The fish rots from the head

the fish rots from the head

I am often asked by client leadership what to do first when there is a sense that the culture and behaviours of the organisation need to be focussed upon. In fact, I am often brought in by open and brave leaders who are humble enough to turn the focus upon themselves and truly look to see what is needed, and culture is often the gap they see.

Often the organisation has taken their attention off their culture and focussed almost exclusively on financial and other strategic goals, with the result that “culture gaps” are appearing throughout. I therefore often respond to their question on what to do first with the line:

The fish rots from the head

This is deliberately emotive and pointed, with the point being that culture must be addressed at the top of the organisation first.

People observe their leaders, so no matter how much money is invested by HR and LnD in people, if the leadership are not, well, leading in their behaviours, all of that money invested is wasted. Change must come from the top as well as from all levels within.

Definition: rot [rot] 

verb (used without object), rot·ted, rot·ting.

  • to undergo decomposition; decay.
  • to deteriorate, disintegrate, fall, or become weak due to decay (often followed by away, from, off, etc.).
  • to languish, as in confinement.
  • to gradually deteriorate, especially through neglect.

Decomposition, decay, deterioration, disintegration, failure.

Emotive words that sit with the word “rot”, so that is exactly why I use the phrase containing the word “rot”.

The negative signals in the business are often from declining (rotting?) metrics such as Employee Satisfaction scores, Net Promoter Score (both internally and externally focussed) etc etc.

If leadership then chooses to invest in change throughout the organisation, this can reverse and heal the “rot”.

However, this can take time and a lot of money, energy and resources, so surely any organisation would, therefore, wish to ensure this happens as smoothly, easily and effectively as possible?

One would think so, but I’ve often observed that these investments are made without the top leadership first turning the focus upon themselves.

Beautiful Leadership is brave, humble, open and curious.

Beautiful Leaders recognise that they must, as Gandhi said, “be the change they wish to see”.

I always advise organisations looking at a transformative change to first invest in a brave and tough focus on the culture and behaviours at the top of the organisation and commit to transformation there.

Again and again, I have found empirically that when this is done prior to full rollout of investment in culture, people, behaviours throughout the organisation, that the results both come far faster and more easily, as well as being more impactful, transformative and (key) sustainable and self-sustaining.

If you see opportunities for transformative change in your own organisation, I’d love to talk to you, I’ve supported and guided many organisations from small to very large in countries around the world and one call may help guide you in your direction of travel.

For now, do remember:

The fish rots from the head


Also published on Medium.

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