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Written by Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay on 1 April 2014 in Features

Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay have some practical advice on establishing effective role models within your organisation

Role models make a difference. Any organisation that needs to change will recognise that it needs to do so through its people. Rather than ineffective top-down diktat, such change is often best achieved through a process of significant people being visible role models to others. With encouragement and clear example, people are more likely to adopt new and successful ways.

In this article, we look at how role modelling can be harnessed to make a difference through day-to-day actions that can affect the whole organisation for the better. We will provide some pointers for successful role modelling, illustrate them with examples and examine what L&D professionals can do to get the most from its use.

The influence of role models

Role modelling is part and parcel of the way that organisations operate and, indeed, this is true for the whole of society. We often seek to emulate those we look up to in life – these may be leaders, peers or more distant, well-known figures such as Richard Branson or Martin Luther King. Sports people are a great example of this, in both a positive and a negative way. Many Olympic gold medallists are shining examples of the art of the possible; but sometimes there are exceptions who become role models of poor behaviour, people who role-model a lifestyle with low moral standards.

This highlights the two-sided nature of role models: positive ones can encourage, negative ones can undermine organisational performance. This is why it pays to consciously harness the positive benefits of role models.

Role models are accessible examples of behaviour and positive role-modelling can encourage behaviours that lead to a more effective organisation. When one of the authors was working with a business on a culture change programme, for example, senior leaders who dealt directly and empathetically with customers sent a strong message about the new behaviours the organisation wished to promote. To create a customer-centric organisation, powerful role models help people see how they should take time for the customer in lots of day-to-day ways, such as taking personal responsibility and going the extra mile. This can be actively harnessed: for example, you can encourage comparison, asking others to consider how much time they spend directly talking to customers, seeking and acting on customer feedback, putting the customer on internal team meeting agendas.

Organisations today are often based on team collaborative effort, rather than traditional ‘lone heroes’ that employees are exhorted to copy. A research study of NHS managers1 showed middle managers setting an example of what is possible by taking the initiative and developing shared leadership with clinical and managerial staff, working in collaboration in a visible and successful way.

As an assistant hospital director observed of one project: “Two people drove that forward, one clinician, and one manager. The two working together was really important. Neither could have done it without the other.

“One of my successes, which I’m pleased about, concerned a doctor in the accident and emergency department who wanted to introduce an initiative to reduce the incidence of alcohol-related crime. It was a good idea, but he couldn’t make it happen. Well, I made it happen. This involved bringing together the hospital, the local authority and police, getting senior staff interested.”

Such close-to-home role models offer ideas and motivation to others.

Role-modelling and culture

If you want to foster a certain climate in your organisation, you should review the skills, attitudes and behaviours that role models need to demonstrate: what should they do more or less of? For example, if empowerment is important in your organisation, to what extent are managers fostering a climate in which people are encouraged to take informed decisions and not refer upwards?

As part of your discussions with key influencers, you may well ask:

  • how do you encourage empowerment? For example, do your people refer to you for all decisions?
  • what changes do you need to make to role-model this behaviour?

Role modelling is most likely to flourish in the kind of culture in which people learn from each other and develop over time. This may require some introspection and personal changes: a general manager added weeks to the process of hiring new employees by requiring staff members to obtain her signature on every document. At the same time, the board was professing that its employees were empowered. It took sensitive feedback and coaching at a senior level for the manager to see the contradictions in the messages she was sending out. Leaders who are good role models not only pay attention to their individual acts, they encourage other people in teamwork and co-operation, supporting others in their growth and development, and recognising the positive behaviours and attitudes they display.

At L&Q Group housing association, role modelling has led to a “tectonic shift” in the way managers work with others, now working together in a highly collaborative way – an approach that was initially developed through collaborative learning groups. At a recent budget review, for example, senior managers saw a marked change in the way budgets had been put together and presented. “It is no longer a lone process but one drawing on input from many quarters in a shared manner,” commented Ewa Priestley, L&Q’s head of L&D.

How L&D can act as a catalyst

Take time to identify and reinforce positive behaviour towards others. Be aware of, and seek to develop, people skills so that leaders are best able to use the opportunities for role modelling to coach, nurture and motivate others

Encourage discussion to make explicit the behaviours of the people in the organisation who are positive role models. Encourage them to mentor others in order to reinforce positive behaviours throughout the organisation

Look out for the variety of role models that exist and take account of the fact that they exist at all levels, not just at leadership or managerial ones. Consider diversity: if role modelling is at least in part about identifying yourself with individuals, consider encouraging and supporting those key individuals to help them do this

Explicit role modelling can be thought-provoking and beneficial for the role model’s development, too. It can help develop a guide to one’s own behaviour and some organisations have created networks of diverse role models who act as mentors to others

Prompt a discussion about role modelling. We recommend discussing role modelling with your management team. We have been working with an HR business partner at one organisation who did so with significant success. She said: “We prompted a discussion on role modelling with our leadership and management teams at a region-wide event about what it means to be a line manager – our expectations of this group. We busted some myths, such as needing to be a technical expert as well as a people manager, and also talked about role modelling in a health, safety and wellbeing context and, given these expectations of managers, what support this group needs. The session was very much the start of a journey for this group and the team leaders they manage.”

