing the learning to continually be reinforced, and ultimately sustained.

2. Don’t underestimate the power of peer support after a learning initiative

It is not only line managers who influence what we do at work and how we do it – it’s our fellow team members and colleagues. A sole individual coming back to work after a training program, full of new ideas, faces a battle to persuade and engage their peers, even with the support of their line manager. How quickly would that individual’s energy and enthusiasm last?

It might seem obvious to ensure that a team therefore goes through training at the same time, and the answer is to put your sales managers, for instance, through the same learning solution. But peer support can be wider than that, and we would argue that it needs to be.

To continue with the instance of management training, let’s suppose you have your sales managers trained on new tools and techniques. Their own managers are engaged and ready to support changes. Except they then speak to their Product team, who haven’t heard of these new tools, and aren’t willing to change their own processes accordingly. The Finance team aren’t pleased either, as it affects how their reports are put together.

Quickly, you can see that building the support of peers is an important consideration when you wish to make a real and lasting change in your organisation. People often work in cross-functional teams, and if not, their work still depends upon other departments. Taking the time to broaden out the people involved in a learning solution, focusing on the mechanisms you can put in place to enable peers to discuss, share ideas, and support each other, are critical – and they all begin with making sure people have a common understanding.

3. Acknowledge that critical mass across all levels is essential for business improvement

We in the L&D industry can often be tempted to focus most on the content of the learning – how participants use their time in a classroom or when completing e-learning or even which blogs they read on the internet. Whilst all of this is important, of course, it’s only part of where we should be spending our time and energy.

If we consider a participant, having attended a learning intervention of some kind, on their first day back at work. Let’s say they’re full of enthusiasm and eager to change – but then what? Perhaps they’re lucky and they’ve been on a programme with the rest of their team, so they have their peers just as eager to start using their new tools and techniques. But then perhaps their line manager attended a different programme and has to be convinced of the effectiveness of the tools. Maybe then along comes a big new project that the participant has to get done, right now. This project could be cross-functional and the participant’s attempt to apply a culture of feedback only results in blank faces and confusion at best – or breakdown of trust at worst. How soon will that participant be disheartened and fall back to doing things the way they’ve always been done?

Now, let’s think about an organisation with an aligned rollout of learning – where the Executive Team and senior leaders and middle management and first line leaders and individual contributors all take part in a co-ordinated learning journey that’s integrated into their jobs, processes and systems appropriately. Where people are familiar with the same content, where they’re supporting and challenging of each other, where the whole company is engaged and bought into the behaviour change. That’s how your learning initiative can really come alive, and where not only individuals change, but the organisation’s culture. Ultimately, that’s the moment you can transform your business.


If this is something you are interested in discussing regarding your organisation, we’d love to talk to you.

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