Tag Archives: corporate culture

Leaders and Culture

Leaders, through their words and actions, send messages as to the right and expected way to interact and do things.

Culture is created by shared experience, but it is the leader who initiates this process by acting out his or her beliefs, values, and assumptions in the behaviors he or she demonstrates and the practices he or she uses.

Anyone who has worked with a very good leader or a really bad one can clearly recall the effect that this individual had on the culture of their work group, division, function, or organization. Remember the ‘micro-manager’ that was constantly looking over your shoulder and telling you in agonizing detail how to do things or the leader that never ever made a decision? How did it impact the way people worked? Almost definitely, there wasn’t a lot of empowerment, the energy level in the group was low and people felt undervalued and disrespected.

On the other hand, many of us have been fortunate enough to work with leaders who have given people the freedom to make decisions within their area of responsibility and according to their capability level. How different is that? People are energized, feel empowered and take personal responsibility for their decisions. It seems obvious but most of us would much prefer the opportunity to work with leaders (anyone in a position of influence over others) who empower people rather than those that micro-manage. It affects our morale, productivity and performance. This is why it is extremely important that leaders are aware of the ways that their behaviors and the practices that they use, influence others, their work group and organization’s culture.

Leader Behaviors

Leaders, through their words and actions, send messages as to the right and expected way to interact and do things.

The good news is that leader behaviors and practices can be used in an intentional manner to accelerate culture change and strengthen alignment to strategy. This is not to suggest that changing behavior and practices is easy, but it is one of the most powerful tools that leaders have available to them. This is possible because people notice absolutely everything that a leader says and does. If a leader always arrives early for a meeting, his or her direct reports will do the same or risk the stigma of being unpunctual and disrespectful of others time. If the leader always wears the appropriate safety gear on a work site, people know this is important and they can likely expect censure if they don’t do the same.

Of course, the opposite is also true. A leader that blames someone else for his or her mistake is telling people that avoidance of responsibility for one’s actions is okay. We also see examples of both positive and negative messaging in what leaders say. Keep in mind that every word and action of a leader is carefully examined for subtle nuances and hidden meaning. However, not all leaders are created equal. The level of influence of a leader, or a leadership team, is directly related to the extent others perceive them to be authentic, credible, trustworthy and having integrity.

Authenticity: Genuineness or truth.

Credibility: The ability to inspire belief or trust.

Integrity: Possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles or professional standards.

Trustworthiness: The belief that a person will not take advantage of another who puts him or herself in a vulnerable position.

At the core is the message that the leader genuinely believes in what he or she is doing and saying; that he or she is 100% committed in both words and actions to doing what he or he believes is needed; and that, at the same time, there is an overarching sense that he or she adheres to high moral principles and standards of behavior. In other words, this is someone that others can trust – period.

Leader Practices

Practices are the building blocks that define “the way that things are done around here”.

Leaders also impact culture by the practices that they use in performing their jobs and interacting with people. Practices are the repetitive patterns of activity essential to the smooth functioning of an organization. They cover a wide range of routines including the way leaders make decisions, run meetings and recognize people, just to name a few. They are the building blocks that help to shape “the way that things are done around here”. Practices are different from organizational processes which define how things are done. For example, a process might be the activities and tasks to complete in order to safely add new to a highway whereas a practice is the way this is done such as the use of concrete barriers to protect workers.

Shaping and Changing Culture

While culture change is not easy, it is possible to make it happen and achieve concrete results in a matter of months and not years as popularly believed. We’ve seen numerous examples in all sizes of companies across a wide range of industries and sectors that support this statement. In some cases, the change is dramatic and others less so but, in all cases, leaders were the catalyst for the change that occurred. How did they do it?

The leaders used a combination of their own behaviors and a set of practices carefully selected to fit their purpose. In one case, the leader was frustrated by a lack of discipline that he believed was negatively affecting productivity and his department’s ability to meet its objectives. He decided that he was going to do something about it. Within his work group, he introduced practices designed to bring more discipline into the way people worked. The leader reinforced these practices with his own behaviors. For example, he made it clear that people were expected to be on time for meetings and scheduled appointments, no exceptions and no excuses. To this end, he introduced the following practices and behaviors:

  • Practice 1: Meetings started and ended exactly at the scheduled time. If the meeting was to start at 9:00 a.m., he locked the room door and started the meeting. People were not allowed to enter the meeting after it started. This included his boss and other senior people. It caused quite a stir at the beginning!
  • Practice 2: Appointment times were strictly adhered to. If someone was late for an appointment, the appointment was automatically cancelled. This was a big deal as it was extremely difficult getting time booked with the leader who spent a lot of time at work sites. It could be weeks before people had another chance to meet with him.
  • Behavior: The leader always arrived at least 5 minutes early for every meeting. If it was someone else’s meeting, he would wait 10 minutes and if the meeting hadn’t started, he would leave. Initially, this was a problem with his boss and his boss’ peers in other groups however he was able to manage the issue by agreeing to return to meetings if required. He made his point swiftly and effectively.
  • Result: Within days, people began to show up on time for their appointments. Within a few weeks, people consistently arrived on time for meetings and not just his meetings but also meetings hosted by his boss and others in the organization. Meetings became more efficient and effective and people appreciated that they could depend on the fact that the meetings would always end on time.

He also introduced a number of other practices which he supported through his own behavior. Many of these were small like the ones in this example but the results were huge. Although the change started small with only one department, the change in performance of that department drew attention to what the leader was doing. Soon other departments began to follow suit and within a matter of a few months a significant shift in culture had taken root across the organization.

In Summary

The Good News:

You may not have the power to change the culture of the whole organization, but you can change the culture in your work area and, perhaps, influence the culture of the department, division, region and even the organization.

  • Leaders can use their words and actions in an intentional and purposeful way to influence the norms of behavior in use in their organizations and thereby shape culture.
  • When a critical mass of leaders purposefully and authentically demonstrates the same core set of behaviors, the potential for positive change increases dramatically.
  • Every leader can change practices that are part of the way that work is done on a day-to-day basis.

The Challenge:

Using leader behaviors and practices in a purposeful and mindful way to shape culture requires…

  • A high level of self-awareness that only comes from deep personal reflection which is a skill that few of us have and needs to be developed and honed.
  • A high level of constant vigilance to notice how one’s words and actions are influencing the behaviors of others and to pick up on the subtle clues and messages that people provide.
  • The courage to stand by one’s convictions and the tenacity to stick with it for the long term.
  • The organizational acumen to make sure that your plans don’t get derailed by people at higher levels.

Dr. Nancie Evans
Dr. Nancie Evans is co-founder and VP Client Solutions at Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. specializing in the alignment of organizational culture and strategy. She has developed a unique set of leading-edge diagnostic tools and approaches that provide leaders with deep insights into the culture of their organizations, how it is supporting or getting in the way of strategy execution, as well as the levers that they can use to drive rapid culture change.

CULTURESTRATEGYFIT®
Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. is a leading culture and executive leadership consulting firm conducting groundbreaking work in leveraging culture to drive strategy and performance. Its suite of culture surveys and culture alignment tools are used by market-leading organizations around the world.

Contact Us
www.culturestrategyfit.com
1.800.976.1660
nancie@culturestrategyfit.com

© CULTURESTRATEGYFIT® All rights reserved

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  "articleBody": "Culture is created by shared experience, but it is the leader who initiates this process by acting out his or her beliefs, 
values, and assumptions in the behaviors he or she demonstrates and the practices he or she uses.
Anyone who has worked with a very good leader or a really bad one can clearly recall the effect that this individual had on the culture of their 
work group, division, function, or organization. Remember the ‘micro-manager’ that was constantly looking over your shoulder and telling you in 
agonizing detail how to do things or the leader that never ever made a decision? How did it impact the way people worked? Almost definitely, there 
wasn’t a lot of empowerment, the energy level in the group was low and people felt undervalued and disrespected.
On the other hand, many of us have been fortunate enough to work with leaders who have given people the freedom to make decisions within their 
area of responsibility and according to their capability level. How different is that? People are energized, feel empowered and take personal 
responsibility for their decisions. It seems obvious but most of us would much prefer the opportunity to work with leaders (anyone in a position 
of influence over others) who empower people rather than those that micro-manage. It affects our morale, productivity and performance. This is why 
it is extremely important that leaders are aware of the ways that their behaviors and the practices that they use influence others, their work 
group and organization’s culture. 
Leader Behaviors
Leaders, through their words and actions, send messages as to the right and expected way to interact and do things.
The good news is that leader behaviors and practices can be used in an intentional manner to accelerate culture change and strengthen alignment to 
strategy. This is not to suggest that changing behavior and practices is easy, but it is one of the most powerful tools that leaders have 
available to them. This is possible because people notice absolutely everything that a leader says and does. If a leader always arrives early for 
a meeting, his or her direct reports will do the same or risk the stigma of being unpunctual and disrespectful of others time. If the leader 
always wears the appropriate safety gear on a work site, people know this is important and they can likely expect censure if they don’t do the 
same. 
Of course, the opposite is also true. A leader that blames someone else for his or her mistake is telling people that avoidance of responsibility 
for one’s actions is okay. We also see examples of both positive and negative messaging in what leaders say. Keep in mind that every word and 
action of a leader is carefully examined for subtle nuances and hidden meaning. However, not all leaders are created equal. The level of influence 
of a leader, or a leadership team, is directly related to the extent others perceive them to be authentic, credible, trustworthy and having 
integrity. 
Authenticity: Genuineness or truth.
Credibility: The ability to inspire belief or trust.
Integrity: Possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles or professional standards.
Trustworthiness: The belief that a person will not take advantage of another who puts him or herself in a vulnerable position.
At the core is the message that the leader genuinely believes in what he or she is doing and saying; that he or she is 100% committed in both 
words and actions to doing what he or he believes is needed; and that, at the same time, there is an overarching sense that he or she adheres to 
high moral principles and standards of behavior. In other words, this is someone that others can trust – period.
Leader Practices
Practices are the building blocks that define “the way that things are done around here”.
Leaders also impact culture by the practices that they use in performing their jobs and interacting with people. Practices are the repetitive 
patterns of activity essential to the smooth functioning of an organization. They cover a wide range of routines including the way leaders make 
decisions, run meetings and recognize people, just to name a few. They are the building blocks that help to shape “the way that things are done 
around here”. Practices are different from organizational processes which define how things are done. For example, a process might be the 
activities and tasks to complete in order to safely add new to a highway whereas a practice is the way this is done such as the use of concrete 
barriers to protect workers.
Shaping and Changing Culture
While culture change is not easy, it is possible to make it happen and achieve concrete results in a matter of months and not years as popularly 
believed. We’ve seen numerous examples in all sizes of companies across a wide range of industries and sectors that support this statement. In 
some cases, the change is dramatic and others less so but, in all cases, leaders were the catalyst for the change that occurred. How did they do 
it?
The leaders used a combination of their own behaviors and a set of practices carefully selected to fit their purpose. In one case, the leader was 
frustrated by a lack of discipline that he believed was negatively affecting productivity and his department’s ability to meet its objectives. He 
decided that he was going to do something about it. Within his work group, he introduced practices designed to bring more discipline into the way 
people worked. The leader reinforced these practices with his own behaviors. For example, he made it clear that people were expected to be on time 
for meetings and scheduled appointments, no exceptions and no excuses. To this end, he introduced the following practices and behaviors:
Practice 1: Meetings started and ended exactly at the scheduled time. If the meeting was to start at 9:00 a.m., he locked the room door and 
started the meeting. People were not allowed to enter the meeting after it started. This included his boss and other senior people. It caused 
quite a stir at the beginning!
Practice 2: Appointment times were strictly adhered to. If someone was late for an appointment, the appointment was automatically cancelled. This 
was a big deal as it was extremely difficult getting time booked with the leader who spent a lot of time at work sites. It could be weeks before 
people had another chance to meet with him.
Behavior: The leader always arrived at least 5 minutes early for every meeting. If it was someone else’s meeting, he would wait 10 minutes and if 
the meeting hadn’t started, he would leave. Initially, this was a problem with his boss and his boss’ peers in other groups however he was able to 
manage the issue by agreeing to return to meetings if required. He made his point swiftly and effectively.
Result: Within days, people began to show up on time for their appointments. Within a few weeks, people consistently arrived on time for meetings 
and not just his meetings but also meetings hosted by his boss and others in the organization. Meetings became more efficient and effective and 
people appreciated that they could depend on the fact that the meetings would always end on time.
He also introduced a number of other practices which he supported through his own behavior. Many of these were small like the ones in this example 
but the results were huge. Although the change started small with only one department, the change in performance of that department drew attention 
to what the leader was doing. Soon other departments began to follow suit and within a matter of a few months a significant shift in culture had 
taken root across the organization.
In Summary
The Good News:
You may not have the power to change the culture of the whole organization, but you can change the culture in your work area and, perhaps, 
influence the culture of the department, division, region and even the organization.
Leaders can use their words and actions in an intentional and purposeful way to influence the norms of behavior in use in their organizations and 
thereby shape culture.
When a critical mass of leaders purposefully and authentically demonstrates the same core set of behaviors, the potential for positive change 
increases dramatically.
Every leader can change practices that are part of the way that work is done on a day-to-day basis. 
The Challenge:
Using leader behaviors and practices in a purposeful and mindful way to shape culture requires…
A high level of self-awareness that only comes from deep personal reflection which is a skill that few of us have and needs to be developed and 
honed.
A high level of constant vigilance to notice how one’s words and actions are influencing the behaviors of others and to pick up on the subtle 
clues and messages that people provide.
The courage to stand by one’s convictions and the tenacity to stick with it for the long term.
The organizational acumen to make sure that your plans don’t get derailed by people at higher levels.
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Lesson 4: Who Are Your Leaders?

