In just one week, a few things caught my attention:
Company announces a change in policy and will no longer allow strip clubs to be expensed on company credit cards.
Employees using/sharing pornographic photos at work are dismissed.
Company alerted to employees creating a hostile environment because some don’t want to work with specific employees by sabotaging work product and using inflammatory remarks.
There are many reasons for an organization to take a long hard look at its culture and decide that it’s time to make some changes:
- An incident
- Bad press
- Employee input
- Employee turnover
- CEO decision
- Board pronouncement
Quick responses include a high profile change in a company policy, a training program, or a strongly worded letter to managers. But one act alone is insufficient.
Many Steps to a Flight
To really take advantage of the opportunity for a change – no matter what the reason is – leadership must be invested in a series of connected acts and initiatives. A holistic approach combined with patience and persistence is needed to see the change through to a successful outcome. In the process, organizations can increase the chances of successful future change.
Steps to Land On
Urgency – People need to see the need for the change. When that happens they understand why they need to act right away. Many leaders underestimate how hard it is to move people out of their comfort zones. They overestimate early success, or don’t have any patience for how long the process of establishing urgency truly takes.
There are some tried and true ways to go about creating real urgency. Usually, the urge is to skip to the “doing” rather than spend the required time it takes to get a critical mass of employees to feel this urgency. To avoid stumbling on the first step, take the time required to get the emotional buy-in needed and make a logical case for change by creating messages that resonate with people.
Coalition of Influence – Pull together a group of people with enough power and influence to lead the change. Encourage them to work together as a team. No matter how charismatic or powerful the CEO is, she or he can’t create the vision, communicate it to everyone, eliminate or reduce the obstacles, create, achieve and celebrate short-term wins, manage all of the related projects and anchor best practices into the culture alone. Not only does this team need the right people, it also needs to be able to make decisions quickly. That can happen with a single agreed-upon focus and a high level of trust among coalition members.
A Different Vision – A vision of the future needs to be created. It needs to be different than the past and the present. This vision is the foundation for any decision made. It motivates a wide variety of people to take action. It is clear, concise and easy to communicate. A good vision gets buy-in and people understand that while some sacrifice or discomfort may occur – it will be for the greater good.
Easy to Export – A good vision is easy to communicate to each other and easy for people to understand and commit to. It should be communicated in a wide variety of ways and frequently – anywhere and everywhere. Everyone should be able to articulate it and connect how what they are doing daily supports the vision. It should be simple; something that could (if you wanted) fit easily on a tee shirt. It should be heard, seen, and articulated daily.
Stop Talking and Act – More important than what people say is what they do. Leaders need to ‘walk the talk,’ becoming the real-life example of the new culture. Nothing undermines the credibility of a new culture more than inconsistent actions on the part of leaders. If it’s important – it’s important for everyone. When leadership action aligns with the new culture, it sends a powerful message and inspires confidence, motivation, and optimism.
Remove Hurdles – Get rid of any barriers so that people can do what is asked of them. It may mean shifting resources around, reexamining products and services, eliminating a layer of management, reevaluating compensation, eliminating obstacles for feedback and input – the list of things that may be getting in the way of success could be endless. And sometimes the barrier is the manager. Bad habits can derail the best efforts. Reluctant /Resistant managers need to be coached, occasionally confronted, and sometimes the shift to a new culture means that they are no longer a good fit. Be prepared to have difficult but honest conversations.
Little Wins Add Up – Celebrate wins and recognize those who were involved. While waiting for the long-term success, people need to see and celebrate progress. It reminds everyone of where you are headed so be sure to connect the dots and highlight how this win is part of the progress needed. It also provides information for leaders to fine tune the vision if needed. And for those cynics and doubters, clear wins and improvements make it harder to block the change that’s coming. It’s an opportunity to transform folks who are sitting on the sidelines into active supporters. Don’t assume this will simply happen naturally – plan for it.
Keep Climbing – Hire, develop and promote the folks who can implement the change and reinvigorate the change process. Cultural change can take anywhere from 7 to 11 years so you need people with stamina. Resistance can always pop up and people get tired so you can’t let up. Make sure folks know that it won’t be quick but it will be worthwhile. Good leaders understand that it requires daily attention and refueling to maintain focus over the long term.
Anchor New to Old – Everyone has to make the change stick. Talk about the new behaviors and how they are the foundation of the success being seen. Every organizational culture is made up of norms of behavior and shared values, and these forces are really strong.
Some thoughts about cultural change:
- Genuine culture change comes last. It’s at the top of the stairs, not on the first step.
- A very strong case will need to be made that the new is better than the old.
- Behavior change is hard so successes should be visible and celebrated.
- While the goal is that everyone gets through the change together, the truth is that not everyone will be able to make the change.
- Reinforce organizational values daily and loudly.
- Reward people more often.
- Reinforce the new culture with every employee and each new employee.
Tradition is a powerful force. If you want change to take a firm hold, it will require a supportive and strong foundation. You will need the majority of people in your workplace to embrace the new in order to make it part of your future. That will take time. If someone tells you otherwise, they don’t know much about using the stairs.