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How To Work On Yourself as a Leader to build a culturally flat organization

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

In the 1970s, Richard Montañez, a janitor at a Frito-Lay plant in California, created a fresh take on the company’s Cheetos brand: a spicy version. He called the CEO. Instead of brushing him off, the CEO heard him out and invited him to pitch his idea to the management team.

The then-CEO’s decision to listen to what Montañez had to say paid off. Since its launch, Frito-Lay’s Flamin’ Hot Cheetos brand has raked in billions of dollars.

The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos story is a testament to the advantages of organizations having “culturally flat” attitudes where the best ideas win: they inspire curiosity, which fosters innovation, leading to growth and prosperity.

In an increasingly complex, fast-paced world, companies need to source the best ideas from wherever they can in their workforces instead of only listening to the views of a select few.

Now, let’s be honest. There’s a difference between a “flat organization” and a “culturally flat organization.” The former is a myth. All organizations have a hierarchy, a certain level of authority when it comes to decision-making. However, the latter refers to having a true meritocracy of ideas. All employees can pitch ideas, and the company selects the best ideas of the bunch.

A key element of creating a culturally flat organization is cultivating a culture of trust, navigating and overcoming common challenges. However, if you’re a leader who wants to create a culturally flat organization where the best ideas win, you have to take other steps, as well. Those steps involve working on yourself as a leader.

Develop Self Awareness

Having high internal and external self-awareness is critical toward succeeding as a leader. Without it, you won’t have the ability to be honest with yourself and your team, and you’ll run the risk of making bad business decisions. To become highly internally and externally self-aware, you’ll need to build courage, assertive humility and curiosity, in that order. These three qualities are interdependent; each one on its own is good but insufficient.

To develop courage, you need to have what I call “guts to grow”—a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. This requires vulnerability because to improve as a leader, you need to admit to yourself what your shortcomings have been.

The process of identifying those shortcomings involves humility. You’ll have to put your ego aside and follow the facts in any given situation, even if those facts are difficult to hear. You should seek to reach a point where you’re the one seeking those facts, letting your team know when you need help, rather than just waiting for people to come to you. This is assertive humility.

This assertive humility will naturally lead to you building your curiosity. You’ll want to know what your colleagues are thinking; you’ll covet their input. You’ll also become more curious outside of the office, expanding your worldview through various avenues, such as reading books and signing up for conferences.

Find Your Truth-Tellers

As a leadership coach, I always ask my clients: “Who are your truth-tellers?” The variety of answers I get is amazing. Some people say their truth-tellers are their children; others, their life partners or mentors. Rarely, if ever, do they name a business associate or someone they lead in a business setting—leading to blind spots in their professional lives.

Truth-tellers are people who can give you honest observations and guidance. While it’s good to have truth-tellers in different areas of your life, as a business leader, it’s best to have at least one truth-teller you could turn to who knows you in the work setting. Maybe that person is a vice president or an executive coach. Whoever it is, encourage them to speak their mind so that you can use their constructive criticism to benefit your organization.

And ideally, you should seek to cultivate a truth-telling culture at work, where your employees aren’t afraid to point out your potential oversights. This won’t happen overnight, but you can plant the seeds for it by first finding your truth-tellers.

Reflect Regularly and Re-Examine Your Vision as a leader

Once you’ve become internally and externally self-aware by building your courage, assertive humility and curiosity, and have identified and started listening to your truth-tellers at work, you can re-examine your vision as a leader from a much more informed place.

Set aside time regularly to think about what kind of leader you are today and your current vision. Then, think about any adjustments you might want to make to your leadership style and vision. Ask your truth-tellers for input along the way.

For example, maybe after reflecting, you realize that you make decisions too hastily and don’t leave a lot of room for other voices in the process. This goes against your vision of being a deliberate leader who carefully weighs advice. To complement your introspection, you could get insights from your truth-tellers about times you rushed decisions without regrouping with your team. From there, you can develop an action plan to change your behavior and become in line with your vision.

Practice Honesty and Openness

You should always be honest with yourself and those around you. Don’t reserve honesty to your self-reflection periods. Be forthright when it comes to admitting your mistakes and misjudgments, and ask your team to help you get back on track. Don’t get dismissive or defensive.

You should also proactively seek input from your employees, not just when you mess up. Encourage them to bring their ideas to the table, whether by having an “open door” policy or running company-wide brainstorming sessions. Be transparent about the process you and management will use to pick the winning ideas so that everyone understands they have a fair chance.

As people generate ideas, gracefully offer them feedback. For instance, maybe a customer success specialist maps out a new retention program for customers at risk of canceling their subscriptions, but the plan has a few serious flaws. Take that employee aside. Walk them through which parts of the plan work and which parts don’t. To scale giving feedback on ideas, you could start a quarterly review system or modify an existing one.

Ultimately, leadership is about human relationships. As a leader, you’ll leave an imprint on those you lead. What that imprint will be—shallow or deep, negative or positive—will depend on you working on yourself as a leader, so you can build a culturally flat organization where people’s ideas are heard.

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