A Leader's Sphere of Influence

Culture is created by shared experience, but it is the leader who initiates this process by acting out his or her beliefs, values, and assumptions in the behaviors he or she demonstrates and the practices he or she uses.

So far, we have focused on senior leaders due to the power they have to drive change. Specifically, we’ve examined how a senior leader can shift culture by intentionally using the tools at his or her disposal. When this is done effectively, change within his or her sphere of influence is pretty much guaranteed.

Yet, it isn’t only people in senior leadership roles who have influence. Anyone in a management position has the capacity to affect the people reporting to them, while highly regarded individuals in non-management roles influence their peers and others in their network. In other words, every leader regardless of level can influence culture however, the extent depends on their sphere of influence.

This is important for two reasons. For one, if you can identify the leaders in your organization with the largest spheres of influence then align and engage them in culture change, you can accelerate the change process significantly. Second, focusing on high influence leaders allows for a targeted approach and investment that optimizes the use of precious resources while achieving the desired outcomes. This doesn’t mean you ignore the rest of the organization. Obviously, other people with less influence are part of the culture and need to be considered in the change effort. The difference is in the strategies you use to engage them.

A Leader’s Sphere of Influence

A leader’s sphere of influence refers to the people and things (that is; policies, processes, structures, space and so on) directly or indirectly affected by his or her actions. The size and scope of the sphere of influence is determined, in part, by the person’s role, responsibilities and relationships. In other words, the more senior you are, the greater your potential influence and capacity to effect change.

A Leader's Sphere of Influence

In a small organization, the senior leader or leadership team is typically involved in most if not all aspects of operations, thus their sphere of influence is extensive and powerful. This is what is meant by the phrase “you can see their fingerprints on pretty much everything”.  Other leaders have influence over people and things, but this is limited. As an organization grows, we can see an increase in the scope of influence below the senior management level. This does not mean that the senior leaders’ sphere of influence has diminished. The increase in size and complexity that accompanies growth requires senior leaders shift more and more of their attention to strategic matters and delegate responsibility for running the business to people at lower levels. As a result, front-line employees, their managers and their managers’ managers may have limited, if any, contact or interaction with senior leaders.

The outcome is an increase in the influence of mid-level managers and the immediate manager. People in these roles directly effect the work experience of the people who report to them and the way things are done within their area of responsibility. They also indirectly affect people and work in adjacent areas. To make matters more complex, leaders can also be found in non-management roles usually by virtue of their expertise, personality and/or credibility. The result is a complex web of shared connections and work creating overlapping spheres of influence.

Why is this important? When a critical mass of leaders is aligned and committed to achieving a common goal, it creates an amplifying effect exponentially increasing the probability of achieving meaningful, sustained culture change in a relatively short period. The bottom-line is the more tools used in an intentional and aligned manner by the more people in positions of influence, the greater the impact and speed of change. Consider for a moment the potential for accelerating culture change by engaging influential leaders. If we can align the behaviors and practices of these leaders, we have the potential to create an “influence bomb”. In other words, we can maximize impact by focusing on the critical few. This creates new demands on people in senior leadership roles as they must not only lead the way but identify, engage and support leaders at all levels through the change effort.

Leaders Exist at Every Level

So, who are your ‘leaders’? One thing for sure is they can’t be identified simply by job titles and descriptions. Job titles generally indicate a person’s position in the organization’s structure while job descriptions broadly define the person’s role, responsibilities and level of authority. They might even include the word ‘leader’, but this doesn’t mean the person is a leader.

A leader is anyone who others follow and who, in turn, influences others’ beliefs, values and behaviors. He or she may be in a leadership role by nature of his or her position in the organization, such as a manager, team leader or supervisor. However, a leader can also be a technical expert, a person with a lot of seniority who knows how to get things done, someone with a charismatic or relatable personality, or anyone that others look to for guidance. These informal leaders do not have the same capacity to effect change however, they can still be highly influential.

This was evident in spades at a global security company where I participated in a study of innovation practices. The company had managed to hire a core group of highly respected software engineers to develop new product solutions using cloud technology. These individuals had tremendous credentials with work experience at companies like Google, Yahoo and Amazon. Yet, here they were working in an outdated office at an industry mall located at the outskirts of Irvine, California. To put this in perspective, the company is in the security industry not high tech and the office didn’t even have a decent coffee maker, never mind any of the bells and whistles offered by other employers. Why did the engineers choose to work here?

For one, the opportunity to have a significant role working with leading-edge technology on a full product solution was a huge factor. This is what helped them to land the first engineer; that, and an attractive compensation package. The rest of the team however, followed the first engineer. They wanted the opportunity to work with him trusting that if he thought the work was interesting and exciting, they would too. A few team members had in fact followed him from company to company. As a result, instead of having to recruit the other members of the team, they had people knocking at their door.

To be clear, the first engineer was not the team leader or manager. He had absolutely no interest in either role. Yet, arguably he had more influence on other members of the team than anyone in the organization regardless of their job title or position. He set the ‘rules’ and others followed. This included adopting flexible work hours, creating physical spaces where the team could collaborate, participating in open source communities, hosting ‘beer Friday’ progress reviews, and utilizing agile development practices. These were things he had experienced working with other high performing teams that he believed created the right kind of environment for the team to be creative and do their best work.

In this case, the manager of the team’s role was, to use a football analogy, run block for the first engineer and the team. This involved navigating the bureaucracy to make sure the right people were aware of what was happening and supported the team. This was no easy task as the

Leaders Exist at Every Level

company was indeed large, slow-moving and hierarchical with a strong aversion to risk and propensity for standardization and compliance. Despite his efforts, there were numerous situations where people in functional groups tried to force the team to comply with company policies and eliminate non-standard practices. Most were the results of complaints from other employees who believed they should have the same opportunities and perks as the engineering team. Fortunately, senior executives recognized the importance of the team’s efforts and were closely monitoring its progress. They also recognized that attracting and retaining top engineering talent required protecting the team from the existing culture and allowing them latitude to operate outside accepted norms and policies. The result was a team culture that was a stark contrast to the culture in the rest of the company. It was agile, flexible, adaptive and responsive; attributes critical to innovation.

Five Essential Leadership Qualities

What was so special about the first engineer that other top professionals looked to him for leadership? He was a leader because other people viewed him as such, not because he chose to be or as a by-product of his position and seniority. The company employed many engineers with even more experience however, few came closer in terms of influence. When asked to what he attributed his influence, he responded with a shrug and “I don’t know” so, we asked his peers.

First and foremost, he was widely acknowledged as one of the absolute best software engineers in his field. This wasn’t the result of a degree or professional accreditation but rather credibility he earned through his work, articles and blogs he wrote, and his participation in open source and other forums. Second, he was passionate about his work and wanted people to challenge and question him. He had a healthy ego but, at the same time, he valued the ideas of other experts, which made for some intense and, to quote, “incredibly stimulating and productive arguments and debates”. Third, he was a team player who was fun to work with. Bottom-line, he was respected and, as more than one person said, “I like to work with people I know, like and respect”. Fundamentally, he demonstrated five qualities essential to developing the trust-based relationships required to be an effective leader at any level:

Authenticity: True to self and genuine. The first engineer was very clear on what was important to him which was evident in his reasons for joining the security company instead of one of the big, sexy high-tech firms. The security company promised to meet his need to work on leading edge tech while providing creative freedom, flexibility and ownership of a solution. He could also work with other experts and people he liked presenting an opportunity to learn and grow professionally; something very important to him. In other words, he chose to work at a place and with people aligned with his personal values. In so doing, he demonstrated a high level of self-awareness and the courage to make choices consistent with his values. He was also transparent and forthcoming in sharing these values and expectations, as well as his opinions and concerns, with his peers, manager and others. While, they might not agree, he expected people to respect his views and values. As a result, people knew what was important to him and could accurately predict how he would react in different situations.

Credibility: Respected and believable. The first engineer knew his stuff which automatically gave him street cred, especially with his peers. If he said something, they believed him. The thing is this wasn’t limited to his area of technical expertise. When he shared his opinions on people, processes and policies, for instance, his peers listened and usually adopted similar views. This meant he had tremendous potential as an agent for change. It also meant that his concerns or negative experiences had a much greater impact on others than might be expected. This was abundantly clear when it came time for performance reviews and merit increases. The company’s policy was to direct managers to rank performers within a team from top to bottom and allocate merit increases accordingly. Added to this were policies limiting the maximum percentage and amount of the merit increase based on budget and compensation range. This was not received well by the first engineer who was very vocal in sharing his discontent with the rest of the team. In short order, this became a significant issue with team members openly talking about job opportunities elsewhere.

Trustworthiness: Honest and reliable. He does what he says he will do. His words and actions are 100% consistent; he ‘walks the talk’. If the first engineer said he was going to do something, he delivered to the best of his abilities. This wasn’t isolated to his job, specific tasks and deliverables but extended to meeting the team’s commitments. If he saw another person struggling, he would step in to help never asking for recognition or credit. This was also evident in the way he worked with other groups. A lot of the team’s deliverables depended on people in other functions and business units who worked in more traditional ways. This meant the team had to adopt practices so they could move forward despite the obstacles they faced. It wasn’t good enough to point a finger at another group when things went wrong. They did everything in their power to meet their commitments and, on the rare occasion when they were unable to deliver, they and the rest of the organization knew it wasn’t for a lack of effort.

Collaborative: We not me. While the first engineer was widely viewed by his peers as the informal leader of the team, leadership often shifted between team members as they worked together to solve a problem or complete a deliverable. There were also times when he deferred to the team manager, such as when there were issues with other teams that needed positional clout to resolve. This is what they meant when his peers described him as a team player. Rather than assuming the role of leader with the rest of the team following, he was a partner and collaborator. If there was an issue to be dealt with, he came to the table as an equal participant with other members of the team. People listened to him and often moved forward with his ideas because of his expertise not because he was their ‘leader’. They would go to him with questions, to bounce ideas around and ask for his thoughts on things they were working on because they valued his insights and vice versa.

Integrity: Does the right thing, always. Possesses and steadfastly adheres to high moral principles or professional standards. For the first engineer, and other experts, integrity is essential as it is the foundation of credibility and respect. This requires acting in a manner that is beyond reproach especially when it involves sharing knowledge and ideas. The first engineer and members of the team drew heavily on the work of external experts available through open source and professional forums. They spoke about this openly always attributing ownership to the source. This was an unspoken credo. If anyone was to ‘steal’ someone else’s code or ideas and, heaven forbid, imply it was their own was to risk immediate and significant censure.

