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Min read

Can HR create culture by creating leaders?

Written By
Nausheen Eusuf
With thanks To
Olya Yakzhina | Head of People at Switchee

A company’s culture can profoundly impact what it’s like to work there—and even the success or failure of the business. With people quitting their jobs in droves during the great resignation, it’s now more important than ever to have a strong company culture to attract and retain talent.

The responsibility to create and maintain culture often falls to HR. But can HR policies alone create culture?

Another massive factor in company culture is senior leadership. Sometimes, they’re born leaders who can inspire others to get fully behind a shared mission and vision. But others can struggle to manage teams in healthy or productive ways—and that can trickle down to the rest of the organisation.

Olya Yakzhina, Head of People at Switchee, is passionate about training leaders and managers that influence culture in a positive way. Olya is a thought leader in the HR space and co-founder of People Stories, a tight-knit London-based community of People professionals.

We caught up with Olya to learn how leaders can influence culture—and how HR can influence leaders.

How did you first realise the impact of leadership on culture?

I was working at a startup that was in trouble. When it was close to the end, our CEO called a meeting. As we all sat crowded together in that room, we had no idea what was going to happen.

The CEO was a charismatic person who had the ability to inspire trust and loyalty. He just told us everything—very transparently, but with so much compassion and care for everyone in the room that by the time it was over, people were clapping, laughing, and sharing jokes.

That’s where I realised that no matter what’s going down, it’s still possible to handle the situation with empathy and sensitivity. That’s the kind of leadership I try to nurture through our training.


Can people learn to be good leaders? Or is it innate?

First, it’s important to recognise that not everyone wants to be a leader or manager. Just because someone has excellent technical skills doesn’t mean they’re cut out to be a leader. But for those who have the desire to nurture and develop talent—HR can support them by providing the right tools and frameworks.

"HR can’t create culture. But we can empower leaders and managers to help enable culture."

<quote-author>Olya Yakzhina<quote-author><quote-company>Head of People at Switchee<quote-company>

So yes, you can train people to be good leaders. For example, I know someone who wasn’t passionate about leadership to begin with. But the person’s integrity, humility, core values, and relational skills inspired others to see them as a leader and encourage the person to take up that role. So they decided to give it a try.

If the person still didn’t want that role, or felt uncomfortable—they shouldn’t be forced. But since this person wanted to try it, HR’s job was to help them succeed. After all, emotional attachment to a leader isn’t enough; they need the right tools, frameworks, and support to fulfil that leadership role. With this support and coaching from HR, they totally excelled.

How can HR work with leaders to create culture?

HR can’t create culture. But we can empower leaders and managers to become the framework to enable culture. We can nurture the right leadership style through coaching and support. We can help establish tangible structures and processes to create a well-oiled machine that can scale efficiently.

There’s also an emotional side of culture that goes beyond management styles or processes and frameworks. Culture is also influenced by the people themselves—their character, strengths, and core values. And culture will evolve as new people join. At the end of the day, the culture is formed not just by HR or leadership, but by all the people involved.


What kind of leadership style works best to influence culture?

In our leadership training, we try to nurture the servant leadership style, which requires emotional intelligence, self-awareness, listening skills, and the ability to elevate others over yourself.

A servant leader’s role is to help other people fulfil their potential. Essentially, that means putting other people first and creating an environment where everyone feels they belong and make a difference. They feel empowered to be their best selves and feel fulfilled at work because they have power and control over their work.

Servant leaders are active listeners who relate to people with compassion, empathy, and humility. A servant leader doesn’t say, “I led this department, I made this happen—I, I, I, I.” Instead, they nurture and develop other people and encourage a sense of ownership in individuals and teams. They build trust and inspire people to apply themselves fully.

How do servant leaders impact an organisation and its culture?

Servant leadership helps develop a more coachable workforce. People feel invested, so they’re happy to apply their core strengths and work proactively and collaboratively to address whatever challenges the company is facing.

People feeling invested and performing well also reinforces the overall culture of development and personal growth in the company, which then helps with retention. And then good retention helps you cultivate more trust and build better relationships, leading to stronger teams.

Finally, servant leadership helps improve diversity because every person in the room feels like they matter and belong. They feel heard and validated, which is key to inclusion and diversity. By serving everyone equally, servant leaders foster environments where everyone feels valued and respected, thus enabling diversity to flourish.

Can you describe how you’ve trained leaders to influence culture at Switchee?

During my monthly 1-to-1 meetings with managers, I ask three questions: How is your team’s wellbeing? How is their performance? What are their current development goals?

To answer these questions, the managers themselves have to have these conversations with their team members. This helps them develop the quality of servant leadership and establish relationships of trust, openness, and caring.

People are able to get feedback on their performance and think about how Switchee can facilitate their personal development. This framework allowed us to build a strong awareness of each individual employee in the company—how they’re doing and where they are in their journey.

"HR is like sales. You’re selling solutions, techniques, and frameworks to leaders. The best way to sell is to make sure they realise there’s a problem."

<quote-author>Olya Yakzhina<quote-author><quote-company>Head of People at Switchee<quote-company>

So when it’s time to scale the company, I can help managers think about growing their teams and structuring roles in ways that would facilitate our current team members’ career aspirations. In other words, we’re not building top-down, but bottom-up—ensuring that our existing people get what they need.

More recently, I worked with our senior leadership team to develop a leadership training course tailored to our culture and people. It has seven foundational lessons or concepts, and each member of the senior leadership team picks one and hosts that lesson for a group of aspiring managers. Our first cohort just finished the course, and we look forward to seeing how it helps us.

Have you encountered resistance to the idea of leaders modelling culture? How do you handle that?

I once worked with a senior leader who didn’t think the practical frameworks for enabling and supporting culture were necessary. We needed to convince them that implementing structures and growth processes would allow the company to scale without losing its culture.

There’s a psychological model of change that’s really helpful in this situation. Whenever someone’s going through a journey of change—in their company or in the world around them—they experience denial, anger, and confusion. At the confusion stage, they feel helpless and miserable. 

That’s the point where they have to make a decision. Are they going to continue resisting and clinging to the past? Or are they going to accept that change is happening and gain the confidence to deal with it?

So I addressed their confusion. I explained how the framework would help by reducing the administrative burden of notes and manual processes. I also involved the person in creating the framework with me. I asked about their current challenges and how they wished it could be different. I then explained how the new process will solve those challenges and make their life easier. 

Eventually, I was able to help them get past the fear and confusion stages.


What’s your advice for HR people struggling to convince leaders that the way they lead affects culture? 

Convince your biggest critics—because if you can get the sceptics on board, it’s easier for everyone else to follow.

It’s like sales. As an HR person, you’re solution-selling techniques and frameworks. The best way to sell is to make sure that they realise there’s a problem—and that this solution is what they need to solve it.

Oliva therapist photograph

by Oliva therapist