Increase Your Influence: Culture Matters

min read

Key Takeaways

  • Clearly defining what leadership means in your organization, embedding it in your culture, and focusing on the development of all employees better positions your organization to influence the change necessary to move it forward.
  • Within the model of distributed leadership practiced at Harrison College, leadership is based on a collective and inclusive philosophy.
  • The new model relies on competency-based assessment with accountability and goals based on expected behaviors specified for each competency.
  • Performance calibration brings awareness of employee strengths and succession planning while pushing supervisors to be more thoughtful and intentional about performance evidence and scores.

Sherri Parker is dean of Instructional and Learning Resources at Harrison College.

Culture plays a pivotal role in the success of organizations and their ability to influence change in processes, attitudes, and initiatives that can further their success. At Harrison College [], we use words such as caring, collaboration, dedication, respect, integrity, and student-focused to describe our culture. Shared values connect employees, including a commitment to leadership, which is a shared performance competency. Supervisors are connected by two additional shared competencies: talent development and adaptability. By defining clearly what leadership means in your organization, embedding it in your culture, and focusing on the talent development of all employees, your organization will be better positioned to influence the change necessary to move it forward.

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Running Time: 2:35 minutes


It was a real shift in culture when I began working at Harrison College in January 2012. I had spent the previous 17 years working at a liberal arts college and, in the later years, also with a consortium of 23 private academic libraries in Indiana. One of the first major differences was that the focus of conversations at Harrison centered on the students and their experience. (Conversations were not centered mostly on the faculty.) Never before had I experienced so much passion regarding the success of the student. My initial tasks were to network to build relationships with others outside of my department around the college; to do all I could to understand the students we served; and to become familiar with the overarching college-wide strategic plan. I attended regularly scheduled cross-functional team meetings, and every meeting was very productive and energizing. (No meetings occurred where I left feeling like that was a waste of my time!) I sensed no feelings of "status," but instead felt like I was an equal at the table with my new peers — collaboration at its finest. I also recognized immediately the talent, passion, and energy that was "oozing" out of my colleagues.

Additionally, for the first time in 1:1 meetings with my supervisor, there was a focus on how I needed to develop as an employee. Here I was in my first weeks of employment, and they were asking about my aspirations. A personal talent development plan was being discussed, as well as how I planned to develop the talent of those reporting to me. Relationship building and collaboration were expected from me — this was so fresh and new!

I was not the only person experiencing these differences. As I interacted with other new employees who had also worked in higher education previously, they shared the same observations. The culture was indeed shockingly different, and it made us feel like we were really a part of something special!

Now, two years later, I still feel the same. In fact, when I had the privilege of attending the Leading Change Institute in the summer of 2013, attending fellows let me know they were energized by the happiness that was shining out of me as I shared my experiences working at Harrison College. So many of the ideas coming from the groups were already in place at Harrison. What was at the root of these differences?

Culture defines behavior patterns within organizations. Harrison College has provided a career-focused education since 1902, but the organizational culture took a pivotal turn when Ken Konesco took the helm in 1986 as Harrison's president. (Listen to this video (2:58 minutes) in which he shares his cultural philosophies, which became his legacy.) Another cultural facet at Harrison is the adoption and practice of distributed leadership. After some research, I found that this leadership style emerged during the 21st century. Within this model, leadership is based on a collective and inclusive philosophy focused on shared responsibility. The behaviors of individual leaders define that responsibility within this horizontal approach. A misnomer accompanies this model: some believe it can result in "too many cooks in the kitchen." In my experience at Harrison, this is not true. There is still hierarchy in the organizational chart, and we certainly have vision coming from the top; however, there is also a collaborative approach to rollout, with freedom to discuss, collaborate, challenge, and tweak as necessary. More importantly, when things are not going as they should and problems crop up, we are expected to bring these issues forward with solutions to address them.