When a leader embodies these five qualities, he sends the message that he genuinely believes in what he is doing and saying; that he is 100% committed in both words and actions to doing what he believes is right; and he adheres to high moral standards. In other words, this is someone that others can trust – period.

The Manager as Leader

In an ideal world, we would see these qualities in everyone who holds a management title and position. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, which is why I argue you can be a manager and not a leader. Leadership is earned not given. It isn’t a title that can be bestowed on a person. It is something others give because they trust and want to follow a person.

Managers have influence because of their position of authority over others. If the manager isn’t trusted, this influence is limited to the people and things under their direct control. On the other hand, if the manager is trusted, his sphere of influence expands in breadth and depth. The people who he works and interacts with look to him for guidance and are proactive in following his lead. They engage with him on an emotional level. This applies to people who report to him directly as well as others within his network. With this in mind, we are going to take a closer look at two management roles that play an important part in culture change.

The Importance of the Immediate Manager

Anyone who has worked with a very good or bad manager can clearly recall the effect this person had on the culture of their department or team. Remember the ‘micro-manager’ that was constantly looking over your shoulder and telling you in agonizing detail how to do things or the manager that never, ever, made a decision? How did that affect your work experience? On the other hand, many of us have been fortunate enough to work with managers who empowered us to make decisions and backed this up with the support and guidance we need to be successful. How different was that?

Whether a manager is good or bad, if they have people reporting to them and assign work, evaluate performance, determine rewards and impact career options, they influence others and culture. This power over others creates a dynamic whereby people look to their immediate manager for guidance in terms of behavior and work practices. For instance, if the manager is detailed-oriented, the people who report to her quickly learn to pay attention to detail. This is simply common sense. For this reason alone, it is important to engage managers in the change process. If senior leaders are saying one thing, even if their actions are consistent with their words, and the immediate manager is doing something different, in most cases people will follow the lead of their manager who they believe has the greatest impact on them personally.

This is important as it highlights the need to develop strategies to engage and align managers regardless of their scope of influence. If they have people reporting to them, they influence behavior and practices which means they impact culture. While it doesn’t make sense to engage them in the same way we would high influence leaders, it is important to include strategies that make the immediate manager part of the solution.

Caught in the Middle   

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard senior leaders point to mid-level managers as ‘the problem’ in change initiatives. They believe that employees and front-line managers are on board, but those darn middle level managers keep getting in the way. In one particularly memorable instance, the CEO of a large multi-national telecom manufacturer described mid-level managers as a ‘sponge’ – they soak up information shared by executives and drip down bits to front-line managers and employees. In other words, they filter the information to the point that the message is lost or distorted. The result is confusion and misunderstanding leading to unclear priorities and a lack of alignment which negatively affects performance and the change effort.

In all fairness, mid-level managers have perhaps the most difficult role in an organization. They are expected to translate senior leader’s vision and strategy into actions, which often involves leading strategic initiatives and complex projects. At the same time, they are expected to

Corporate Leadership

communicate priorities and manage the performance of work by lower level managers who look to them for direction and support. To make things even more challenging, they are also expected to work across boundaries to ensure alignment in executing the strategic priorities. This places them in the difficult position of having to juggle demands from several directions. They are literally caught in the middle.

At the same time, the nature of their role means the mid-level manager has tremendous potential to affect and accelerate culture change. One of the most effective strategies for changing culture is to use projects and strategic initiatives as vehicles for introducing new behaviors and practices. They can also identify systemic barriers which need to be addressed to support and sustain the change. By taking this approach, culture change is embedded in business-as-usual activities versus treated as a distinct initiative, thereby creating a higher probability of success. This approach also provides a unique way to learn new behaviors and practices while proving the merits of the new way of working thereby accelerating adoption in other parts of the organization. It is particularly effective in addressing challenges working across boundaries as this is a common feature of complex projects and strategic initiatives.

In Summary

While people in senior leadership roles are critical to the success of any culture change endeavor, it is important to remember that leaders exist at every level. These are the people others look to for advice, guidance and support. They earn the right to lead by being respected and trusted; they are credible, authentic, trustworthy, collaborative and have integrity. They have the power to intentionally shape the culture within their sphere of influence (the formal and informal groups that they belong to).  They do this through their words and actions which send clear messages to those around them that this is the ‘right’ or ‘best’ way to go about doing things. Identifying and enlisting a critical mass of these high influence leaders is important to the success of any culture change initiative.

Second, while a management title doesn’t mean someone is a leader, it is an indicator the person has influence over others behavior and work. As a result, culture change initiatives should include strategies to align and engage the immediate manager. These strategies are going to be different from those applied to high influence leaders but are still important. Third, mid-level managers, especially those who are influential leaders, have tremendous potential as change agents. In addition to their personal influence, the strategic initiatives, projects and businesses they manage are potential learning laboratories for the new culture. These can be used to learn new behaviors and practices and identify systemic barriers while at the same time providing proof of the benefits of culture change. Finally, people in positions of authority must be vigilant and fully committed to supporting these leaders otherwise, and I quote, “the organization’s immune system (existing culture) will kill the organism (new culture)”.

 

© CULTURESTRATEGYFIT® All rights reserved

Dr. Nancie Evans
Dr. Nancie Evans is co-founder and VP Client Solutions at Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. specializing in the alignment of organizational culture and strategy. She has developed a unique set of leading-edge diagnostic tools and approaches that provide leaders with deep insights into the culture of their organizations, how it is supporting or getting in the way of strategy execution, as well as the levers that they can use to drive rapid culture change.

CULTURESTRATEGYFIT®
Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. is a leading culture and executive leadership consulting firm conducting groundbreaking work in leveraging culture to drive strategy and performance. Its suite of culture surveys and culture alignment tools are used by market-leading organizations around the world.

Lesson 3: The Leader’s Culture Change Toolkit

Encouraging words for leaders who are trying to change their culture for the better.

Most leaders already have the fundamental skills required to effectively lead culture change. They are terrific problem solvers and action-oriented. When faced with a challenge, they shift into solution mode relying on personal experience and the advice of trusted colleagues and subject matter experts to identify the best approach for the situation. They search their bank of past successes and lessons learned to identify actions they believe will deliver the desired results. Many of these include behaviors, practices and systemic changes to structures, processes, policies and so on.
This is what Bill did so well as told in the story in Lesson #1. He used behaviors, practices, stories (remember the one about the cell phone and locking the CEO out of the meeting room for showing up late), structure and processes to create a more disciplined culture. In other words, he intentionally used the tools in his personal toolkit to achieve and sustain a significant change in culture.

The Personal Culture Change Toolkit

So, what is the leader’s personal culture change toolkit? Basically, it consists of the tangible elements of day-to-day life in an organization. These fall into two categories: people and environment. People tools refer to the actions that convey what is important and valued to individuals and teams. These are shared primarily through social interactions, such as observation and first-hand experience. The environment tools are the ‘systemic’ elements of the organization that determine the way people work and interact. These are important as their design can either support and encourage the desired behavior or create significant obstacles to adoption.

People Tools
The ‘people tools’ are the actions explicitly directed at influencing people. Behaviors and practices were introduced in an earlier chapter, so I’ll just provide a brief recap. Behaviors are the oft unconscious actions that we demonstrate in response to different situations. These actions send signals that tell others what is expected and, when the leader is influential, the best way to act. For this reason, it is important that leaders are self-aware and in touch with the ways that their words and actions are influencing others’ behavior and shaping the culture around them. Practices are the repeat patterns of activity or routines that leaders use as they go about their day-to-day work. They are different from processes which are the transformation of an input into an output. An example of a practice is the way you run meetings. If you run your meetings in a structured and disciplined manner, it sends a very different message than if your meetings are ad hoc and infromal. Thoughtfully using a mix of practices is an especially powerful strategy for reinforcing new behaviors and shifting culture.

Stories and Heroes
Stories and heroes refer to the telling of events involving people doing exceptional things. This is a powerful way to send a message about what is valued and important. They can be told in formal and informal settings and through a mix of verbal, written and visual media. The more stories about different people doing something that brings the values and desired behaviors to life, the better. The key is they must be authentic, credible and relatable.

Turtle in a bowl - company cultureThere is a great WestJet Airlines commercial that illustrates this beautifully (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5nfJ_u_8Ws). In the commercial, WestJetter Amanda helps a little girl and her family who find out they can’t bring her pet turtle on the plane. Her solution? She offers to look after ‘Steve’, the turtle, until they return from their vacation. The message is that Amanda is an owner and owners care, which is a core value of the company. This is just one of several videos showing employees going above and beyond to help their customers. It sends a clear message of what is important and valued to employees, customers and any one else who cares to listen. By the way, if you want to really understand your culture, ask people to tell stories about the company at its best and its worse. It is amazing what you will uncover.

Traditions and Rituals
Traditions and Rituals are a forum to celebrate the things that really matter. While common in families and religions, they can also be found in organizations usually taking the form of a special event such as a family picnic, annual profit-sharing celebration or Christmas party. To be considered a tradition or ritual, they must be meaningful and endure the test of time. An example is an annual family picnic that emphasizes the importance the company places on employees and their families, as well as the desire to nourish a sense of family and community within the company itself. If the picnic is only held once, it is a nice gesture. When it is a recurring event held for several years, it becomes a tradition.

Company Picnic - Corporate Culture

Traditions and rituals are usually established by founders and other senior leaders, however, leaders at lower levels can also do something meaningful but on a smaller scale. These events rarely become traditions as circumstances can change limiting their ability to endure over time (i.e., budget cuts, staffing changes etc.). Their power is in the potential to augment the global message by making it personal – this leader personally believes in the importance of family and creating a sense of community.
One of the challenges with traditions, and why it is important to be intentional in using them, is they become part of the company’s identity and embedded in the tacit employment contract. As a result, discontinuing a tradition, such as the family picnic, sends a strong, usually negative, message to employees. This is regardless of how good the reasons and how effective you are communicating them. In the end, employees interpret discontinuing the picnic as the company no longer values employees and their families. They point to other things the company is spending money on as evidence that leaders could continue the picnic but are choosing to do otherwise. This is why cost-cutting initiatives that target these types of events should be carefully considered and the consequences evaluated before taking action. In the end, the long-term impact of cutting the family picnic may far outweigh the short-term benefits.

Environment Tools
Environment tools are the elements of an organization that create the conditions to encourage and sustain new values, behaviors and practices. My favorite way to explain this is to consider what it takes to successfully lose weight. I can change my behavior by modifying my eating habits and going to the gym on a regular basis. I can adopt new practices such as weighing myself weekly, tracking my food intake and attending group support meetings. However, if my kitchen cupboards contain my favorite high-calorie snacks and the gym is 45 minutes from home, chances are sooner or later I am going to fall off the bandwagon. The same thing happens in organizations when leaders articulate new values and expected behaviors but don’t make the environmental changes required to support them. Even when significant time, money and attention is invested in initiatives such as communication and training, a lack of aligned structures, processes, policies and so on sends conflicting messages that discourage change and reinforce existing behaviors.
Now, you might be thinking, these are tools that only leaders in senior positions can use. The truth is every leader, regardless of level, can use the environment tools. However, the scope and scale depends on the leader’s role, responsibilities and level of authority. For example, senior leaders are accountable for the overall design of the organization’s structure providing direction including boundaries and limitations for lower level design efforts. Mid-level managers apply these parameters in designing the structure of their area of responsibility and lower-level managers to the design of their teams. The same applies to processes, policies, systems, space and symbols.

Structure
Structure determines who does what and how decisions are made in pursuit of an organization’s goals. It involves the design of roles, responsibilities, reporting relationships and authority levels. This includes temporary governance structures, such as advisory boards and management committees, as well as team structures. Structure has a powerful effect on culture influencing the ways people work and interact within and across levels, teams, business units, functions and geographies.
As an example, organization structures tend to fall somewhere between hierarchical or mechanistic and organic or flat and can take various forms depending on the company’s operating model. Hierarchical structures tend to provide a clear chain of command however, they can contribute to bureaucracy and slow decision-making. In many hierarchical structures, business units operate independently which means collaboration between groups can suffer. On the other hand, flat structures use teams to respond and adapt quickly to challenges and opportunities which is critical in dynamic external environments. While this allows for faster decision-making, it can lead to confusion and inefficiencies especially as an organization grows. If the teams operate independently, which is often the case, there is also the potential for redundancies and breakdowns in collaboration.

