A few issues ago I began unpacking how “leadership changes culture” by giving a backdrop on the creation of The Culture Compass® in 2006 designed to help CEO’s measure and manage culture. I addressed three barriers I learned that were holding back real change; un-customizable employee engagement surveys, a lack of actionable implementation, and the missing culture cog. In this issue, we will jump right into the six leadership factors that change a culture. For the purposes of this article, leadership is defined as the CEO and his or her executive team.
- Leadership Cares
- Leadership Alignment
- Leadership Listens
- Leadership Commitment
- Leadership Implementation
- Leadership Flexibility
There are different reasons why leaders care. I had one client who cared because he was experiencing an employee revolt. He was truly concerned that if he did not get his arms wrapped around his dysfunctional corporate culture that he would have a mass exodus on his hands. Some leaders care because they understand that improved culture leads to improved profitability. Other leaders care because they want to enrich the lives of their employees. Bottom line, the leadership needs to care. A friend and colleague of mine who was the President of a mid-market global firm told me flat out; he just didn’t care. The employees to him were a means to an end. Another human resource colleague of mine cares deeply about changing their culture, but she isn’t the CEO, and without the CEO caring, it will never get the attention it needs.
When beginning a culture change endeavor, the likelihood that the CEO and all of the executive team really cares, views culture impact with the same gravity, and has the same cultural values is rare. For successful culture change to occur, leadership needs to be aligned. This is not an easy task, but my pill for the cure is training. With each culture change engagement I deliver, I interview and train the leadership team together. We review how it impacts their business, and we talk about what kind of culture they have and want. We even design the employee engagement survey together for aligned executive level buy-in. People own what they help to create, so in this manner, the leadership team owns their culture and shifts into alignment.
One of the most important messages you can send to people that follow you is that you listen. That means you ask for opinions and give others an opportunity to influence. When you incorporate a strong feedback mechanism in your employee engagement survey, you create a pathway for communication that fuels employees’ personal value. The key though is to listen. The biggest mistake to corporate culture change is to ask and not act. Essentially communicating that you are not listening. I encourage my clients to respond to culture change feedback even if the ideas cannot be adopted—this reinforces that you have listened.
As a leader of your organization, if you are not ready to commit to the adventure of change, then don’t get off the porch. I mean that—do not start unless you are committed to finish! I have seen firsthand companies that have turned culture change into an organizational minefield. The CEO will tell me it didn’t work, and unfortunately, I have to remind them that they weren’t committed to change and that the entire initiative turned into a hollow promise. Yes, it will backfire if there is a lack of commitment.
As a 20-year consultant veteran, I differentiate myself by emphasizing implementation. When an organization begins culture change, the transformation will only occur through implementation. I do not stop with a report and recommendations. I help my clients build actionable implementation plans. I work with the leadership team to identify and select employees who can play a role in helping the execution of those plans. This spreads the implementation buy-in throughout the company and ensures greater success of implementation. Leadership’s role is to coach and facilitate implementation.
When a company embarks on transforming their corporate culture, they are embarking on a journey into the unknown. Culture is fluid, ever-changing, impacted by the daily weather, disruptive, moody and explosive. During culture change implementation, leaders need to be flexible, understanding that the environment will shift actions and initiative throughout the process. Leaders need to use their corporate values as the compass, to ensure they are going in the right direction, yet be flexible to allow deviations.
Yes, culture change rises and falls on leadership, but a strong culture can make the difference between winning and losing, so I encourage leaders to embrace the challenge and lead their organizations toward a healthy corporate culture.