In 2009, Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote the blog post "On Twitter and in the Workplace, It's the Power to the Connectors." Kanter provides context to the distributed leadership model in this post. She discusses the power and influence of the "Society of Networks" that emerged when social networking sites like Twitter took off.1 In her explanation, circles of influence began replacing chains of command, which changes the nature of career success. As Kanter wrote, "power goes to the 'connectors', those who actively seek relationships and then serve as bridges between and among groups." The increased emphasis on horizontal relationships as the center of action moves the focus to serving customers. Fewer people act as power holders monopolizing information or decision making even within organizations. Spanning boundaries prompts formation of relationships, increasing influence.

In their 2013 Harvard Business Review article, "The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents," Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro wrote that after tracking 68 initiatives for one year after their inception, findings revealed that when it comes to change agents, network centrality is critical to success, whether you're a middle manager or a high-ranking boss.3 They concluded that "informal connections give people access to information, knowledge, opportunities, and personal support, and thus the ability to mobilize others." At Harrison College, developing viable partnerships and networks of people is a key element of our leadership competency definition.

Performance Standards

Accountability can be an interesting topic of conversation — one that makes some folks squeamish — but lack of accountability can inhibit the ability to drive change. A unique element of the culture at Harrison College involves holding employees to performance standards in a way that changed for the organization in 2011. Based on my research, the performance evaluation tool used at Harrison is unique within the higher education sector, more closely mirroring that of the corporate sector. Each employee is evaluated on five competencies selected from a list of 10. All employees share one competency: leadership. Supervisors share an additional two: talent development and adaptability.

The chief talent officer at the time directed adoption of this competency-based assessment model with the belief that everyone in the organization is a leader, regardless of title or position.4 Several administrative leaders shared this philosophy, but this was the first time an attempt had been made to recognize it institutionally. Harrison had extremely talented individuals who never appeared on the radar for talent development and succession planning because their voices were "buried" and they had limited exposure to opportunities that required leadership from them.

Competency-based assessment was so different than anything the institution had done before that it took a lot of education and awareness training to get employees on board. Before, the organization had struggled to speak the same language around what made a high performer. Terms like collaboration and leadership were defined differently throughout the institution. For example, "manager" and "leader" were used interchangeably. Adopting competencies established a framework and common language that could apply to employees' performance and development. Desired behaviors for each competency showed employees the expectations, which helped drive some norming around language used. Competencies provided a consistent platform and language that all employees could understand and see applied equally across all positions. This also proved helpful in the hiring process because for the first time, Harrison staff could talk about the competencies associated with a position during the interview process and give examples of what successful behaviors look like for each competency. Additionally, merit increases, when budgets allow, are based on performance.

The complete list of the 10 Harrison College competencies follows:

  • Leadership (all)
  • Adaptability (management)
  • Talent Development (management)
  • Alignment
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Professional and Technical Expertise
  • Results Orientation
  • Service Orientation/Client Focus
  • Resilience

A definition along with a list of desired behaviors provide context for each competency. For example, leadership is defined as:

The ability to make things happen by encouraging and channeling the contributions of others; taking a stand on and addressing important issues; acting as a catalyst for change and continuous improvement; and developing viable partnerships and networks of people.

Example desired behaviors for leadership include:

  • Encourages and empowers others to achieve; creates enthusiasm, a feeling of investment, and a desire to excel
  • Celebrates the achievement of key milestones, recognizes all who contributed
  • Creates vision and direction
  • Provides solutions to obstacles
  • Develops an organization and business atmosphere that supports individual and team achievement
  • Energizes people to overcome barriers to change
  • Organizes, gains the involvement of, and manages diverse teams to accomplish specific projects and department goals

Calibration of Competency Evaluations

Another new piece of the evaluation process was to institute annual calibration sessions with leaders and the Human Resources (HR) team. Because of Harrison's multiple locations in multiple states, it was important that a score of 4 in a leadership competency in one location also define what a 4 in leadership did at another location. This norming became a process, one that we continue to refine. The fact that we have the opportunity to discuss each employee's growth has been advantageous, as supervisors have the opportunity to discuss an employee's strengths and professional aspirations and then help the employee achieve those goals (through mentoring, introductions to new leaders within the organization, etc.). This forces supervisors to be more thoughtful and intentional about the scores they award and the evidence of performance they share and stand behind.

