Your Guide to Organizational Leadership Degrees with a Focus in Organizational Culture and Leadership

Written by Scott Wilson

organizational culture and leadership

Organizational culture comes up in leadership studies a lot. Leaders are expected to set the tone. The cues and guidance that every other person in the org absorbs come right from the top. The very concept of leadership includes the obligation of standing out front and setting a standard in every aspect of organizational performance.

But the reality of organizational culture is far more complicated. Few leaders have the luxury of starting from scratch, so they are almost always put in the position to find a way to function within a culture that has evolved before they arrived. And changing a culture means confronting many built-in ideas and standards, which almost always leads to confrontation.

Cultures develop to be the way they are for a reason—failure to understand the reasons is a failure to find the right switches to flip to change that culture.

Yet leaders also rely on the right culture to carry their ideas and intentions forward even when they can’t personally oversee every detail of every task. As the popular consulting saying goes, culture eats strategy for lunch. Without internal support and a set of standards that drive your vision forward, your reach as a leader will be remarkably limited.

But take heart! By example and by using proven techniques to shape the environment their staff works within, good organizational leaders use cultural skills to further the strategic goals of their company. And learning those techniques is the objective of degree and certificate programs in organizational culture and leadership.

Defining Organizational Culture Is Famously Difficult but Critically Important for Leaders

Culture is hard to define but the impact it has is easy to see.

An organizational culture is a set of values and principles that are shared and expressed by the majority of individuals within that organization.

For example, when you walk in the doors at Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, there’s no question you’ve stepped into a world where performance and fitness are the touchstone for every employee. Indoor and outdoor running tracks and trails abound, a pick-up basketball game may be in progress on one of many indoor sport courts, and employees heading between buildings will cycle by on one of the 400 available on-demand bikes the campus is stocked with.

Those kinds of touches tell staff where the priorities are for the organization. And their commitment to those values in turn transfers to their work product and the interactions they have with customers around the world.

The Shoe Company That Grew up To Be a Customer-service Culture Company

shoe on displayWant an example of how culture drives organizational success? Look no further than Zappos, an online shoe retailer that started up in 1999 and was acquired by Amazon in 2009 for an outrageous amount of money.

Zappos explosive growth came on the back of a stellar reputation for customer service. Legendarily, customer service reps there were empowered to spend unlimited amounts of time on the phone with customers (with one call stretching over 8 hours) and go above and beyond by sending flowers, gifts, and postcards to folks who called in with issues.

But that kind of excellence stems from a corporate culture that prizes and celebrates it. At Zappos, the process starts with hiring. Applicants who are flown in for interviews are collected at the airport and delivered to the office for their interview. Interviewers privately ask the driver if the person was nice to them—applicants who aren’t don’t make the grade.

That, and other hiring techniques and processes, brings in people who are genuine and aligned with extreme customer service values right out of the gate. And the intensive process allows the company to trust the team to make the right decisions without introducing artificial metrics like average handle time to create efficiency.

Whatever organization you work with will also have a culture that influences and motivates employees. But your performance as a leader will depend on your ability to shift that culture to support and focus on the strategic goals and vision that you decide on. Cultural leadership skills define that ability.

Organizational Leaders Tap Into a Broad Set of Skills To Manage Culture in Their Companies

The skills required to develop organizational culture span the traditional toolbox of leadership traits:

But while those are all things you have to have to manage a workplace culture, they aren’t enough on their own. And while a strong leader might have the instincts and ability to influence culture easily in a relatively small organization, the behavioral dynamics and structure of larger companies require specific and separate techniques.

Those include:

Cross-cultural leadership – The ability to bridge the gap between different subcultures within an organization and tie them together with the larger whole

Managing diversity – A culture represents shared values and behaviors, but diversity brings strength to modern companies; leaders have to walk the line between celebrating difference and embracing conformity

Motivating teams – Coming up with the right carrots to bring a cultural value into being

Setting expectations – Finding ways to articulate cultural values without seeming to impose restrictions or reducing individuality and choice

It’s a tough job putting all those different aspects of cultural leadership together. But that’s exactly why you should consider getting a degree or certificate to help you out.

Finding the Right Degree Program To Help You Cultivate Organizational Culture Leadership Skills

playful workplaceOrganizational leadership research over the years has demonstrated that culture is critical in achieving any sort of shared vision in any kind of organization. So you won’t find organizational degrees at any level, in any specialization, that don’t have a healthy helping of instruction in cultural assessment and development.

But it’s entirely possible to make a whole career out of figuring out the intricacies of organizational culture and figuring out how to manage them. So many OL degrees offer concentrations or specializations in this vital skillset.

For the most part, that level of intensity in organizational cultural studies happens at the level of advanced graduate degrees in the field. So a Master of Arts/Science in Organizational Leadership (MAOL/MSOL) with a concentration in Organizational Development or Organizational Dynamics offers the sort of training that senior leaders need to tie cultural threads together even in the largest organizations.