The way functional reporting relationships are designed also affects culture. Specifically, are the functions, such as Sales, Finance and Human Resources, centralized or decentralized? Do the functions report directly to the business units or are they operating as shared service centers providing support to the business units? Perhaps they report directly to a Corporate executive and indirectly to the business units as is common in a matrix structure, or maybe functional roles are fully integrated into project teams as in a flat structure. This is important because the functions own many of the processes and policies that determine the way things get done and thereby affect culture. In some organizations, this includes acting as a ‘gatekeeper’ to ensure consistency and manage risk. Anyone who has had to go through multiple steps to get Legal approval for a contract or business deal knows how this affects culture. Talk about bureaucracy!
While the above examples are part of the senior leader’s toolkit, managers can also use structure to intentionally shape culture albeit not to the same extent. Managers and team leaders typically decide who does what and how employees are going to work together to deliver expected outcomes. For example, in transactional roles such as Accounts Payable and Receivable, jobs are usually designed with efficiency of task completion a priority. This results in discrete roles with very structured job descriptions that offer little flexibility or opportunities for personal growth. The culture, at least within this team, places a high value on normative practices such as process consistency and compliance, as well as orderliness and attention to detail. While this might make perfect sense for the Accounts Payable and Receivable department, the same structure applied to a team of Software Engineers tasked with developing new products would be a disaster. For this team to be productive, the culture needs to encourage collaboration, experimentation (including making mistakes), flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness, as well as execution and results. Rather than narrowly defined roles and job descriptions with clear task allocation, a loose and flexible team structure is a much better option.

Systems, Processes and Policies
Systems, processes and policies (“the system”) are the guidelines and integrated methods and procedures that define how work is to be performed and people are expected to behave. This includes boundaries and limitations, as well as best practices. In my experience, a lack of alignment between “the system” and desired behaviors is one of the most common obstacles to culture change. This is notwithstanding the fact many organizations do a good job aligning Human Resource processes and policies to support desired behaviors.
Talent acquisition and management processes, performance management systems, competency models, employee training and manager development programs, as well as rewards and recognition programs,  are some of the tools typically used to encourage specific behaviors and help change culture. I emphasize ‘help change’ versus ‘change’, as Human Resources processes and policies on their own are rarely sufficient to achieve the desired results. This is not to say they aren’t important or relevant. They are. The point is that most organizations stop here and don’t make the necessary changes to other parts of the system.
Pretty much every organization has functional groups such as Sales, Legal and Finance. Even small companies have an overarching system of controls to ensure fiduciary, regulatory and legal compliance, at a minimum. As organizations grow, the role of the functions tends to expand and with it their influence over day-to-day work. The need to reduce waste and lower costs, increase efficiency and effectiveness, and reduce risk are just a few of the drivers behind this shift. Now, you might be asking what does this have to do with culture? The answer is a great deal; every function has policies, procedures and processes that affect the way things get done, otherwise known as culture.
Take for example an organization that needs to become more agile in order to compete in an increasingly dynamic and unpredictable marketplace. By increasing agility, the company should be able to respond quickly and adapt to changing circumstances, which is a must in this type of environment. Now, let’s say this same organization is a large, mature global company that insists employees comply with restrictive Finance, Legal and Human Resource policies and procedures when making decisions. For instance, there are strict limits on spending reinforced by delegation of authority (DOA) policies and a rigorous expense approval process. All contracts regardless of the cost, including rental of off-site meeting rooms, require multiple layers of Legal review and approval. Furthermore, senior executives must sign off on all new hires and promotions per Human Resource policies. This isn’t exactly a system designed to foster agility. In fact, some might (and do) call it downright bureaucratic.
How successful do you think the culture change effort will be if these and other relevant policies, processes and procedures remain the way they are? It will fail…100% guaranteed. Even if Human Resources does a terrific job defining the desired behaviors and embedding them in their processes and programs, the change effort will be for not. There is simply too great a disconnect between the desired behaviors and the system. For the company to become more agile, it must make substantial changes to these and other elements of the system at both the macro and micro level.
While the above is an example of the macro level system in action, managers and team leaders play a critical role in identifying the required macro and micro level changes. They work most closely with front-line employees and understand the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day performance of work. If an organization needs to be more agile, it is the lower level managers and front-line employees who can identify the specific changes required to align the system in support of the desired behaviors. Simply asking them what is stopping them from being agile (of course, supported by a clear description of what this means) is guaranteed to elicit useful information about obstacles and potential solutions.

Space
Space refers to the design and use of the physical workplace. It includes micro spaces such as individual and team workspaces; shared spaces such as meeting rooms, cafeterias and collaborative work areas; outdoor spaces such as parking lots, gardens, courtyards and sports fields; and, macro spaces such as building and campus floor plans. Every one of these spaces has the potential to help build and shape culture at the same time as it supports strategy execution and the effective completion of work.

Man working alone in a cubicle - company cultureLet’s say, for example, leaders have identified the need to increase creativity and generate more good ideas in support of innovation. How can the design and use of physical space help or get in the way? Consider for a moment a traditional office building floor plan comprised of walled offices for managers and cubicles for non-managers. These are connected by a hallway that wraps around the central elevator core and stairwell. There are a few meeting rooms located off the hallway also at the core. These are equipped with standard furnishings and decor, such as a table and chairs, speakerphone, screen and projector with computer connections and a few pictures on the walls. Also located at the core are washrooms and a shared supply room that serves a dual purpose providing vending machines that dispense snacks, drinks and coffee. Sound familiar? Space is expensive so companies try to use it as efficiently as possible. This might be fine if people need quiet spaces to focus on their work and complete tasks. However, it is hard to see how this would inspire creativity and idea generation.

Corporate Culture Strategy

Now, contrast this with a workspace specifically designed for this purpose. Perhaps you envision a Google-type workplace where the design of space encourages people to come together to interact, play and have fun. Alternatively, maybe you’re thinking of war rooms, coffee shops, team layouts, movable walls, learning labs or other spaces designed with creative collaboration in mind. There are lots of options. The art and science is in the intentional design of space to serve a purpose and fit the people and work they are doing. This purpose can and should include building or changing culture in support of your strategy and goals. While space used in isolation of other tools is not enough to change culture, intentional design can help accelerate change, encourage new behaviors and reinforce values.

Symbols
Symbols are the tangible objects or artefacts that we encounter in the workplace. They include signs, awards, product samples, photos, wall murals and basically anything we can see or touch. Their power is in the meaning they hold for the observer, which can be different depending on the context and person. For example, the image at right is a photo of a poster hanging on the wall of a meeting room at a Toronto Public Relations firm. Take a close look. What is the meaning of the poster?

Hand print artwork - Company culture
Perhaps you thought the following:

  • They are obviously ‘creative’ (and have too much time on their hands)…yep, this was someone’s answer.
  • The hands look like they are from members of a team who probably did something special, hence the ‘High Five’ at the top.
  • Several hands are small, so it is a team made mostly of women.
    The different colors symbolize diversity. Diversity of background, experience and thought is important.
  • People signed their names below their hands, so they recognize not just the team but each team member’s contribution.

The real story behind the poster, as provided by the firm owner, is it is a celebration of the contribution each person makes to the success of the firm. By working together and learning from each other, they create outstanding solutions that are recognized by their clients and the industry (they’ve received multiple industry awards which are displayed in the entrance lobby). Every person brings something unique that makes a difference and continues even after they leave. This is captured in the names beneath the handprints, many of whom are people no longer with the firm. The lesson is that objects and artefacts can be powerful tools for reinforcing values, sharing memories and shaping culture. However, it is important to remember that people can interpret things differently, which means the meaning you intend may not be what is received.
I encountered this recently while being escorted on a tour of a Corporate Headquarter building. Just off the lobby, in a high traffic area, was a wall covered floor to ceiling with a mural depicting the history of the company. Impressed, I commented on some of the themes I noticed such as its longevity, the continuity of leadership and commitment to organic growth versus acquisitions. It seemed to me to suggest an organization that is proud of its heritage, as well as somewhat cautious but has been able to adapt as the world changes. The Director escorting me paused, looked at the mural, looked at me and said, most employees view the mural as company propaganda intended for customers. All the things I say may be true, but employees see the mural as a symbol of resistance to change, out-of-touch leadership, risk aversion and bureaucracy. To them, the company is stuck in the past, whereas it should be focused on the future. Sure, there is a message about the company being a survivor and overcoming challenges, but recent experience is raising questions regarding its ability to change fast enough to be viable in today’s marketplace.
This brings up another important point. There must be congruence between the symbol and people’s experience for it be an effective tool. Symbols can be aspirational, but they must be real and authentic. For example, a company that launches a campaign using events, programs and artefacts to encourage employee engagement would be ill-advised to do so when they are laying off people. Similarly, I encountered a good example recently when visiting a manufacturing site. One of the first things I saw when I entered the building was a sign stating, ‘Safety First – Safety is Everyone’s Responsibility’. Next to it was a large scoreboard itemizing the previous quarter’s performance on key safety indicators. This included the number of incidents, days lost due to accidents, and the number of near misses. This looked great. Obviously, the company is serious about safety, right?
The problem is that, throughout my visit, I saw numerous safety violations starting with me being allowed on the floor without the appropriate gear. What message does this send to employees? For symbols to be effective in building and changing culture they must be meaningful, clearly explained and consistent with people’s lived experience. If not, they can serve to damage the change effort and the leader’s personal credibility.

In Summary

Most culture change initiatives focus on defining values and expected behaviors, which are communicated to managers and employees with the expectation they will demonstrate these behaviors in their work and interactions. Recognizing that telling people to behave differently usually doesn’t produce results, most organizations embed the expected behaviors in Human Resource programs, policies and processes, such as talent acquisition and performance management systems. Some even offer training programs to teach managers how to role model and change behaviour. Yet, these efforts only scratch the surface when it comes to the tools available to change culture.
As we know, engaging leaders is critical for any change effort to be successful. This is especially true in the case of culture change. Every leader influences culture through their words and actions as they go about their day-to-day work. The behaviors they demonstrate, practices they use, stories they tell and traditions they establish serve to reinforce what the organization, and they personally, believe is important and valued. By using these people tools in an intentional manner, leaders set clear expectations for behavior that are reinforced in people’s day-to-day experience. Even better, when they align the work environment by making relevant changes to structure, processes, policies, space and symbols, they create the conditions for the new behaviors to take root and flourish.
The exciting thing is leaders already have access to the tools they need to drive culture change. They are using them now as they go about their work and interact with people. The problem is leaders aren’t aware of these tools or, if they are aware, don’t know how to use them in an intentional manner to change culture. This creates a huge opportunity for most organizations. Instead of taking years, culture change can occur in months by helping leaders learn how to use their personal toolkit and align their efforts to achieve a shared vision of the future.

Dr. Nancie Evans
Dr. Nancie Evans is co-founder and VP Client Solutions at Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. specializing in the alignment of organizational culture and strategy. She has developed a unique set of leading-edge diagnostic tools and approaches that provide leaders with deep insights into the culture of their organizations, how it is supporting or getting in the way of strategy execution, as well as the levers that they can use to drive rapid culture change.

CULTURESTRATEGYFIT®
Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. is a leading culture and executive leadership consulting firm conducting groundbreaking work in leveraging culture to drive strategy and performance. Its suite of culture surveys and culture alignment tools are used by market-leading organizations around the world.

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Lesson #2: Engaging Leaders, Changing Culture

Vector Image of a leader

This article is a draft chapter in Dr. Nancie Evans’ upcoming book, Changing Culture: 30 Years of Lessons Learned. Comments, questions and suggestions are gratefully appreciated. Happy reading!

