Organizational Effectiveness: Rapid Cultural Change

One of the more difficult challenges CEOs can entertain is changing their organization’s culture. Doing this over an extended period takes perseverance and is like trying to maintain an exercise program when surrounded by people with chocolate cake and spare forks. Changing the culture rapidly is another animal.

Swift cultural change in an organization occurs in three ways: (1) encounter a crisis and be forced to change, (2) change leadership or (3) impose change from the top. The consistent catalyst among all three is the senior leader — most likely the CEO or business owner.

Culture can be managed, or it can evolve naturally. Cultures can be effective, positive and supportive of the business strategy (been in an Apple store?), or they can be ineffective, negative and at odds with what needs to happen to succeed (several airlines should pop into your head).

Culture does not consist of words on a plaque in the reception area (usually framed in gold and superimposed over a patriotic or stunning vista that has nothing in common with the shop floor). Culture is the manifestation of the organization’s values — the actions taken. When words and actions don’t align, actions rule and credibility is lost. The plaque in the reception area might as well have a picture of the Three Stooges.

If actions drive the culture, the way to rapidly change the culture is to dramatically and visibly change actions. You might start with words (“accountability,” “performance” and “client-centered” are some I’ve helped companies work on), but actions cause the change.

Most often, rapid cultural change is required or attempted because of a surprise. It might be a new competitor, disruptive technology or an unexpected change at the top. In rare occasions, a new opportunity drives change, but more often a problem is the driver. Why change if things are going great and expected to continue?

So you wake up one morning and realize you’re facing either a challenge or an opportunity and your culture won’t get you from Point A to Point B or it conflicts with your strategy. What do you do? Here are five major steps to drive a major cultural shift:

1. Clearly articulate your vision and strategy. Don’t skip this step. If you can’t articulate what you’ll do to prosper in your environment, figure it out before you attempt to change the culture. Will your strategy be primarily one of product innovation, operational excellence or customer intimacy? They all require different cultures.
2. Precisely define the characteristics of the culture that will support your strategy and values. Focus on the top three. Argue about them. Rank them. Describe them in terms that will allow you to observe the behavior and determine whether you’re succeeding or failing. You’ll encounter much resistance to this conversation. Collaboration is important, but guiding the conversation is critical, and you may have to make a stand and put on your thick skin. How dramatic or fast you need to change the culture will shape the tenor of the conversation.
3. Determine what structure, systems, skills and rewards will create the culture you desire. Good intentions won’t get you there.
4. Decide who will help you lead the change. These champions must believe in and exhibit the cultural aspects you’re looking for, understand how to motivate others and be respected by the team. They will likely be 10% or less of your team.
5. Define the actions required to build and execute. Some of these will be about procedures, some will be about people. I’ve never seen dramatic cultural change take place without changing people. That may sound harsh, but if the culture fits someone well now and it changes, some people will fit well into the new culture and some won’t. It’s not their fault; it’s just a fact. Being a leader means making tough decisions.

I’ve encountered leaders who have a “take a pill” approach to cultural change — just send out an email, make a speech and everything will fall into place. It won’t.

Dramatic culture change requires a high level of confidence, thick skin and dramatic action.


Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of, Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be (Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email todd@toddordal.com.

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