One of the leadership behaviors expected is that employees bring solutions and not just problems. This means that if employees do have concerns, or want to suggest change, they need to bring recommended changes with the concern. As an example, the librarians addressed the performance evaluation process by developing the list of expected behaviors for their competencies with assistance from HR. They got the list approved and made it work for their team while following the same overall model as the rest of the college. This small example demonstrates how the culture empowers employees to drive change.

Harrison's definition is not far removed from these five basic principles of leadership:5

  • Focus on the issue, situation, or behavior, not the person
  • Maintain the self-esteem and self-confidence of others
  • Maintain constructive relationships
  • Take initiatives to make things better
  • Lead by example

A common theme can be identified — relationship building and the power of increasing one's influence. I found it interesting how this theme related to Kanter's "power of the connectors" and Battilana and Casciaro's findings on change agents. It was gratifying to see how well Harrison aligns with these basic leadership principles.

Dealing with Concerns

One concern raised during discussions where I have presented on distributed leadership and competency-based assessment is the subjectivity of evaluations that can come into play. We have discovered when applying expected behaviors that goal setting has become an important process between the supervisor and the employee. Alignment is vital. In most cases, the goals drive "how" the employee will meet expected behaviors. For example, if networking is a desired behavior, then working together to define with whom the employee should network can become a goal.

Second, the employee's self-evaluation became a critical piece of the new performance process. This step allows the supervisor to verify alignment — again, making subjectivity less of a concern. When the supervisor and employee get out of alignment, it usually means they are not meeting enough to discuss goals and performance. Additionally, because supervisors are evaluated on how they will develop their direct reports, this helps hold them accountable for development efforts of those they support.

Challenges with and Benefits of the Model

One of the challenges we face in our distributed leadership model is what we call the "shiny object syndrome." We have to be mindful of the top priorities that drive student success and those that map well to the overall strategic plan. A lot of great ideas bubble up, and sometimes we might put too much energy in the wrong projects. Consistently aligning to a well thought-out strategic plan helps ensure we put our energies where needed.

A second challenge is that Harrison College is changing all the time, continually adjusting to meet the demands of the transitional situation facing higher education today. Working in a continuous change environment is not for everyone. Nimbleness is a must.

Kevin Hesler Photo

Kevin Hesler, Vice President of Information Services at Harrison College, shared how he felt about Harrison's performance evaluation process:

"The evaluation process was a natural transition for me coming out from the corporate sector, so I was accustomed to similar processes. Prior to its implementation, however, I felt as though the institution lacked accountability, which precluded employees from getting the job done, and getting results."

He said he really liked the behavioral element of the competency definitions. His team had to shift to recognize and address what needed to be developed professionally in each person, and not merely focus on what was done well.

The benefits I have witnessed within the Harrison culture and its commitment to leadership, talent development, performance, and collaboration are many, but include:

  • Problems can be solved more effectively, better decisions can be made, and constructive relationships can be maintained when employees concentrate on the big picture and consider others' points of views with an open mind.
  • When employees find ways to interact regularly with members of other departments and ask them about their challenges and pressures, there is opportunity to build relationships. Trust requires relationships.
  • By communicating how one team's work affects other departments and by involving others in work or decisions that affect them, employees increase their influence.
  • Initiative requires confidence. When employees feel good about their abilities, they do their best work.
  • Regardless of our position, our behavior sets an example for other people. The more we do the right thing, especially when it would be easier not to, the more others will respect our integrity and follow our lead.
  • Another way we achieve positive results is by supporting others' efforts and expressing confidence in them. What gets recognized gets reinforced and what gets reinforced gets repeated.