In an ideal world, senior leaders fully embrace the challenge of changing culture. As explained previously, this means role modeling the expected behaviors, reinforcing them in day-to-day practices, and creating the conditions for success. Unfortunately, I’ve found this rarely happens. It isn’t that leaders don’t understand what it takes to be successful. When asked for examples from their experience, leaders can almost always come up with great stories of both successful and failed efforts. They totally get that they need to lead the way.

Barriers to Leader Engagement

So, what stops leaders from personally owning and fully engaging in culture change? Why do leaders overwhelmingly delegate the heavy-lifting to Human Resources? In years of asking this question to leaders and Human Resource professionals, a few things stand out.

Competing Priorities and Demands

Leaders at all levels and especially those in senior roles are stretched thin. Competing demands mean having to make choices as to where they invest their time, energy and attention. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day and days in the week to do everything. As a result, while culture is viewed by many as important, it often takes a back seat to more urgent demands, such as delivering short-term financial results and day-to-day management of the business. This is not to say they don’t support culture work. In fact, a lot of CEOs and other C-Suite executives sponsor culture change initiatives and personally invest a significant amount of time in defining values, communication and employee engagement. The problem is their involvement falls short of that required to achieve meaningful and sustained change.

Culture Is Vague and Ambiguous

Consider for a moment, the language of business. Products, services, processes, operations, market share, revenues, cost structures and so on are clear and widely understood. Talk about a business process and people know exactly what you mean. It’s tangible with elements that can be measured, analysed and improved. Contrast this with culture which is defined by words like values, beliefs and assumptions or ‘the way things are done around here’. No wonder many leaders’ eyes start to glaze over. Start talking about culture change as requiring a shift in underlying beliefs and we’ve lost them entirely. It is simply too vague and ambiguous to grab their attention.

The Comfort Zone  

Faced with a choice of solving an immediate business problem or getting involved in culture change, the former always wins. Even when there are good intentions, there are always more problems to be solved, plans made, and actions taken causing less urgent matters like culture change to take a back seat. This is simply human nature. When under pressure, we tend to deal first with things that fall into our comfort zone and second with those that are urgent and important. If there is time and energy left, and we are sufficiently motivated and confident in our abilities, we might then take on things that are less urgent but important or urgent but complex such as culture change.

Culture Change Is Personal

Culture change almost always requires a shift in leaders’ behavior. Keeping in mind that employees follow the actions of leaders, not so much their words, this means letting go of behaviors that worked in the past but are detrimental in the new world. It means learning or demonstrating new behaviors that include ones outside their comfort zone or inconsistent with their personal beliefs regarding the most effective way to manage and lead. It can also mean the qualities and capabilities that made a leader successful are no longer valued and might even cause them to fail. This can lead to avoidance in the form of passive resistance or an ‘I’m good but the rest of you need to change’ attitude which undermines the change effort.

Experts Advocate a Behavioral or Values-Based Approach

Most Change Management and Human Resource consultants advocate a behavioral or values-based approach to culture change. In this approach, leaders define the organization’s vision, mission, purpose and values; the latter sometimes in consultation with employees. A lot of effort is directed at sharing the values and engaging employees in building the connection with their personal values. Once finalized, Human Resources translate the values into expected behaviors, often in the form of competency models. The expected behaviors are communicated to employees and embedded in orientation and training programs, as well as talent management processes and performance management systems. This approach is appealing to leaders looking for a solution that doesn’t require a lot of their personal time and attention. The fact that it is advocated by experts also lends it credibility, which gives leaders confidence it is the right way to proceed.

It’s a People Thing

Finally, culture change is generally perceived to be a ‘people thing’. After all, it involves defining values and changing behaviors, right? As this is not an area of expertise for most leaders, it should not be surprising that they happily delegate responsibility to Human Resources. In fact, it makes sense for Human Resources to take the lead on most culture initiatives. Human Resource professionals bring much needed skills and expertise to help leaders through the culture change process. The challenge is to convince leaders to retain ownership of culture change with Human Resources as a strategic partner versus doers.

Strategies for Leader Engagement

Culture change is difficult, personally challenging, time consuming and requires a long-term commitment. All good reasons for leaders to search for an easier alternative that minimizes their involvement, especially given the challenges and demands of their jobs. Yet, they must be fully engaged for culture change to have a chance at success. So how do we convince leaders to own culture change?

What Doesn’t Work?

Let’s start with what doesn’t work. I’ve spent countless hours making presentations to leaders with the objective of convincing them that culture is an important business priority. Facts and figures from various studies illustrate the financial, competitive and other benefits of investing in culture. Great articles and case studies provide compelling arguments for the power of culture change. My own research shows the difference culture can make on innovation, customer loyalty, reliability and operational excellence.

If we’re lucky, this is sufficiently compelling to capture their attention and we can proceed to ‘what’s next?’ A lot of the time, however, the conversation stops here, simply because we’re talking about culture not operating models, strategy, business processes or other ‘hard stuff’. For many leaders, culture is just too vague and intangible. For people who are used to having the answers and knowing what to do, this is the kiss of death.

In the end, the vast majority delegate responsibility for culture and culture change to Human Resources but promise to help in (almost) anyway they can, keeping in mind the competing demands for their time and attention, as well as resources. Unfortunately, this rarely includes making the personal or systemic changes required for the culture to shift in a meaningful or sustained way. The bottom-line is leaders perceive that the cost and effort outweigh the benefits. This is magnified by urgent, short-term and more pressing demands, such as achieving the quarter’s revenue targets.

So, what does work?

This might seem crazy but talking to leaders about culture and the need for culture change simply does not work. That is, it doesn’t work unless you anchor it in a business need and provide a clear, practical solution they can understand. In other words, you have to speak their language and employ a business-driven approach.

Speak Their Language

About 10 years ago, a Human Resource executive told me he wished there was another word for ‘culture’. When asked why, he explained that senior leaders view culture as ‘vague, warm and fuzzy; as an HR thing’. As a result, it was close to impossible to get them to see culture as a business priority requiring the same level of attention as say, achieving financial results, improving business processes or developing strategic plans. I didn’t listen but instead directed my energy at strengthening my case. It was only when I finally changed the way I talked about culture that senior leaders began to really engage. The secret is to use language they understand.

This doesn’t mean avoiding the use of the word ‘culture’. In fact, organizations contact me because they want help with their culture. It is the language we use when we talk about culture where the opportunity exists. Terms like capability instead of culture attributes and expectations rather than behaviors help change the conversation. By using words they can relate to, leaders are more willing to engage in a deep exploration of the challenges and opportunities culture presents.

Take for example Bill, whose story is told in Lesson #1. It reads as if Bill was an enlightened leader intentionally and purposefully leading the way to achieve a meaningful change in culture. The thing is, according to Bill, the changes he made had nothing to do with culture. It was about effective leadership and business management. He solved a significant business problem by increasing the level of discipline with an emphasis on cost management and decision-making. To him, discipline was a capability, not a culture attribute, the organization lacked. He didn’t talk to people about changing the culture and never mentioned values, beliefs or assumptions. He referred to behaviors as expectations as in, “I expect people to be on time for meetings and appointments”. He didn’t involve Human Resources as, to him, he was simply doing his job so why would he need them? He did engage his direct reports to lead the process changes but otherwise did not involve employees. Based on his experience, he believed he knew what needed to be done and didn’t see value in asking people who, in his mind, didn’t have a clue what discipline was about.

I am not advocating that leaders embark on culture change without involving Human Resources. Nor, do I suggest that engaging employees isn’t worthwhile. In fact, both play an important role and are topics for later chapters. The point is culture change, intentional or accidental, can happen fast when leaders are actively engaged and own it.  Changing the way we talk about culture can go a long way towards achieving this, especially when it is accompanied by a business-driven approach.

Use a Business-Driven Approach

Most culture initiatives arise from either a people problem, such as employee attrition or low engagement, or a significant change, such as new senior leadership. Alternatively, a leader might attend a conference, read a book or hear something about culture in the media that catches their attention. While these may be valid reasons for initiating culture work, they rarely lead to the type of leader engagement required to achieve a meaningful outcome. For this to happen, senior leaders must see culture as a business priority on par with other challenges and opportunities. But, how to do this?

I’ve found that two conditions need to be met. The first is there must be sufficient pain as a result of culture related challenges to make it a priority. Pain can be pretty much anything that is interfering with the organization’s ability to achieve its goals. Difficulties executing strategy, integration challenges in a merger or acquisition, loss of top talent to competitors, capacity and scalability issues, declining financial results and loss of market share are just a few examples. The thing is most leaders don’t see these sort of challenges as having anything to do with culture, which leads to the second condition.  

Leaders must be open to considering that culture may be a factor contributing to the pain and/or getting in the way of effectively dealing with it. This isn’t necessarily easy as most leaders are sceptical when we talk about culture change as a solution to a business problem. This is, of course, entirely expected and reasonable given there are likely several factors contributing to the pain. These can be internal, such as outdated technology or inefficient work processes, and external, including the entry of new competitors, changing customer expectations and so on.

Trying to convince leaders that changing the culture will solve their problem is misguided and not going to work. What we want is for them to consider that while culture may not be the entire answer, it may well be a critical part of the solution. To this end, I never, ever talk about culture as the problem and culture change as the solution. Instead, the focus is on the business problem with capability development part of the solution. This is where using business language versus culture speak can make a difference. We start with engaging leaders in conversations about the business problem, not the culture, then expand the conversation to explore capabilities and the changes required to close the gaps that may exist.

Translate Their Role into Tangible Actions

What about convincing leaders to accept their role and lead the way? I’ve found the best approach is to not make this an up-front condition for embarking on culture change. Better yet, don’t talk about it at all until there is something tangible to discuss. Asking leaders to embrace a role that sounds vague, time intensive, uncomfortable and potentially threatening without this is setting ourselves up to fail.

By tangible, I mean the specific actions they need to take to close the capability gaps they identify. This includes behaviors, practices and creating the right set of conditions defined in very concrete terms. If for example, they identify the need for heightened agility, the required actions might include increasing delegation of authority limits, committing to a 24-hour response to requests for decisions, streamlining the approval process to a two-step process, and limiting Legal’s role in decision-making. These are very concrete actions leaders understand and know how to implement. This doesn’t mean they are easy, but they are manageable and achievable. If we accompany the actions with a plan that is realistic and has a high probability for personal and organizational success, we’re off to the races.

By speaking their language, using a business-driven approach and making their role tangible, we have significantly increased the probability that leaders will personally engage in culture change. The good news is this isn’t difficult for most Human Resources and Organization Development/Effectiveness professionals. We’re used to talking about business problems, gaps, solutions and action plans. You can’t be successful without this. All we need to do is apply the same language and approach to culture. The following case study, A Culture Conversation with Bob, provides an example of the first two strategies. Although the specifics vary depending on the situation and leader, the basic conversation framework absent probes and follow-up questions are the same. The topic of tangible actions is explored in a later chapter.

A Culture Conversation with Bob, CEO Transportation Company

The following dialogue is an abbreviated version of a recent conversation with the CEO of a major transportation company. To facilitate the conversation, I always bring a set of Culture Cards and Images with me and pull these out when it makes sense. These types of tools are effective in focusing the conversation on culture without using culture-specific language. The cards I use are from a model based on my research and are consistent with the work of other experts including Geert Hofstede, Roger House and Fons Von Trompenaars.

Question: What challenges are keeping you up at night?

Answer: We must successfully implement several new, large and complex initiatives while at the same time continuing to conduct business-as-usual and meet market expectations. This involves doing things we’ve never done before. I’m concerned that we won’t be able to deliver; that we’ll fail to deliver the expected financial results. If this happens, we will be under even more pressure and closer scrutiny than ever making it increasingly difficult to do what we need to do.

Question: What does success look like?

Answer: The bottom line is we hit our numbers and meet or exceed market expectations. This requires that we launch our new low-cost service on time and within budget; drastically reduce operating costs in our existing lines of business; and, complete a major technology upgrade without disrupting the business, on time and within budget. At the same time, we must maintain or improve our current level of service to our customers, retain our top talent and attract new employees with the skills we need for the future. I’m not optimistic. We’re already experiencing delays that are threatening both the launch of the new service and the systems upgrade.

