How Leadership Changes Culture Part I

Twelve years after launching Walton’s culture change consulting services trademarked as the Culture Compass™, I am finally sitting down to write about six values I’ve learned that define whether an organization can improve their Culture or not. No surprise, but all six values rise and fall on leadership. Before I unpack the six values, let […]

Twelve years after launching Walton’s culture change consulting services trademarked as the Culture Compass™, I am finally sitting down to write about six values I’ve learned that define whether an organization can improve their Culture or not. No surprise, but all six values rise and fall on leadership.

Before I unpack the six values, let me paint the backdrop of how it all began. In 2006, one of my CEO clients in Sarasota, FL shared with me his annual employee engagement survey. Most Type A leaders are charming, demanding, and unlovable, but not Steve. He had a caring heart just below the surface of his Type A layer. Even in his frustration, he oozed care and concern for people. We sat in his office while he shared his most recent employee engagement survey, and because he cared so much, he was frustrated. He didn’t like the pre-formulated questions, and he didn’t know what to do with the report results. He was delivered a canned report with no clear direction. “David,” he asked, “can you build me an employee engagement survey that we can customize around the kind of culture I want to create?” Like all good consultants, I said, “probably, let me do a little research and get back to you.” After I flew home from my monthly trip to sunny Sarasota, I did as I said and began to research and evaluate his request. As I dug around the internet, three data points came to light.

The first data point revealed that most employee engagement surveys were un-customizable. Surveys were built for mass production, not carefully and strategically customized for unique cultures. Why should the 8-year old, first generation, 88-person software development company in San Diego expect to have the same desired culture as the 48-year old, 3rd generation, 268-person manufacturing company in Rochester, NY? To me, that made no sense for the client, but all the sense to the vendors who mass-produced their expertise to increase profit over quality. Their research determined that one of the most important questions that define a good corporate culture is “Do you have a best friend at work.” Really? How does that define one’s culture? I am quite blessed to have had many best friends over the years, but none of them worked with me. Whether my best friend worked in Chicago or with me in Allentown never impacted my like or dislike of corporate culture.

The second data point was that most employee engagement surveys and the firms that employed them were extremely heavy on reporting data overload, but weak on meaningful implementation. Before starting Walton Consulting, Inc. in 2001, I worked for a boutique strategy consulting firm out of Princeton, NJ that developed and delivered high-cost elaborate strategic plans. The client would outwardly applaud the mountain-sized strategic planning document full of analysis, logic, and recommendations. However, inside I am sure they were asking themselves, “what the hell do I do now, and why did I pay so much for something I don’t know what to do with…maybe I should hide it on the bookshelf and refer to it in ‘name’ whenever I want to drive a random point home to my employees.” It is the same way with employee engagement surveys. The client gets a pretty report, but without the creator of the report, the expert on the topic to help with implementation, the report becomes an article of affection or dissatisfaction (depending on the results of course). As with many consultants, the implementation phase becomes an afterthought, a monumental chore that gets swept under the carpet and ignored.

The third data point was an epiphany that corporate culture was the missing cog. At this juncture of Walton, I had been focused on delivering consulting services to CEOs and business owners to help them grow healthy organizations. I was already delivering strategic planning, sales and marketing strategy and leadership recruiting services, all of which helped grow organizations, but the culture cog was missing. As I pondered on the importance of corporate culture, I intuitively understood that the culture cog acted as a fuel valve that could either spur on growth or squelch it. I reflected on how much corporate culture was really the vineyard soil that determined the environment’s capability and capacity for growing good fruit and producing a rich yield.

Wow, I must build this tool for my client I thought. It is not only critical as a foundation for successful organizational growth, but it also fits neatly into my core service offerings focused on “healthy” growth. In 2006 I launched the Culture Compass™. Now, 12 years later, with over 3,000 employees surveyed, and a marketplace foaming at the mouth about culture with quotes like Peter Drucker’s, “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast,” I am ready to share six values that leadership needs to employ if they plan on truly Changing Culture. Check back next issue where I will reveal what they are and why they are so important to growing a healthy organization.

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