Success examples include:

  • High number of internal promotions. Talent is identified and made known across the entire organization through cross-functional calibration conversations.
  • Succession planning benefits. (I am an example of this — I was asked to lead the instructional development team.)
  • Greater recognition for high performing employees. Appreciation Day recognizes and rewards individuals, teams, and campuses.
  • High performers recognized and rewarded with higher raises.
  • Talent development focus on employee strengths, numerous team building events, commitment to professional growth (leadership book clubs, etc.).
  • Paid volunteer time off. Community service and service to individuals let us interact with students as part of our service.
  • Happy employees. My direct reports continue to tell me "I love working here!"

Driving Change

From the top down, Harrison employees have a clear mission focus on serving students. This brings us a real sense of status equality and professionalism, and support for faith, family, health, and work. One of the favorite successes is our highly collaborative cross-functionally. We are still learning, though, how what we do impacts all the other divisions of the college, from Enrollment to Financial Aid, and Registration to Libraries. Staff members have the feeling that ideas are welcomed and that there is true accountability.

We continue to tweak our evaluation process and are now rated 60 percent on competencies and 40 percent on metrics defined for each position. We are also moving from a 4-point to a 5-point scale this fiscal year. These natural tweaks help us find what is right for the organization. Calibration also continues to be a learning process, although we get better at it and more comfortable with it each year. Asking supervisors (who themselves have varying degrees of leadership acumen) to have more solid, concrete examples or evidence of behaviors that warrant the score they have awarded an individual employee has been tough. We had lots of 4 ratings (best of the best) the first year and quite a few the second year, and we continue to share anecdotal examples of how nice someone is or how they are always willing to help. We remain committed to helping supervisors feel comfortable talking about talent based on specific evidence of competencies.

A significant challenge came up with employees, who had been told for years they were the best and brightest. Some within this group discovered with the new competency-based system that they were not performing at the level needed and expected. So, some folks went from a high rating to a lower rating on the new scale, which created obvious morale problems. Additionally, we continue to work through and educate around how to apply competencies to faculty performance. There was a strong feeling internally that we needed to include full-time and adjunct faculty in what the rest of the college was doing. The director of Faculty Development had to really look at how to map leadership, results orientation, etc. to success in the classroom, and then, given the other tools in place (such as course evaluation scores for instructors), how to weight them appropriately. The faculty observation process also had to be reworked because we had to include the competencies in their teaching performance and educate our academic leaders on how the desired behaviors translate into the classroom environment.

The culture of an institution cannot be underestimated in its ability to drive change. Culture defines behavior patterns and how your organization views leadership, accountability, and the importance of networking. How is leadership viewed within your organization? Is it top-down, hierarchical, or by status? What would it mean if every employee were held to a leadership competency within your organization? How would you define leadership if that were the case? As Kanter noted, embracing the power of the people produces a natural focus on the customer, which for us is the student. I have witnessed this shift at Harrison College, which practices distributed leadership. Working for a mission-focused institution whose culture fosters an environment where an individual can influence change — even when not at the top of the org chart — generates positive morale and enthusiasm for constant improvement that benefits not just the organization but also the students for whom we exist.

  1. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, "On Twitter and in the Workplace, It's Power to the Connectors," Harvard Business Review, November 16, 2009.
  2. Rosabeth M. Kanter, profile, Faculty & Research, Harvard Business School (3 August 2013).
  3. Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro, "The Network Secrets of Great Change Agents," Harvard Business Review, Vol. 91, No. 7(2013), pp. 62–68; see p. 65.
  4. Kristen Weaver, vice president for Instruction and Development, e-mail interview February 6, 2014.
  5. Joseph Diaz, director of Corporate Learning and Operations, "Basic Principles of Influential Leadership," Harrison College Fall Leadership Conference Presentation, November 20, 2012.