Question: What could cause you to fail?

Answer: It’s too much. We’re stretched very thin given our current resources and capacity. People are already showing signs of burnout and I’m very worried we’re going to start losing not just our top talent but also the people we need to keep our core business running. Ideally, I would like to focus on streamlining work processes, getting rid of waste and increasing capacity before launching the new service offer and doing the technology upgrade. The problem is we can’t wait. We’re already being threatened by the imminent arrival of new competitors who are entering our market with a low-cost service. Our existing technology is old and can’t handle what we need it to do to be able to compete. Bottom-line is we must figure out how to make it all happen.

Question: What capabilities are needed to successfully meet these challenges and deliver the expected results? Capabilities are the abilities required to achieve your goals.

Answer: First, we need project management skills to make sure we plan and implement the changes effectively and efficiently. That’s why we’ve set up a Project Management Office to work with the business teams. Second, we must execute with excellence which requires discipline and doing things right the first time. We don’t have a good track record at this. We’re great at generating ideas but pathetic when it comes to execution and follow through.  Collaboration across groups is another area where we fall short. The challenges we’re facing aren’t isolated to one group or another. It is going to take all parts of the business working together to be successful. We can’t continue to fight over resources and have competing priorities. We must be aligned with our priorities. This means accepting that some groups are going to get more than others. This is simply the way it is. We only have so many resources and we need to use them where it matters most.  At the same time, we can’t lose sight of our people. We must show they are valued, and we care. Managers are going to have to spend time communicating and listening and do the big and little things required to keep their staff engaged. We cannot afford to lose talent due to stress and burnout. We also absolutely must stay focused on our customers and continue to deliver the exceptional experience we’re known for. This has been a key differentiator for us, and we can’t let it suffer, especially with all the changes happening and potential for uncertainty in how we are covered in the media. Finally, we absolutely must meet our numbers. Failure to achieve our financial targets would be disastrous. Funding for capital projects would be pulled back impacting our ability to move forward with the initiatives we must implement to keep pace with our competitors.

Question: What capabilities are existing strengths? Strengths are capabilities to protect and use to address the business challenge.

Answer: Our strengths are employee engagement, customer focus and doing what it takes to get results.

Employee Engagement. Our employees really care about our customers, the company and each other. They are passionate and take great pride in our successes. We need to protect this as it may be at risk given what I’m hearing about employee burnout.

Customer Focus. A big part of who we are is our commitment to providing every customer with a great experience. We genuinely care and treat each customer as a friend, family and neighbor. Our challenge is to find a balance between doing what is best for a single customer with what is best for all customers and the company. While this is a strength, it is also a challenge we are going to have to address.

Results Focus. Our employees step up and do whatever it takes to meet commitments, although this is becoming increasingly difficult. They must overcome significant obstacles such as broken processes, lousy technology and heavy workloads to make this happen. I’m seeing some cracks. We are still delivering on the big things, but people are taking shortcuts, which is causing issues with quality. Some of the lesser priorities are also being missed as employees make choices where they direct their time and energy. We have to be careful they focus on the right things, which means being very clear and consistent when setting priorities.

Culture Strategy Fit's Culture Cards Product

Culture Strategy Fit’s Culture Cards

Question: What capability gaps do we need to close? Capability gaps are the abilities required but lacking in the organization.

Answer: The main ones are those I already mentioned. Project management skills. Execution excellence.  Collaboration across groups. Managing our resources effectively. Aligning on our priorities. At the same time, we must manage employee burnout and continue to meet or exceed customer expectations while achieving our financial targets. All of these are important. We also have to do a better job communicating what’s happening and why it’s important to our employees.

Question: Select an image that best captures what you mean by [capability gap]. Culture Images are very useful in facilitating this discussion. I bring a set of 20 and asked Bob to pick one.

Note: The purpose of the image is to avoid the assumptions that often accompany words. For example, agility means different things to different people. To some, it means full autonomy to make decisions. To others, it is an approach borrowed from agile development in software engineering.

Answer: Bob selected an image of a chef’s kitchen in a high-end restaurant.  

Question: Why did you select this image?

High end kitchen with everyone knowing their responsibilities

Changing the Organizational Culture – Engage the Leader

Answer: A kitchen in a high-end restaurant runs like a well-oiled machine. Every person in that kitchen knows exactly what they need to do to make sure they deliver a meal that meets or exceeds their customers’ expectations. There are distinct roles with different responsibilities,but they work together seamlessly. They have the best of tools, such as equipment, food and so on, available to them. They are efficient and effective and do not waste resources. Everyone knows what they need to do, pay attention to detail, communicate and meet their commitments. They trust each other implicitly. They have exceptionally high standards and execute flawlessly. They deliver.

We need to be like this. We need to work together and execute seamlessly, work together, communicate and get results with the customer front and center at all times.

Question: What changes are needed to make this happen?

Note: Time permitting, this is an opportunity to get leaders starting to think about possible solutions.

Answer: The most pressing priority is to create capacity for the major initiatives we have planned. We need to stop doing things that aren’t adding value, streamline decision-making, get rid of out-dated policies and processes and anything else that is not essential. It also means saying no to new opportunities, no matter how tempting they are…we aren’t good at this. We like to chase after shiny new things. We also have to put a stop to some of the things we would like to do but simply can’t because of resources. This means discontinuing work on several important initiatives currently underway. People aren’t going to like this.

In other words, we can’t be a well-oiled machine without making some fundamental changes. We have to strengthen our foundation by getting back to basics. And, we must do it together as a team. Every leader and employee must get on board and do what is needed for us to be successful. We can’t continue to operate in fiefdoms protecting turf and resources.

End of conversation.

In Summary

The conversation with Bob is an example of a culture conversation that isn’t about culture. It is about the business. The challenges keeping him up at night. The obstacles getting in the way. The capabilities required. The changes needed. This might seem disingenuous and, to a point, it is. It is also effective. By speaking his language and focusing on the business, we are operating in his world of hard facts and concrete actions. This is something every leader can relate to. After all, problem-solving is what they are good at.

In fact, it is something every person working in or with an organization learns if they are to be successful. This means you are probably already doing this. If you are in Human Resources, you deal with business problems and solutions all the time. The difference is you can use words like talent acquisition and leaders know what you mean. You don’t have to translate this for them. If you’re having trouble attracting the right people, leaders understand the implications. The difference with culture is we have to make it understandable. We have to translate a ‘soft’ and vague concept into something concrete and relatable. Only by speaking their language, using a business-driven approach and defining tangible actions do we have a realistic chance of engaging leaders in a meaningful way in culture change.

In sum, leader engagement in culture change is absolutely essential but very difficult to achieve. There are so many obstacles getting in the way. To overcome them requires a new way of thinking, talking and approaching culture and culture change. It requires a paradigm shift.

Dr. Nancie Evans

Dr. Nancie Evans is co-founder and VP Client Solutions at Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. specializing in the alignment of organizational culture and strategy. She has developed a unique set of leading-edge diagnostic tools and approaches that provide leaders with deep insights into the culture of their organizations, how it is supporting or getting in the way of strategy execution, as well as the levers that they can use to drive rapid culture change.

Culture-Strategy Fit®

Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. is a leading culture and executive leadership consulting firm conducting groundbreaking work in leveraging culture to drive strategy and performance. It’s suite of culture surveys and culture alignment tools are used by market-leading organizations around the world.

Contact Us

www.culturestrategyfit.com

1.800.976.1660
nancie@culturestrategyfit.com

How To Assimilate Remote Workers Into Your Company’s Culture

image showing how to implement a culture change with remote workers.

More and more, companies are turning to remote workers to help boost their revenue. According to a report from SurePayroll, 86 percent of employees say they hit “maximum productivity” when they work alone, and two-thirds of managers say remote employees are by far the most productive. Not only that, but remote workers reduce a company’s overhead and can significantly help drive-down costs. With this shift towards remote workers, how can you help them to feel like they are a part of the culture? Here are a few key ways to help remote workers successfully assimilate into a company’s culture.

Make Them Feel Welcome

Working from a remote location can be difficult – especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Being separated from other employees, the feeling of isolation and possibly even loneliness can sink in quickly. That is why it is critical that you go the extra mile to ensure that all your employees – regardless of their physical location – feel a strong sense of belonging in your company.

Make sure that all of your employees understand the importance of communicating and collaborating with your entire team and encourage them to reach out to remote workers and to introduce themselves and chat in a natural way. Bonding between your team is essential for the continued success of your brand – and the assimilation of your culture across various locations.

Managers can help by getting to know remote workers on a personal level. A weekly phone or video call that includes some time getting to know each other can be very effective. Acknowledging personal and family milestones and accomplishments with things like birthday cards and congratulatory notes can also go a long way to helping people feel valued.

Connect Without the Need for Regular Meetings

The key to assimilating remote employees with your in-house company culture is by bridging the gaps that exist between your offices and external employees by establishing regular communication channels.  Once you have established these lines of communication, the next step is to use them regularly.

Technology plays a critical role in successful communication between teams and can be your company’s best weapon.  While many businesses rely on e-mail as a go-to platform, live-video conferencing through Facetime, Zoom and Skype are excellent for helping establish familiarity and eliminate confusion and mixed messages which can result from simple e-mail messaging. Instant messaging platforms are also great for group conversation and allow a level of informality which can help foster positive relationships between teams and reinforce company culture.

Encourage Cross-Collaboration

Cross-collaboration should be encouraged at every opportunity. By empowering and encouraging your employees to collaborate, people in disparate locations can better understand the various people and projects of your company. Not only that, but collaboration is a great way for your employees to better understand each other’s abilities, personalities, and working style; allowing for interpersonal and inter-team relationships to grow and thrive, regardless of location.

Establishing constant (or at least frequent) interactions should be your team’s top priority – especially if they have remote workers. By fostering these interactions, along with strong leadership, you can ensure feedback loops will help improve performance and help your company culture thrive.

Involve Remote Workers in Important Matters

Remote workers often get overlooked when it comes to getting employee ideas and feedback on proposed changes, decisions and solutions to problems. This is because it is faster and easier to ask people who are readily available for their input. The problem is this ignores potentially valuable insights from remote workers and serves to make them feel less valued than people who work at a company location.

While it takes more time and effort to involve remote workers, especially those in different time zones, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Make inclusion a norm by establishing practices that make remote workers part of the discussion. With the technology tools available, this isn’t difficult. It just takes a bit of thought and patience.

Make It Clear How They Make a Difference

People want to do meaningful and challenging work. When they do, they feel more engaged and motivated to perform to their best. A common problem with remote work is compartmentalization. Remote workers are often assigned specific tasks and narrow roles which can be performed, for the most part, independent of others. This contributes to feelings of isolation and raises questions regarding the value of their work.

Providing a clear line of sight from their work to the end-product is one strategy that is very effective in engaging remote workers. When they can see the final product and how their piece fits, they understand how their work is important. This also encourages them to come forward with suggestions and ideas to improve and enhance the end-product. They feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves which is exciting.

Looking for Help With Your Company’s Culture?

Maintaining corporate culture can seem like a daunting task, especially during periods of growth, but it doesn’t have to be. Culture has a high capacity to help businesses achieve genuinely great things. If you need help defining or improving your business’s culture, check out some of Culture-Strategy Fit’s excellent cultural products and services, or give us a call today at (800) 976-1660 for a free consultation.

 

Dr. Nancie Evans

Dr. Nancie Evans is co-founder and VP Client Solutions at Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. specializing in the alignment of organizational culture and strategy. She has developed a unique set of leading-edge diagnostic tools and approaches that provide leaders with deep insights into the culture of their organizations, how it is supporting or getting in the way of strategy execution, as well as the levers that they can use to drive rapid culture change.

Culture-Strategy Fit®

Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. is a leading culture and executive leadership consulting firm conducting groundbreaking work in leveraging culture to drive strategy and performance. It’s suite of culture surveys and culture alignment tools are used by market-leading organizations around the world.

