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Can we all agree that the leadership of an organization is the single most important element driving success? Yes, I know that's an odd question—but think about it. Isn't it the case that the behavior of leaders shapes the behavior of employees, through effective coaching, correction and development?

In last month's article, I talked about leadership development and how the day-to-day work of an organization actually serves as the best learning curriculum; by solving real problems and reflecting on why something worked or didn't work, leaders grow in knowledge and experience.

But is that enough? Hire incredibly smart people and let them learn by doing? In my experience, there is still a piece missing and, unless it is addressed, it can create chaos.

The missing piece? Infrastructure.

The Importance of Infrastructure

You've likely heard the old saying, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." Or perhaps "If you pit a good performer against a bad system, the system will win almost every time." But what do these pithy sayings really mean?

They mean that the infrastructure—the systems, processes, policies and programs that those in the organization execute every day—have to facilitate and enable behaviors that drive organizational performance.

You can teach, communicate, motivate and inspire people to do the right work with appropriate behaviors, but if the infrastructure is teaching or communicating a different message, your performance and productivity are seriously impacted.

It's like an orchestra with everyone playing their favorite piece. Unless they agree, it's chaos. It's like a racing pit crew where everyone runs to fix something, and they run to the same tire, so one tire gets all the attention, and the rest run flat. Infrastructure provides the parameters by which leaders lead and employees work.

Values Support Infrastructure, But Don't Define It

What is the purpose of those “values and principles" tacked up on the wall that talk about things like customer service, integrity and communication? They're referring to the ideal infrastructure, telling leaders and employees, “This is what is important; this is how we expect our team to behave."

But it's not enough to simply say, “Act with integrity," or “Communicate effectively," because those are open to individual interpretation. The solution? Programs designed to put values to action, measure employee culture fit, and identify engagement gaps.

So, Who Builds Infrastructure?

There are a number of methods modern organizations have adopted to ensure organizational values are translated into action.

Today, we create employee handbooks that prescribe appropriate behaviors, and define reprimands for bad ones. We offer intense manager trainings. We design pay and benefits structures that reward high performance and good behavior. We implement processes to set goals and measure performance to ensure that the work the organization is doing is aligned with the business strategy. We evaluate leaders' and employees' skills and competencies, and create plans for continuous development. We practice behavioral interviewing to try to source and hire new employees who can perform and thrive in our culture.

But hang on—these are all HR programs, right? They are, but all too often, these programs fail to address their core purpose of building an infrastructure based on values. Instead, managers begrudgingly complete their tasks as HR cajoles and polices the programs, focused on compliance over strategy and completion over improvement. HR programs—which are inherently about building your organization's infrastructure—should instead be continuously evaluated and tweaked to align with the needs of the organization.

The “words on the wall" may tell employees that they are the organization's most valued asset, but do the managers' behaviors reinforce the message? Do your words match your actions? Does the infrastructure that you created work, or is it shouting mixed messages?

I cannot give you the answer; only you can take time to reflect on your organization's infrastructure and answer these questions. Executives, your HR team probably has a pretty good sense of the answers to these questions. If you're looking to improve your leadership culture, ask them where there might be opportunity to improve the infrastructure. I bet they have some good ideas.

Photo: Twenty20