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Why leaders must be on the front lines of culture transformation.

Organizational culture. Often talked about, but rarely understood. With all its unwritten norms, behaviours, and ways of doing things, your company’s culture plays an important role in your day-to-day and strategic activities. It dictates the way things get done and drives behaviours across the organization. A strong culture that is aligned with strategic goals is a powerful asset for any company.

So what happens when your organizational culture is no longer an asset, but a liability? Whether this is the result of a major shift in strategy, a change event such as a merger or acquisition, or is manifested in low employee engagement and retention rates, a poorly aligned culture can have a serious impact on your results.

Transforming the entrenched and accepted ways of doing things is challenging, and as a result, 70% of all organizational change initiatives fail. But when the success of the organization hinges on having the right culture in place, leaders must take the risk to create a culture shift that supports their future business. The good news is that there are ways you can increase the likelihood of success during a culture transformation.

Clearly communicate a vision that has meaning for employees.

Glossy marketing materials, town halls and endless meetings can all be used to communicate the new culture’s norms. Messages like “We do business the right way!” may be an accurate expression of your desired culture, but fail to communicate or demonstrate what new behaviours are expected from employees. It’s all too easy for an employee to come away excited by the new initiative yet completely confused about what it actually means for them, from an engagement, motivation and accountability perspective.

For leaders, this means being authentic and transparent about what the new culture means and reinforcing the importance of coaching and feedback during the transition. By communicating and demonstrating that the culture transformation is happening, in part, to create meaningful work for employees, increase employee engagement, and emphasize strong and effective leadership, your employees can link their own values to the new culture and strategy. This alignment makes them far more likely to engage with enthusiasm rather than trepidation.

Be a role model of expected behaviours.

Any culture change needs to come from the top. As an executive leader, you must be a role model of the expected behaviours of your new culture. Not only does this give employees something off which to model their behaviour, but having senior leadership fully embrace and support the change clearly demonstrates the company’s commitment to the new culture.

It is therefore imperative that the executive team engages in an honest reflection about the way they lead and the behaviours they exhibit that both impede and encourage a culture transformation. Communicate the changes you had to make openly and honestly with your team. Statements like “I had to be honest with myself and recognize that some of my previous behaviours no longer aligned with the company’s new culture,” can be a powerful way to get others to reflect on their own ways of doing things. Rather than placing blame, statements like these signal that what was once encouraged by the organization is no longer the norm.

Employees must be given this same opportunity to reflect honestly, and without fear of retribution, on the way they do things and the behaviours they exhibit. Leaders need to partner with their team to identify where changes can be made to bring these behaviours into alignment with the new culture and strategy, and provide the tools, resources and metrics employees need to determine if they are effectively adopting them.

“I had to be honest with myself and recognize that some of my previous behaviours no longer aligned with the company’s new culture”

Making a behavioural change like this takes time, and will require an intentional and conscious effort on the part of employees. But gradually, with proper coaching and nurturing from leaders, new behaviours will take hold until they become second nature, and part of the organizational culture.

Ensure rewards and recognition reflect the new culture.

It’s pretty simple – no matter how much time, effort and training you put into changing the culture, behaviour will never change if employees are still rewarded and evaluated based on the old ways of doing things.

For example, if your previous strategy emphasized operational excellence, you likely rewarded people based on their ability to be efficient, save time and money, and deliver consistently high quality results (zero tolerance for error/failure). However, if you shift to a strategy that places more importance on innovation (tolerance for error/failure), but fail to also adjust the monetary and non-monetary rewards to align with this shifting mindset, you will never get the desired behaviours that balance operational excellence with innovation.

Make sure the way you reward employees reflects the behaviours you expect them to exhibit. Otherwise, your culture transformation will fall flat.

My challenge to you: Evaluate your current organizational culture

Undergoing a culture transformation is a difficult initiative, and it’s one that will take time to do effectively. As a leader, being able to evaluate whether your current culture is aligned with your strategy, performance objectives and desired outcomes is critical for the success of the organization as a whole. When thinking about culture, ask yourself:

  • What does your current organizational culture look like?

  • What values, behaviours and mindsets are encouraged by your culture?

  • Are these aligned with your company’s overall strategy?

  • What performance objectives would a new culture help us achieve?

Jennifer Collins is CEO of Radiant. Learn more about their culture transformation services.


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