Contact Us

www.culturestrategyfit.com

1.800.976.1660
nancie@culturestrategyfit.com

Culture Change: What and Why

Healthy Company culture supported by audience of employees applauding

Culture is something that permeates and affects every aspect of a company. It is more than values, more than people, more than their behavior and more than their relationships. A company’s culture is about its underlying beliefs and assumptions that guide action and that are learned and shared by members of groups as they strive to achieve the organization’s goals and fulfill its purpose.

Culture Change: Getting Off To The Right Start

In order to change or improve upon your company’s culture, you must first understand it, and the only way to understand it is to ask the right questions. If you simply ask employees to describe the culture or tell you how “things get done around here,” you’re probably going to get blank stares. This is where the who, why and what culture conversation can help.

culture conversationQuestion #1 – Who?

Who should participate in the conversation? The answer is simply anyone and everyone – the more the better. Of course, this may not be possible for practical reasons. The important thing is diversity. You want to engage people at different levels, genders, tenure, professions, locations and so on. Ideally, those involved are credible influencers, the people others look to for guidance, as they can spread understanding and help shift the culture if needed. If you can add the perspective of people outside the organization, even better. Outsiders often notice things that insiders are oblivious to. This might include customers, suppliers, analysts or even competitors.

Question #2 – Why?

The conversation starts with generating a whole pile of ‘Why’ questions that begin with ‘Why do we do X this way?’ where X is replaced with descriptions drawn from people’s experience. For example, why do Maple Leaf players stay at a hotel when they are in Toronto for a playoff game? Why do the Leaf’s suspend players who are late for a practice? Why do they have a Father and Son weekend? Generate as many questions as possible and don’t worry about filtering or critiquing them. This comes later. You’re looking for a comprehensive description of the way things get done around here.

Every ‘why’ question has the potential to be meaningful but I like to start with the questions that people want to talk about; where they have the most energy. These are often the ones that are the most revealing. Once you’ve worked through these, you can decide how to handle the others. A word of caution, in an effort to go quickly, people are prone to say that a question is like one that has already been discussed so it can be skipped. A quick test is to go around the room and ask people to say or write down their answers. If something different emerges or views differ, it should be discussed.

As each question is answered, write down the beliefs and assumptions that emerge keeping in mind that people may see things differently. For example, one person might see the Leaf’s Father and Son weekend as nothing more than a perk of the job while someone else believes it symbolizes the importance of family. But, what is ‘family’ and why is it important? You might get to something like we believe a solid support system (including the family at home) is essential for professional hockey players to successfully navigate the good and bad times that all players experience. One way of thinking about this conversation is to recall an interaction with an inquisitive two-year old. Why are you doing that? Buy why? But why? Eventually, you will have developed a core set of beliefs and assumptions. You will know you’re there when every new question results in the same answers or challenges a defined belief.

Question #3 – What?

Chances are good, you will also have a list of ‘why questions’ that don’t fit with the belief system. For example, why aren’t mothers included in the Father and Son weekend? Aren’t they part of the player’s support system? Does this mean mothers aren’t as important as fathers? This leads to the ‘What’ question which is “What does this say about our beliefs?” This conversation is about questioning current behaviors, practices, and ways of doing things to identify inconsistencies that send mixed messages and serve to undermine the culture. It can, however, also raise questions about the core beliefs and assumptions.

What is to say that the outliers aren’t actually better or more appropriate for the organization? This introduces a new line of questioning. It starts with a macro question such as what is our vision, mission and/or purpose? What is our strategy? What do our customers expect/need? Given this, do our existing beliefs and assumptions make sense or do they need to change?

The bottom line is that what worked in the past may not be what is needed to be successful today and in the future. To use an example from the corporate world, an organization may have been successfully operating with the belief that the best way to mitigate risk is through a system of controls that includes restrictive delegation of authority and hierarchical decision-making. But what if the world around them starts to change and they need to be able to make decisions and change directions quickly to remain competitive? The existing belief system now acts as a barrier. Unless this is changed, and with it, related behaviors, practices, and structures, the culture will get in the way of any effort to be agile.

The Importance Of The Why and What of Culture Change

People learn and remember things by being explicit about them. If an employee is doing something in a certain way, say a way that is not ideal for the organization, they may simply be doing it that way because they never thought about it. But when you draw information from people via what and why style culture conversations, you naturally get them to consider their behaviors in a more critical way than they would have otherwise. Moreover, when you come across cultural problems in these conversations people feel they are in part responsible for identifying them, and when people feel they helped to identify a problem, they are more likely to help you fix it. What and why conversations are a powerful and effective technique to help people understand their company’s culture in a meaningful way. Meaningful, especially, in that they can reveal the beliefs, assumptions, and values that are deeply embedded in the collective psyche of an organization.

If You Need Help With Culture Change, We’re Here to Help

Changing corporate culture can seem like a daunting task but it doesn’t have to be. Culture has a high capacity to help businesses achieve genuinely great things. If you need help defining or changing your business’s culture, check out some of Culture-Strategy Fit’s excellent cultural products and services, or give us a call today at (800) 976-1660 for a free consultation.

Dr. Nancie Evans

Dr. Nancie Evans is co-founder and VP Client Solutions at Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. specializing in the alignment of organizational culture and strategy. She has developed a unique set of leading-edge diagnostic tools and approaches that provide leaders with deep insights into the culture of their organizations, how it is supporting or getting in the way of strategy execution, as well as the levers that they can use to drive rapid culture change.

Culture-Strategy Fit®

Culture-Strategy Fit Inc. is a leading culture and executive leadership consulting firm conducting groundbreaking work in leveraging culture to drive strategy and performance. It’s suite of culture surveys and culture alignment tools are used by market-leading organizations around the world.

Contact Us

www.culturestrategyfit.com

1.800.976.1660
nancie@culturestrategyfit.com

Managing Company Culture in a Growing Brand

company culture

The goal of any brand is to experience continual growth. But, how does this expansion affect the inner workings of the brand and the company itself? How can you make sure that your company’s culture, or ethos, can survive rapid growth? Or can you? Fortunately, there are steps you can take to ensure your culture survives rapid change. Here are some useful tips for managing company culture in a growing brand.

Culture Change and Growth

First things first. Business leaders all too often mistake the superficial for the important. This is especially true when it comes to company culture. Sure, you may have video games for employees, and your dress code is relaxed, but if that’s what you think company culture is, you’re in for a rude awakening.

When companies scale up, they often try to retain an aesthetic sense of their old self without maintaining their original ethics or the personnel that led to growth in the first place. Then, once they’ve grown, the leaders will look around and notice the company is missing “something,” but can’t figure out what.

What that “something” is is the culture of the company. So, how can you help to prevent this “something” from disappearing?

Plan Ahead

The best place to start when it comes to maintaining a corporate culture is by having a sound plan of attack. Knowing your goals and having a clear idea of how you plan to achieve them allows you to anticipate problems which may occur and provides the foresight of knowing how to react to changing circumstances.

When you take the time to strategize your company’s culture, consider the following critical questions:

  • How are you planning to help your team grow in both knowledge and capabilities?
  • How are you ensuring your team both understands and performs to your expectations?
  • What’s your plan to keep your team’s mind and heart focused on your company?
  • How do you make sure your team is feeling valued and appreciated?

By considering these fundamental questions, you not only establish a system of trust but also provides a thriving working environment where your team can flourish professionally and enjoy long-term loyalty

managing company cultureHire Rigorously

Growth often means that leading team members shift their roles. This is especially true when it comes to hiring new employees. As companies increase in size, key management figures may change their focus from interviewing prospective team members to overseeing various departments. Once these crucial managers are no longer involved with candidate interviews, the personality of any new hires will differ from the previous standards. This shift in employee hires can quickly dilute a brand’s culture by hiring for labor purposes instead of organizational fit.

The hiring practice isn’t just about filling seats. The very future of a brand rests upon the quality of its hiring practices. By adopting a well-defined and disciplined hiring procedure, you can ensure you get the very best fits for the position – and your company. The right hiring procedure starts by treating every prospective candidate as a prospective employee. Show them you value their time – it goes a long way in showing them how your brand values its employees. You should also avoid decisions based on gut instincts. Take the time to get to know the candidate and how they see themselves fitting into your company – and see if that conforms to your vision.

Avoid Employee Churn

As hiring processes change a company’s culture, employee turnover increases. As turnover increases, key members of your original team may seek new opportunities. Employee churn and rigorous hiring methods go hand in hand. When a company grows, make sure that current personnel is retained over new hires. Those jumping ship are often unsure of their new role within a fast-changing corporation or feel isolated or under-valued as a result of the new ethos or hiring procedures. Value your team and hold on to them. They are the embodiment of your company and your brand – cherish them. There will always be turnover at a company. It’s how you handle this turnover which dictates if a company’s ethos and culture wither or thrive.

If You Need Help Developing or Sustaining a Winning Culture, We’re Here to Help

Maintaining corporate culture can seem like a daunting task, especially during periods of growth, but it doesn’t have to be. Culture has a high capacity to help businesses achieve genuinely great things. If you need help defining or improving your business’s culture, check out some of Culture-Strategy Fit’s excellent cultural products and services, or give us a call today at (800) 976-1660 for a free consultation.

Creating A Culture Champions Network

culture champions network

Defining a company’s culture can be tricky. Actually changing that culture can be even tougher. One effective way to drive internal change, however, is through what is known as “culture champions.” Here is our helpful guide on creating a culture champions network.

culture champions networkWhat Exactly are “Champions Networks?”

Just like every single company is different, so is every single company’s culture. What is a company culture, anyway? Well, it’s something that we know quite a bit about here at Culture-Strategy Fit – after all, it’s what we do. A company’s culture is the dynamic ethos that can either drive workers together or drive them apart. As Medium notes, a company’s culture, “is inclusive of the things that make an organization great, but also the things that serve as a drawback.”

So, how does a “champions network” fit into company culture? Put simply, champions are those individuals who not only set the example of excellence for other employees but also generate the enthusiasm and buzz which inspires them. In the book, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference,” author Malcolm Gladwell states, “If you want to bring fundamental change in people’s beliefs and behavior, you need to create a community around them, where those new beliefs can be practiced and expressed and nurtured.”

What does this mean? It means change can’t happen as the result of just one person – you need a team to grow momentum.

Creating a Culture Champions Network

So, how does a company go about building a network of culture champions? It isn’t an overnight process – after all, if it were easy to do, everyone would have implemented it by now. However, there are specific steps which can be taken to build a network of champions in your company:

  • Have a clear purpose as to why exactly you need champions, what you need them to do, and say how you plan to get them to where they need to be.
  • Make the role of a champion prestigious, by adding to others’ impressions of the role: perhaps adding an official title, opening up the position to nominations, or other such ideas.
  • Be patient with the program to ensure your champions have the time needed to grow and engage with the role fully.
  • Give your champions the trust they need to empower them to lead by example.
  • Get your senior leadership to endorse the program, giving it a greater sense of legitimacy.
  • Coach your champions and provide them with the proper training they need to be effective.
  • Check in regularly with your champions to build relationships with them.
  • Encourage your leaders to support each other.

Once you have built your network of culture champions and begin to see the benefits they bring, it is essential that you have a plan of action to ensure that your network survives and thrives.

If You Need Help Developing or Sustaining a Winning Culture, We’re Here to Help

Inspiring cultural change can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Culture has a great capacity to help businesses achieve truly great things. If you need help defining or improving your business’s culture, check out some of Culture-Strategy Fit’s excellent cultural products and services, or give us a call today at 1 (800) 976-1660 for a free consultation.

Mergers & Acquisitions – The Case for Culture

In 2015 a global Fortune 100 company asked us to conduct research to determine if including culture in merger and acquisition due diligence and integration activities would be a worthwhile investment. Interviews were conducted with seven of its leaders involved in both large and small acquisitions in five regions of the world. We probed to find out what was working and not working in recent acquisitions and what support or tools would provide value.

The research findings clearly indicated the need for a consistent, practical approach that leaders, HR/OD and integration team members can use to identify culture synergies and tensions. The result was the development of a set of culture tools that were integrated into merger and acquisition due diligence and integration activities. This article summarizes the key findings from this research.

