Changing Culture Quickly Is Key, But So Is Being Realistic

Culture change is not just about operational excellence and creating more efficiencies. Rather, successful culture turnarounds are executed when CEOs instill a sense of trust; a clear, actionable strategy; and hope.

Given today’s fast-paced business climate where chief executive officers typically are afforded only about three years to get things right, leaders are relied upon more than ever to quickly change culture to get the entire company moving in the new direction. 

In order to improve a company’s culture, today’s leaders need to understand it is not just about operational excellence and creating more efficiencies. Rather, successful culture turnarounds are executed when CEOs instill a sense of trust; a clear, actionable strategy; and hope. Here are a few tips to consider:

Walk the Talk. To align all employees, from the mailroom to the C-suite, CEOs need to lead by example. In other words, leaders need to lean into the changes they are instituting. One way to do that today was revealed in a recent case study published by Harvard Business Review where employees at Dr. Reddy’s all were asked to make promises as to how they were each going to contribute personally to the new culture. This helped bring everyone together as a team and enhanced the closeness between individuals and the company.

Emote; Don’t Dictate. Anyone can bark orders at employees, but successful CEOs will instill a sense of emotional buy-in. “To harness people’s full, lasting commitment, they must feel a deep desire, and even responsibility, to change,” explains HBR“A leader can do this by framing change within the organization’s purpose—the ‘why we exist’ question.” 

Be Female-Friendly. There is a lot of talk these days about improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and today’s leadership needs to include women in this calculus. In her piece for Timethought leader Arianna Huffington wrote that the only way to get more women at the top of the corporate food chain is by improving the culture at the entry level to ensure there is a pipeline of talented females. 

No More “Super Chickens.” Leaders typically fall into the trap of believing a superstar is needed on every team to help the group outperform, but studies show this strategy actually has the opposite effect. In 2015, Margaret Heffernan gave a TED Talk about a University of Purdue study that showed how a group of moderately producing chickens significantly outperformed a group of “super chickens” because every member of the former group knew their roles on the team and were comfortable with their positions. Results were a disastrous bloody mess for the latter team, where a lone survivor killed all of the other chickens. When it comes to changing company culture, leaders would be wise to instill a sense of community and teamwork instead of overly promoting a few supposed stars above other team members as that ultimately will manifest in paranoia, anxiety, and siloed work. 

Other Factors May Be at Work

While culture is important, today’s leaders also should be careful not to be snake-charmed into thinking it is everything, and make a knee-jerk decision based on faulty reasoning. Sometimes the problem with employees is not the culture, but rather other underlying factors. 

For instance, leaders may need to change the conditions that cause culture. Perhaps there are simple tweaks to infrastructure and incentives that can just as easily change the entire company dynamic and outcomes. After all, incentives impact behavior, which, in turn, typically influences culture. 

The business world today is vastly different than it was just a few years ago, and leadership needs to adjust accordingly to ensure success. That typically begins with managing a positive, empathetic, and inclusive culture. 

Hugh Shields is principal and co-founder of Shields Meneley Partners, a career transition and leadership coaching firm for the C-suite.



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