A MAOL/MSOL isn’t the only way to get this kind of skill development, however. The field of organizational culture is broad enough to have degrees that revolve around it, informed by sociological and psychological research with essential leadership coursework thrown in. You’ll find these programs offered with titles such as:

Managing and adjusting organizational culture for maximum efficiency is the province of the field of study called organizational development. So you will also have good luck finding coursework teaching leaders to cultivate cultural development in degrees like the Master of Science in Organizational Development and Leadership, particularly with concentration like Organizational Dynamics and Leadership.

Graduate or post-graduate certificate programs are also a popular way to get advanced cultural leadership competencies without the expense and difficulty of returning to school for a full degree. These have only a handful of classes, but skip all the extra leadership skills training that you may not need if you have already earned a degree in the field or been on the job for years.

You’ll find such certificates with titles such as:

Why Online Programs May Make the Most Sense for Organizational Culture Studies

smiling while online learningFinding organizational culture leadership skills training at advanced levels leads you to another challenge: finding the time and the right fit for your personal career needs. By the time you advance to a position where you are considering this kind of training, chances are you already have some pretty stiff leadership obligations. You may not be eager or able to put your career on hold to get college-level training. And that’s to say nothing of the social and family obligations that executives often find themselves with.

Online degree and certificate programs help you bridge the gaps between your availability and location and the training you need. Since you can apply to and attend programs all across the country, it’s no trouble to find one that offers the right fit without requiring you to relocate for a year or two.

And time constraints get a lot easier to manage when you have asynchronous courses that you can fit into your schedule instead of the other way around. Stream lectures on a tablet during your lunch hour; finished up assignments while you are waiting for the kids to get done at ballet lessons; participate in a class group chat on a lazy morning weekend instead of having to show up at some arbitrary time in a classroom.

With the same coursework and tough requirements as any traditional program in organizational cultural leadership, these options prepare you just as well as any on-campus experience.

The Coursework That Will Develop Your Organizational Culture and Leadership Skills Expertise

happy business colleaguesWhether they come right out and call it organizational culture or not, every organizational leadership degree will at least touch on the skills and knowledge you need to shape the group behaviors of your team. It’s such an essential part of leadership that it tends to be embedded in most sorts of classes in leadership, whether studying the psychology of organizational behavior or exploring project management techniques.

But there are certain courses that take on cultural concerns head-on. That’s what you’ll find in these kinds of specializations, and they come with names like:

Fundamentals of Culture

You got a thumbnail sketch of what organizational culture is up above, but the concepts and landscape of culture require detailed study in fields like sociology and psychology to really grasp at the level leaders need. These classes offer a deeper understanding of where culture comes from and how it is expressed. Courses include studies of group dynamics, impact of cultures from outside the workplace, and examples of how cultures develop and change in organizations.

Organization Development

Since OD is largely focused on the mechanics required to drive systematic change in values or processes within a business, it’s a common subject of study in degrees focused on organizational culture. You’ll plow through case studies of both successful and failing OD initiatives, looking at the themes that lead to success. And you’ll learn how standard OD techniques like inter-group development, quality of work-life programs, and sensitivity training to manage the culture in your organization.

Group and Team Facilitating

Leaders tend to be facilitators by nature. Part of the role is helping people get out of their own way, removing stumbling blocks from processes that don’t need to be there. This is particularly important in developing organizational culture that aligns with strategic goals, however. Coursework in group and team facilitation will give you a stack of strategies for helping people connect and participate in the culture of the organization that you have developed.

Designing Cultural Change Initiatives

Every organizational leadership program includes some sort of change management training. In organizational development and culture programs, these classes often specifically address how to drive changes that shift corporate culture in directions that support the mission. It can take a delicate touch introduce changes without sparking a backlash. These classes offer lessons in reconciling cultural differences, planning and designing change initiatives, and evaluating outcomes in corporate culture.

Cross-disciplinary Leadership

One of the things that makes developing a coherent organizational culture so difficult is the fact that most organizations today are made up of various groups of very different specialties, each with their own training, expectations, and inclinations. Leaders have to be able to bridge the gaps between the professional disposition and outlook of, for example, accountants and artists. Coursework in cross-disciplinary leadership will help you develop the perspectives and techniques needed to get different groups to see eye-to-eye, and to create an inclusive culture that will be accepted by all.

Nearly as important as the actual course content you absorb in these degrees will be the research and experiential learning opportunities you go through along the way. As a graduate student, you will commonly be involved in either original research projects conducted as part of your capstone or thesis work, or projects started by your professors in their own long-term organizational culture explorations. This kind of unique experience expanding the body of knowledge in the field both gives you an edge in the job market as well as helping you spark new ideas and innovations in cultural management.

The experiential part of your education will come through internship placements or other projects launched in conjunction with real-world organizations. You’ll see cultural challenges up close and in person, and learn how experienced organizational leaders set a tone and manage change in their own positions.

Ultimately, earning that experience yourself is the only certain way to polish up your organizational culture leadership skills. But unlike other leaders, you’ll have taken the time to build strong foundations in the knowledge and techniques that are most effective. With those behind you, you’ll make fewer mistakes, build happier workplaces, and achieve your goals more quickly.