Is Paying Attention to Culture a Worthwhile Investment

The research revealed that without a disciplined approach to culture assessment, the company faced rapid erosion of the value of its acquisitions. Loss of critical talent, lagging productivity, compliance and risk management issues and delayed integration were just some of the issues described by leaders when culture was not on the agenda as part of their M&A due diligence and integration planning.

Understanding Cultural Differences affects the Success of M&As

The degree of effort invested in understanding cultural differences affected the success of the acquisition. While some acquisitions moved slowly and carefully in order to ‘not break what is working’, others followed an aggressive timeline. The less attention that is given to culture, the higher the risk of problems during integration such as:

  • The acquired company was not prepared for the level of compliance and metrics that the company demanded and almost lost all of their key employees in the first 3-6 months.
  • Serious compliance issues were experienced due to a difference in beliefs regarding the need to follow rules.
  • Unclear communications and high volume of integration-related activities disrupted work and put the retention of top talent at risk.
  • Misalignment in what people were told to expect and what actually happened resulted in 50% of staff at one acquisition, the best people, leaving the company.

Where People are Key to Success, a Culture Assessment is Essential

Leaders said a culture assessment was essential for all acquisitions where people are key to success.

  • Some leaders couldn’t think of a case when it isn’t needed while others thought that it is vital where human capital is key to value.
  • There was some agreement that where product lines or contracts are the purchased asset, culture only needs to be monitored and a quick scan approach could be sufficient.
  • For companies that are founder-led and start-ups where culture shock can quickly impact productivity and retention of employees and customers, leaders believe a culture assessment process is vital to success.

A Culture Assessment Prevents Many M&A Pitfalls

Leaders indicated that a culture assessment could have helped avoid and/or be better prepared to address challenges often encountered during a merger or acquisition. Specifically, it could help them to:

  • Identify non-negotiable areas that lead to No Go decisions earlier (i.e. lack of high ethical standards).
  • Predict problems and avoid early missteps by better understanding the impact of decisions before implementing them.
  • Develop a robust integration plan that prevents loss of asset value (key accounts, top talent).
  • Improved ability to sequence and phase integration to minimize disruption of work.
  • Understand people’s appetite for change and tailor change management and communications plans accordingly resulting in less angst, resistance and attrition.
  • Build communications that explain why and what will happen that connects with people and will be heard.
  • Manage expectations and set a pace of change to manage risk.
  • Create opportunities to gain the buy-in and support of acquisition leaders and other critical resources thereby decreasing the risk of attrition.

 

M&A Culture Assessment is Key to Success

Identify Cultural Differences Early in the Acquisition Process

Leaders believe culture should be assessed, when possible, early in due diligence to no later than 30 days after close to get the maximum benefit.

  • Pre-close was ideal to provide input to the decision to move forward with a deal.
  • Post-changeover efforts are valuable inputs to integration plans.
  • Even later in the process, culture tensions can be identified and addressed.

Sponsorship by Business Unit Executives makes a Difference

Leaders emphasized that active business unit sponsorship was very important to ensure players are aligned and doing what is needed for the acquisition to be successful. Examples were provided where direct intervention by the senior executive led to better decisions and prevented actions that were detrimental to the success of the acquisition. For example, senior executives:

  • Slowed down integration activities that were disrupting the business and affecting acquisition ability to achieve financial results.
  • Delayed implementing changes until there was a better understanding of the potential impact on the business.
  • Acted as an advocate for the acquisition when decisions were being made by functions.

Involve Leaders of the Acquired Company Immediately After Close

It is critical to engage leaders in the acquired company as soon as possible after the close, preferably on Day One or, at the latest, within the first 30 days. In addition to building trust and strengthening relationships, this helps the acquirer to learn why things are the way they are and understand the implications of potential changes. This would also allow for the timely communication of integration plans to employees, which is important to reduce anxiety and maintain productivity during the transition. Engaging leaders is most effective when the acquirer:

  • Spends time with local leaders and their teams, not just senior leaders.
  • Uses focus groups to engage employees and get their input to change plans.
  • Provides clear communications about the rationale for the acquisition and plan.
  • Engages department heads of both businesses in the culture dialogue.

 

The Outcome – A Set of Culture Tools for M&A

The outcome of this research was the development of a set of culture tools to support the M&A process.

  • Culture Due Diligence process and tools that are used in the early stages of due diligence.
  • Culture Integration process and tools for identifying cultural similarities and differences, including areas of synergy and tension.

Used pre- or post-changeover, the tools provide due diligence and integration of team members, HR and top leaders with the kind of information needed to support decision making, communications and transition planning.
With a streamlined process and a small set of highly informative tools and processes, the client now has an M&A culture game plan for more effective integration planning that will protect the value of the asset.

Download a copy of this article here.

How To Use A Network Of Practices To Shape And Change Culture

corporate culture

Creating a culture by design is not easy, however, it is possible with the potential to achieve concrete results in a matter of months and not years as popularly believed. We’ve seen numerous examples in all sizes of companies across a wide range of industries and sectors that support this statement. In some cases, the change is dramatic and others less so but in everyone, leaders were the catalyst for the change that occurred. How did they do it? Here’s our guide to how to use a network of practices to shape and change culture.

How Are You Trying To Change Your Company’s Culture?

The first thing to understand is that in order to shift your company’s culture you have to identify some specific characteristics that you want to change. It is not enough to simply say “I want to improve my company’s culture.” You must know what exactly you want to change/improve and implement a related set of behaviors, practices and action strategies. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. Just focus on a few things and do them consistently, preferably with others. Let’s look at an example.

Challenging the Status Quo

In many organizations, days, weeks, months and even years go by with people doing the same thing the same way. In some cases, this is because of the current way of doing things works. It is the most effective and efficient approach currently known and available. The problem is that things change. The external environment is constantly in a state of flux challenging organizations to keep pace or fall behind. The emergence of new technologies, improved methods, and processes, new knowledge, competitors and innovations happen all the time.  To thrive in this environment, organizations must be alert to what is happening in the world around them while at the same time questioning and challenging existing assumptions and searching for new and better ways of doing things.

Behaviors

Walk around and observe the work that is being done in your area or organization.

  • Ask yourself, ‘why are we doing things this way?’
  • If you can’t answer the question or are unhappy with your answer, ask the people performing the work the same question then ask, is there a better way of doing this? or what is stopping us from doing this another way?

Ask ‘what if’

  • This is a powerful phrase as it often involves questioning another person’s actions but in a way that invites dialogue and encourages them to consider alternative approaches and scenarios.
  • Look for situations where actions are being taken or decisions made because this is the way things have always been done.

Operating Practices

Use problem-solving situations to ask ‘what if’.

  • Encourage others to also ask ‘what if’ by avoiding getting to a solution too quickly.
  • Use a rapid brainstorming technique to surface as many ideas as possible as quickly as possible.
  • Make it a rule that there is no critiquing of ideas until all possibilities are on the table.
  • Consider inviting people who are outside or removed from the situation or problem to participate. They can sometimes be a source of ideas that people close to the situation can’t see.

Use problems, ideas and feedback from customers to identify and act on improvement opportunities.

  • Create an on-line ‘suggestion box’ using a template that allows type classification and sorting.
  • The suggestion box can be organized by an initial set of categories based on known problems and/or core business processes and work activities.
  • It is important to allow more categories to be created as new issues and opportunities are encountered.
  • Make sure to include at least one field to capture suggestions, recommendations, and ideas.
  • Ask people to log the problems they encounter, suggestions for improvement, feedback from their customers, missed deadlines and deliverables, and so on.
  • This can be anything that they want. Do NOT restrict the information that they enter.
  • Set up a schedule to review each category, analyze the contents and develop action plans.
  • Consider creating teams that have ownership for different categories and/or issues and opportunities.

Search Practices

Schedule a half day every month where employees can try out new approaches or experiment with new ways of doing things

  • Structure these around key responsibility areas or core processes.
  • People should be involved in things that they have an interest or stake in.
  • Provide an approach to help them get started (see Fostering Creativity for suggestions) and consider using a facilitator until they learn how to do this effectively.
  • This is an opportunity for people to try out things they’ve thought of in the past but has never been implemented or to take the time to think about and try ‘what ifs’. For example, “what if we stopped doing this?” or “what if we tried doing this differently?”

Use an approach such as Google’s grouplets: The Google Way: Give Engineers Room – New York Times to encourage people to voluntarily work on things that interest them.

  • Google provides its engineers with 20% of their time to work on things that interest them.
  • They can do this on their own or, as happens a lot of the time, in teams called ‘grouplets’.
  • The grouplets have no budget or decision-making authority. They have people who are committed to an idea and willing to work to convince others to adopt it.
  • There isn’t a formal approval process or directives from senior management. The burden is on the grouplet members to convince others.
  • To minimize the risk of misalignment and duplicated effort, grouplet organizers meet once a  week to review what is happening.

Action Strategies

Hold a scenario planning workshop.

  • Scenario planning involves extrapolating a number of possible futures based on known factors and plausible trends. This encourages people to ‘think the unthinkable’.
  • After the future scenarios are identified, people work together to answer questions such as, “what do we need to do now to be ready for all possible scenarios?” This leads to the development of action plans that, when effective, address the majority of scenarios the organization may face.
  • Information on how to conduct scenario planning is available at the following link: http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk/tools/scenario-planning.

Ask your team to read and discuss what can be learned from the Superstruct Game that was conducted in 2008 and played by over 8,000 people from around the world.

  • The game archive can be found at: Welcome to the Superstruct Game Archive
  • The game required players to forecast future scenarios for the year 2019. It provides an excellent example of a large scale scenario planning exercise. You can use insights gained from the Superstruct approach and its outcomes to conduct a scenario planning exercise in your organization.

Organize an external search initiative.

  • Invite people to participate in an initiative to explore what other organizations in other industries or sectors are doing and how you might be able to apply this to your organization.
  • Select an industry or organization that is very different from yours and has a reputation for excelling in something that you are interested in or need e.g. a hospital system striving to embed patient-centered care in its culture might research an organization known to excel in providing an outstanding customer experience.
  • Ask people to answer one question such as “what is this organization doing that makes them excel at…”
  • They can do this in small teams or individually.
  • Set a time frame that is realistic but not too long for their research.
  • If possible, provide an opportunity for them to visit the target organization or meet in person or virtually with people in relevant roles so they can see and hear for themselves what the other organization is doing.
  • Consider providing people with time to do the exercise e.g. ½ day booked off from other work activities.
  • Bring everyone together at the end of the research period to do some brainstorming (or other creative problem-solving technique) of ideas that can be applied in your organization.

Question the existing belief system of your organization.

  • A belief is an approach, way of working and so on that people view as required to be successful. For example, look at the way important decisions are made. If these are made by consensus, it likely indicates the belief that the collective makes better quality decisions than individuals or taking the time to get everyone in agreement means that implementation will be faster and smoother.
  • Be warned that this is not an easy task. It requires identifying the often unspoken belief systems that have been embedded in all aspects of the organization including its structure, processes and so on.

Questions you can ask yourself and others that can be helpful are:

  • What are the ‘sacred cows’ in this organization?
  • These are the inviolable and unspoken rules that everyone must follow. For example, an unspoken rule in an oil company was that, regardless of its perceived value, you must ‘follow the process’, ‘complete the tasks on a checklist’ and so on. This developed from the belief that, as an organization that has the potential to have a massive environmental impact, compliance to policies and processes is essential. This got to the point where there was evidence of unquestioning compliance including the completion of tasks that had no value.

Once you’ve identified a ‘sacred cow’ continue with questions such as…

  • Why do we comply with these unspoken ‘rules’?
  • What would happen if we didn’t do this or did it differently?
  • What is stopping us from doing something different?
  • What do we as a collective believe is important in the way we interact with each other, do our jobs, serve our customers and so on?

How is this revealed in the way we do things on a day-to-day basis?

  • Ask for stories to illustrate the beliefs that are identified. This will help to determine if it is real or hypothetical.
  • What if we did things differently? What would happen?

If you need help shaping or changing your company’s culture check out our products and services at Culture-Strategy Fit today!