Friday, February 1, 2013

Today’s Challenge: Culture Change

I spent two days this week with leaders from around the country who specialize in helping organizations thrive. Although our time was focused on how to create high performance teams, we also talked about how to change the culture of an organization. Together, we compiled an impressive list of strategies and tactics.

Culture Change

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how to make your culture a competitive advantage. That post featured four ideas: Select for Culture, Leverage Core Values, Model the Way and Attack the Gaps.

I stand by those recommendations, but what else can a leader do when a fundamental change in the culture is needed? Here are four additional ideas for your consideration.

1. Listen to learn – This is not just listening to create the impression that you are a compassionate, caring leader. Nor is it a strategy to create buy-in for what you’ll ultimately propose. It really is to learn. You may learn why things have been done the way they have, maybe you’ll learn the story behind the current culture, you will probably learn what has worked in the past and you may learn who the key influencers are in the organization.

2. Affirm the best of the past – It is okay for leaders to change things. Leaders know progress is always preceded by change. However, many leaders make the change harder than it has to be; they get off to a bad start because they only see the negatives in their new team/organization. Everything about the existing culture is not bad. By highlighting the positives, you show honor to the people and the system you are about to change.

3. Share the new vision – Tell people about your preferred picture of the future. I’ve written previously about how to communicate vision. This is a critical part of the change process. Yes, you can mandate some level of change, but you cannot mandate buy-in, engagement and support. You can generate these things if you can create a compelling picture of the future – one that is mutually beneficial for all involved.

4. Burn the ships – You may remember the story of Cortes. He and his men landed on the shore of Mexico in 1519. No army had ever retrieved the treasures of the Aztecs and returned safely home. After his men disembarked, he gave the orders to destroy the ships. Cortez sent a clear message that day – they were not turning back. And, if they did go home, it would be aboard ships provided by their captured enemy. When we attempt the challenging work of changing a culture, we’ve got to be sure people know we’re serious – no turning back – burn the ships!

What advice do you have for a leader trying to change a culture?

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Comments (10)
  1. Pingback: Burn the Ships « Go, Leader, Grow!

  2. AN organization should use an internal brand to communicate and emphasize the importance of the message

    - loranger
    • I agree – unfortunately, many organizations haven’t given this enough thought. A brand, internal or external, is extremely powerful. Thanks for taking time to comment! Mark

  3. Excellent two days Mark! Your mastery and passion for high performance teams is contagious!!

    - Tommy
  4. These are very good tactics for changing a company’s culture. It can also work well to let employees know they are part of that culture. I wrote about that aspect at

    - Bert Purdy
    • Thank you, Bert! I look forward to reading your thoughts! Mark

  5. leaders have to “walk the talk” – their actions have to follow their words. leaders are only as good as their direct reports who are only as good as their direct reports and so on and so on – as culture is shaped from the very top on down….

    - pam nochlin
    • Pam, thanks for taking time to comment. i agree completely – leaders who fail to walk the talk, fail. Mark

  6. When working with my clients on culture change (which is just about all the time), I use an “Awareness – Action – Accountability” framework. Specifically, I begin with the CEO’s self-awareness – what they’re great at and what might get in their way (and the organization’s) when introducing change. I like the DiSC assessment as it is accurate and productive. In my experience, the team can’t change – and certainly not the organization – if the CEO isn’t willing to do so first. Self-awareness is the first step in this journey. We then move into action (vision for the future; action steps) and accountability (measurements of success). Much easier said than done but I have found this approach has a much greater chance of success. Thanks.

    - Ellyn McKay
    • Thanks for your comment! I agree – when the senior leader is grounded in reality, that’s the perfect place to begin any change effort. However, I have seen grass roots change efforts succeed as well. But, given the choice, I’ll ALWAYS take senior leader support. Thanks for taking time to share your experience with the Great Leaders Serve community! Mark