The biggest question I am ever asked is undoubtedly, “how do I change or better the culture of my organization?”
Leaders often wonder why they can’t get any measurable improvements in culture when they are making the changes they know are necessary. They present new vision. They change a few policies and maybe even a fresh look on their brand. They may even replace a few key people. But nothing substantive changes.
The problem is that culture is largely invisible to those inside of it. It’s like water to a fish, air to a bird. It’s simply the environment we live in. Sometimes the biggest challenge we face as leaders is actually recognising the temperature of our culture.
I encountered this when I had the opportunity to lead a small volunteer base of 60 people a number of years ago in a not-for-profit called Challenger. As an outsider, I was immediately aware of the culture. There were many aspects of it I loved, but I knew there were changes I needed to make to improve the operating results.
One misconception is that many leaders believe that culture is peripheral to productivity. That having a workplace with a poor culture is ok as long as productivity is high. I can categorically confirm that in my experience that negative culture equals negative productivity. This can be apparent with high turnover of staff for example. An organization that has great culture not only has high productivity but has longevity in its existence.
When I took over the base of 60 staff at Challenger the changes in my responsibility happened quite quickly- Within the first 12 months. The operating results also improved greatly. Changes to the broader organization took longer, but, as my responsibility grew, they eventually took hold as well.
Based on my experience, here are six steps you can take to change the culture of your organization.
1. Become aware of your culture. This is the first step in changing it-recognise it. Begin to notice its characteristics. Pay attention to shared values, the way people express themselves especially their language and the stories they tell about their success and failures.
2. Assess your current culture. Start by creating three lists:
What should stay? Acknowledge to positive things in your culture. Write down what you want to preserve.
At Challenger, there was a culture of our growth was not limited. This is obviously something I wanted to preserve and to keep; therefore I was careful to cultivate this mentality.
What should go? Write down the things that are killing your culture and must go if you want to move forward.
At Challenger there we had a “closed Book” operating philosophy. The only people who knew how the organization was going were the executive leadership.
I believed that if we changed the way we thought and practiced an “open book” philosophy then everybody knew how we were going. It created a culture of ownership and accountability, which is one of the healthiest strengths to have in your culture. It also gave us the opportunity to pull creative solutions from everyone involved to see the improvement.
What is missing? Write down the aspects of your culture that is missing or is weak.
At Challenger, individual accountability was very weak right across the board. People were afraid to take personal responsibility for anything and this created a lot of blame-shifting.
3. Envision a new culture. This is the fun part. Dream a little. Rather than simply complain about what is, begin to imagine what could be. The change starts with you. Imagine you have a blank canvas and anything is possible. The great thing about change is it is not measured. Change is change. We don’t use the language of big or little change, we simply say change. What would the ideal culture look like? Write it down in as much detail as possible.
I wrote a lot of pages of what I wanted to see, I dreamed and shuffled and then presented it to my leadership team and fine-tuned it, updated it and made some changes. That document became the blueprint of what we wanted to create.
4. Share the vision with everyone. Culture will not change unless you cast a vision for something new. You, as a leader, need to articulate in a way that people get passionate about the vision, understand it and is specific.
And you can’t do this once. One of my mentors said to me “Dan, you need to keep speaking the vision out. When you are sick of hearing about it your only half done. Keep speaking it!”
Why? Because initially the only existence vision has is through your words. You have to keep speaking it out until it becomes a part of the culture.
5. Get alignment from your leadership team. I’m talking about more than agreement. You need alignment. This is something altogether different. You want a team that buys the vision, understands what is at stake, and is willing to take a stand to make it happen. Think of it as a conspiracy. Not in the negative sense, but in the positive. You and your team are conspiring together to make a positive change that will transform your organization.
6. Model the culture you want to create. The culture of a company is the behaviour of its leaders. If you change their attitudes, their values, their beliefs, their behaviours, you will change your culture. If you don’t, you will fail.
This is why you must have alignment with your leadership team. If they are not willing to change their behaviour and model what you are trying to create, you must replace them. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. If you don’t, nothing will change in the organization.
As Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
And by the way, even if the people above you won’t change, you can change the culture of your department, division, or operating unit. In fact, that’s usually how it works.
That is exactly how I did it at Challenger. I started implementing what I am sharing here 2 years before I was in charge of one of the largest and influential teams in the nation. I firmly believe that people were wondering how we became so “successful” but our secret was our culture.
Is it possible to change the culture of your organization? Absolutely. But like everything else in leadership, you must be intentional. Write it out, think on it, plan it, share it, and focus on it.