Tag Archives: Leaders

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.

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 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 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 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.

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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