How organisations reinforce role modelling

A software company set up a peer recognition scheme in which colleagues give each other a certificate for outstanding supportive behaviour. This is entered into a prize draw each quarter.

A medium-sized and fast-growing high tech company sought to move away from its small-company roots and habits, yet retain its original strengths. It chose to examine its values and behaviours through a wide-reaching series of workshops. Workshops promoting awareness and self-knowledge were introduced, with an emphasis on the effect of personal behaviour on others. This led to management and colleague actions to promote positive behaviours, which were consolidated into leadership role-model behaviours necessary to develop a changing organisation.

The power of a role model

We have discussed that a role model serves as a potential blueprint for others: his behaviour can be emulated by other people and he consistently leads by example. Yet role modelling consists of much more than other people observing and copying the behaviours of role models. Apart from the actions that role models promote, they also support an implicit set of values. Role modelling is a useful means for developing and maintaining standards to be passed on to others. People who make good role models are aligned to the organisational values and keep to them consistently: in this way, what role models say and what they do is aligned as they consistently demonstrate positive values and behaviours. Where role models lose their credibility is often because their words and actions contradict each other (witness many people’s disillusionment with politicians, who many see as doing just this).

Professor David Buchanan sees that even in large, cumbersome organisations, such as the NHS, role models can reshape them: “In the arts world, there is a defined role called the animateur who is a driving force, a facilitator, a promoter who inspires others and gets them engaged in a project.” He sees this role as a model for making significant progress in moving an organisation forward, for example visibly and successfully designing and co-ordinating multi-disciplinary projects and ‘sweating the small stuff’, making a difference in moving things forward in a hospital.

A portrait of a role model

What might role modelling look like? Some people have asked us to describe a portrait of a role model. We observed Jean, a customer service manager in an organisation that is actively promoting a change in managerial behaviour towards an open, facilitative management style and individual accountability. She is very sure of her task – to demonstrate a style that encourages balanced and accountable team contributions and to only take decisions in defined areas including managing co-ordination and communication with other groups, ensuring team clarity, performance management and pay.

Jean regularly takes part in short coaching sessions, which she sees as vital to her role of demonstrating the value the company places on development. At regular team meetings she listens intently, encouraging team members to discuss how they are delivering their commitments. She intervenes only occasionally to clarify understanding, agree priorities and press for action. She is positive and encouraging. “I know how tough it’s been coping with the new system,” she says to her team. She role-models behaviours that bring out issues but leaves responsibility with the individual, refusing to take hold of every single problem.

Advice for leadership role models

Our experience suggests these practical guidelines:

  • leaders throughout an organisation need to be aware that they act as role models for values and behaviours One company developed a set of values and behaviours to encourage a team-based partnership organisation, particularly promoting the concept of team-working across the business, but they never took root because senior managers’ behaviours implicitly promoted a sense of rivalry and lack of co-operation
  • make sure you are walking the talk Communicate with others what standards you expect, ensuring you consistently apply them. For example, praise behaviours you want to encourage, notice how consistent you are
  • be mindful of how you represent your team to others Be consistent and talk positively about your team. If you are part of the management team, toe the line: do not model disunity by talking about members behind their backs or questioning collective decision-making. Such actions send negative messages to others.

How best can you be a role model?

L&D professionals can do much to promote aware and positive role models: the aim is to grow leaders who are conscious of what they stand for, the behaviours they demonstrate and the impact they have on others. This can be assisted by facilitated discussion and development tools.

Assuming widespread action must be preceded by taking the lead oneself, consider the following steps that you personally can take:

  • be self-reflective and self-aware As a starting point, are you readily able to access what is important to you: career achievement, sociable team work, customer contact, fairness and equity, for example?
  • reflect on how well aligned you are personally to your organisation’s values and behaviours
  • review what sort of L&D role model is right for your organisation Since there is no single template of a role model applicable to all organisations, facilitated discussion and feedback is valuable here
  • prioritise the behaviours that are particularly important to role-model
  • the behaviours you are currently modelling How consistent are you? How aligned is your behaviour with your values?
  • consider your public behaviour but also your behaviour outside the public gaze
  • assess the impact that your own role modelling is having 360° feedback can sometimes be a useful tool
  • develop a clear overall view of the behaviours your colleagues are demonstrating Discuss and agree the impact of these among your colleagues and your team
  • identify necessary changes What behaviours may need adjusting or developing.

Action checklist

Below is an action checklist that offers a summary examination and action plan for developing role models in your organisation.


Role models can make a big difference to the performance of an organisation. To successfully enable role models to give of their best, role modelling needs to take place within a supportive framework, with management buy-in at all levels and help for those involved to act as coaches and facilitators. A wide range of development approaches is likely to be needed. These will help to make the most of role models as a potentially powerful force that will have impact right across the organisation.


1 Buchanan D A et al “How do they manage? A qualitative study of the realities of middle- and front-line management work in health care” Health Services and Delivery Research (July 2013)

About the author

Sarah Cook is MD of The Stairway Consultancy; she can be contacted at

Steve Macaulay is a learning development executive at Cranfield School of Management; he can be contacted at


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