Management of Meaning and Expectations

“A leader must be a social architect who understands the organization and shapes the way it works.”1 As such, the leader defines the culture of the organization and shapes they way people think, perceive, understand, feel and act. It includes the norms and values, but also the fundamental underlying beliefs and assumptions that are the basis of culture. Social architecture can be defined, assessed and shaped. Because culture is the lens through which meaning is 

interpreted, it is the medium through which a leader communicates a vision. A fundamental task of a leader is shaping action toward the vision for the agency’s future.


While the vision for positive outcomes for children, youth and families is the ultimate driving force of an agency, leaders may also have a vision for the agency’s future; that is, how she wants the agency to be perceived both by staff and stakeholder; e.g., its reputation for quality, compassionate services. Public child welfare Directors are often hired to “fix” some facet of culture; e.g., timeliness,  responsiveness.


Vignette: A mid-western state publicly called the “Calcutta of Child Welfare ” by President Clinton had a culture that embodied two critical beliefs: that the best and ultimate authority laid outside individuals so they are not expected (or

rewarded) to act autonomously or on their own authority. A corollary belief was that the way one in fluences another person was to threaten the person with someone else’s authority. The director  set out to change the culture by helping staff trust instincts and take responsibility. He directly engaged the field by going to it and becoming the personal communicator of the vision of how staff should view and act.

Assessing the Current Culture

Leaders have several lenses they can use in understanding the current culture.


Use of Power

Leaders should examine the extent to which power is shared or centralized within the state office and particularly between the central office and the field, whether in county or state administered systems. It is also critical that they understand how their senior staff are using the “personal power” of relationships to enhance or hinder the leader’s agenda. There is as much a social contract between parts of an agency as there is between workers and families.


Vignette: In a southern state , the central office had centralized authority and decision-making using negative anecdotes and incidents as justification to take away authority from county directors . It was estimated that state office staff spent 80% of their time in permission giving and monitoring activities , with little left over for building capacity. In parallel, caseworkers often told families what they were to change, with little input or engagement. The agency director responded by eliminating layers of review and increasing the input to and review of critical decisions made in the central office .


Oral traditions

There are stories staff tell repeatedly about significant events even years after the occurrence. Culture may have been shaped by a tragic child fatality or a lawsuit. Difficult budget times and how leadership responded may have shaped beliefs about what is valued. What is valued and what is punished can begin to reveal key aspects of culture. The stories people tell about previous directors also reveal much about culture because they tend to memorialize actions or circumstances that had a particular meaning.


Sacred Cows

What isn’t talked about openly is equally diagnostic. Are particular subjects off limits or pushed aside? Is the organization spending inordinate time and energy avoiding talking about difficult issues such as disproportionality? What is the reason(s) staff are not willing to “know what they know?”


Priests and Shamans

These are the people who have been a prior leader’s principal conveyers of meaning and responsible for embedding and maintaining a culture. Their ability to reward and punish (e.g., determine who got promoted and who did not) made them powerful keepers of the current culture. They may reflect a subculture that formed as a means of surviving the tumult of frequent leadership changes.


Embedding a New Culture


There are a number of actions a leader may take to reshape the culture. Based on the assessment of 

current conditions, directors may find some of the following actions more appropriate than others, 

some may need to be sequenced or phased in and some may need to be implemented concurrently.


Set Boundaries With Human Services Secretary

A new leader will want to have a clear social contract with the CEO that identifies when and how 

decisions are made; the pace of change; relationships with senior public child welfare staff; 

relationships with critical stakeholders; freedom to champion ideas.


V ignette: In a w estern s ta te , a new Secretary appointed tw o deputies w ith w hom she had long 

s tanding re la tio nships and another deputy, the public child w e lfa re d ire c to r, w ith w 

hom she d id not. As the public child w e lfa re d ire c to r began to

fo rm u la te her ow n v is ion and m ove to put th ings in to p la ce, she found she w as being 

underm ined by the o ther tw o deputies w ho had the ear o f the Secretary and w e re com p la in 

ing about the nature and pace o f her changes. This m eant the public child w e lfa re d ire c to r 

had to back up and negotiate w ith the Secretary about w ho w as to m ake w hat types o f decisions 

w ith w hat input. Lost tim e and m om entum w e re never regained.


Create the New Paradigm

Creating a new paradigm requires the leader to define how they want staff to perceive themselves 

and be perceived by others and the role of the agency within the larger societal context. For 

example, should public child welfare staff be regulators of family behavior or facilitators of 

change? What’s the role of the agency within the larger system of care? How “cutting edge” does the 

agency want to be? What is the reputation the agency wants to enjoy? As with the agency vision, the 

director may want to gather and consider input from various stakeholders about what the agency 

needs to “fix” and to be seen as credible in its action and respected for its work.


Address Existing Executive Team

Leaders need to be clear that senior executive team members must get on board quickly and 

enthusiastically. They need to be involved in major decisions, including strategic planning and 

problem solving. They are the most critical purveyors of the culture of the agency and their 

investment and commitment cannot be subject to chance.


V ignette: A public child w e lfa re d ire c to r o f a w estern s ta te inherited a key m em ber o 

f h is senior team w ho, because o f a ttitu de and la ck o f critica l skills , w as the w rong 

person a t the w rong tim e in the w rong job . The person w as actively s low ing the pace o f 

change and the d ire c to r knew the o rganization w as w a tch ing w hether he w as going to take 


There w e re no repercussions w hen the d ire c to r asked the senior s ta ff to resign a fte r th 

ree m onths because there w as no longer a good job fit. H ad he hesitated to act, he knew he w 

ould be re in fo rc ing the “s ta tus quo” culture he w as determ ined to change.


Institutionalize the New Paradigm

The leader’s own behavior and actions are the primary measures for embedding a new culture, i.e., 

walking the walk. Secondary measures, like structure, can be reinforcing, but are no substitute.

  • What leaders pay attention to, measure, and control on a regular basis How leaders react to 
  • critical incidents and organizational crises
  • Observed criteria by which leaders allocate scarce resources and rewards and status Deliberate role 
  • modeling, teaching and coaching
  • Observed criteria by which leaders recruit, select, promote, and retain or dismiss organizational 
  • members Organizational structure, systems and processes including use of data
  • Organizational rites and rituals, stories, legends, and myths about events Formal statements of 
  • organizational philosophy

Create a Bias for Action

Effective leaders have a bias toward action, an impatience for results and an unrelenting belief 

that organizational performance can change and outcomes for children, youth and families can be 

achieved. There may be setbacks, delays, false starts and mistakes, but failure is not an option. 

There are clear benchmarks for progress that have strong symbolic relevance to the vision.

Tackle the Crisis


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