Culture change is hard. Whatever the approach, its a long term proposition riddled with ambiguity. If your tasked with leading a culture change initiative and are struggling with a good place to start, I share these four focus areas that really helped me succesfully mobilize my organization on a journey of transformation.
Change is hard. A 2013 study found that 1 in 2 major change initiatives fail to meet their objective. And what about “Culture” change; that nebulous mix of values, behaviors, and beliefs that seems, like an iceberg, to live mostly beneath the surface? These seem to be the trickiest changes of all. Even the mention of a culture initiative is sure to managers cringe and employees eyes roll. But we all know that the world continues to change at an increasing rate of speed and if we don’t work hard to keep our businesses nimble and adaptive, disruption is sure to take us down.
In my work with culture management, I’ve found there are 4 foundational elements that must be the starting point for leaders tasked with shaping their organization’s culture. These are Purpose, Direction, Unity, and Pride.
Purpose. For too long, business leaders have assumed that “creating shareholder value” is the only purpose that matters for a firm. This can no longer be the case. Modern employees and investors alike are more likely to seek an organization with a vision that aligns with their own ethic. It is important for a firm to articulate the higher purpose to which they aspire. Employees in particular want the assurance that their work has meaning, and a clear and inspiring organizational vision can help provide that.
Direction. With purpose made clear through a compelling vision, it’s important to set direction for how you will achieve the vision. A strong statement of strategic intent can provide this direction by clearly identifying the first steps toward the vision. In my experience, if you’re looking to disrupt your culture and force new practices, it’s best to articulate this direction as a form of Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG). The goal should not be a layup. It should cause people to jump out of their seats when they hear it - some with joy and some with anger. Either way, it will be clear this isn’t business as usual. Things will need to change if you’re going to achieve that goal.
Unity. There is absolutely no way you’re firm is going to achieve that BHAG without breaking down silos and building tight, authentic, and supportive relationships across the organization. Leaders can work to translate the purpose and direction for individuals, but it should be clear that everyone has a role in achieving success. To help build unity, I’ve run cross-functional events to build relationships between teams with inherent tensions and ridden our organization of individual department logos and branding, substituting for one brand identity for all.
Pride. The last foundational element for managing culture is employee pride. Celebrate your successes, your diversity, your smart failures, your milestones, your unique talents. Make sure you remind employees why it is so awesome to be a part of your organization. And make sure the outside world knows it too.
If you build a program that exercises all 4 of these elements, you will find yourself with a firm foundation for dealing with the challenges of today’s marketplace.
Launching your culture initiative with a focus on Purpose and Direction clarifies what matters for employees. Building a strong sense of Unity and Pride creates an envirnment that is willing and able to take on the toughest of challenges. The four of these require leaders to be authentic and accountable and all employees to look at the big picture and question how their current practices help or hurt the organization.
Be careful not to simply launch a "campaign" with new vision slogans posted all over the place without any real change to behavior. Employees will see right throught that and you wont reach your BHAG. While visual queues and reminders are important, other more behavioral manifestations are key to generating lasting change. For example, transparency was a key behavior identified by employees as critical to acheiving our vision. Our leadership began an internal podcast series where they shared openly about the content of their staff meetings, articulated priorities, clarified actions needed to meet current business challenges, celebrated milestones and successes, etc. We also built a "project wall" right out in the open, for all employees to review status and current challenges and even contribute ideas to projects aligned with the BHAG.
Start by framing the challenges and opporutunities of your current situation. Get out into the organization and observe whats happening today. Cultivate empathy for employees and the work they do. Seek input from a diverse set of employees as to where they believe we are, where they think wer're headed and where they would like us to be headed. Synthesize their input with the strategic opportunities of the firm and begin drafting your purpose statements. Seek employee input and test these drafts, iterate or pivot until you find one that really resonates. Build the primary narrative, but dont forget to work with individual functions to articulate the secondary narratives that resonate with employees in different parts of the business.