Knowing What to Do Isn’t Enough for Cultural Change

When called upon to institute major organizational transitions, business leaders need help navigating the process of implementing cultural change. Consequently, they call upon people from a wide array of disciplines (change management, project management, organizational design, IT, HR, leadership development, strategic planning, business relationship management, etc.) to fulfill this need. I refer to the professionals who provide this guidance as “change practitioners,” regardless of what discipline they represent or whether they operate as internal employees or external consultants.

Unfortunately, not all change practitioners are up to the challenge. In fact, the leaders I’ve spoken with over the years report that they consider approximately 25% of those in this role to be inept—demonstrating little real value when it comes to orchestrating cultural change. The same leaders, however, see the majority of change professionals, 65%, as providing adequate value—technically skilled in what to do, but only moderately influential. These practitioners are usually assigned only tactical aspects of major change; they are not considered key resources for the more demanding, sophisticated elements of the work, and their views and recommendations are often diluted or discounted altogether.

According to the business leaders I’ve spoken with, they see only about 10% of change professionals as high-impact, invaluable, strategic resources—trusted advisors whose observations and recommendations are listened to, respected, and, more often than not, followed. This is not to say that only 10% of practitioners know what they are doing; rather, according to the leaders I have interviewed, only 10% of the change professionals they relied on to help implement cultural changes were extremely influential and provided exceptional value.


What Distinguishes High-Impact Change Practitioners?

In short, being adequately proficient is not enough to be perceived as vital to critically important transitions. Basic technical competence is not the same as exceptional performance. When it comes to effecting cultural change, leaders need advisors who they see as trusted Sherpas who can help them cross the risky mountain range of cultural transformation.

Furthermore, while making any organizational change is challenging, steering an organization’s culture from its current state to a new, desired state is exceedingly so. Executives who attempt it without seasoned resources whom they trust will often fall far short of their aspirations. What they need is a “10%er.” While being perceived as a high-impact practitioner is advantageous under any circumstances, this level of credibility is imperative when the transformations being pursued involve cultural alignment.

Given the importance of the leader/practitioner partnership for the success of cultural transitions, I’ve taken a closer look at what contributes to practitioners being viewed as high-impact, extremely influential change facilitators. What I found was yes, these people are extraordinarily skilled at what they do (using culture-related methodology), but that is not what sets them apart. What allows these change professionals to exercise such a disproportionate level of influence with the leaders they serve is the fact that they courageously and consistently bring forward who they are. This enables them to convey the truth of what they see and think openly, without the political spin normally employed to keep everyone comfortable.

When change practitioners contribute unique perspectives, valuable insights, and bold offerings, they are being blatantly candid about how they interpret the situation at hand. Their ability to speak and act frankly is not only due to their being solidly grounded in their true nature, but because they also see directness and authenticity as vital elements of the value they provide. Who they are is on par with what they do. In other words, high-impact practitioners are not effective at providing cultural guidance despite being transparent about their individuality; they are valued in large part because of the uniqueness they bring forward.

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The Components of Who We Are

The who we are aspect of being a change professional can be thought of as having two components: character and presence.


Underneath what you do is who you are—not the values you espouse, not the habits you have acquired, and not what you have learned to do or say so others will accept you. Character is what is left after all the trappings, illusions, and defenses have been stripped away. It is here where your optimum impact resides.

Of all the things you can draw on to create leverage for those you serve, your true nature, the indigenous core of who you are, is your greatest asset. Only when practitioners can stay centered on this and see their true self as a crucial driver of the value they provide will they be able to live up to their full potential and help others do the same.

Character is comprised of the aggregate features securely planted in our personal landscape. Some features are blatant, others subtle. Some edges are rough, others smooth. Some qualities appear to cycle in and out of prominence, while others remain a permanent, dominant force. Regardless of what happens at any particular point in time, our basic character is our constant companion.

When so many of us fall into similar demographic categories (e.g., female, over 40, married, mother of two children, professional, medium income, homeowner, has two cars, churchgoer, jogger, shops at Target, type-A personality), our character is what stands out as one of the most reliable differentiators. Our true nature is so distinctive that, in spite of all the other commonalities we might share with others, we can still claim individuality because of our unmistakable character.

Character is pivotal to the success of high-impact practitioners. Our respective characters differentiate us much more than the methodologies we use. Others can apply the same concepts and techniques, but no one else can duplicate the outcomes we produce when our character interlaces with our words and actions. This means that, as culture change practitioners, the “secret sauce” that leads to high-impact influence isn’t what we do, it’s who we are.


A strong character is necessary, but insufficient, for the practitioner who wishes to be seen as an invaluable strategic asset during culture change. Character is your true nature, your essence. As such, it’s an internal phenomenon—inaccessible to anyone but yourself. Your interior character needs a “voice” to be expressed to the exterior world. Presence is that voice.

Your presence is the conduit through which your character emanates: an intangible transmission that flows beneath your words and actions. In a sense, it is like a force field that you project when you express aspects of who you really are while providing guidance to others. Whenever you attempt to influence someone, this force field is at play. Thus, your character is not the only important component of who you are—the way you express it, or your presence, is central as well.

Applying Your Character and Presence

For high-impact change practitioners and those who aspire to this status, the work to be done involves three steps:

  • First, deeply explore your character so that you can understand and accept who you are as a change professional.
  • Next, authentically broadcast your presence as a natural reflection of your character and an expression of your unique gifts.
  • Finally, seek out leaders to work with who value your character/presence.

As challenging as the first two steps are, the third can be the most daunting. Finding leaders pursuing cultural change who resonate with not just what you do but also who you are can seem almost impossible…and for many practitioners, it is. This is not intended as a path for everyone.

Being seen as a high-impact leader—part of the top 10% of our profession—is a rare designation. Therefore, if the conditions for achieving this elite status appear strenuous, that is because they are. Not only does high-impact work require being grounded in who you really are and authentically expressing that character through the presence you convey; it necessitates supporting leaders who value the uniqueness you have to offer.

Exceptionally influential trusted advisors are able to perform at the level they do in large part because they are provided the political “air cover” to do so. They are in service to leaders who are “true fans.” As a result, they can bring forward the full force of their observations and interventions instead of watering down what they have to offer in order to “keep everyone comfortable.”

Leveraging your character and presence in this way is vital to being a successful change practitioner, but this approach comes with inevitable risk. Direct feedback and bold recommendations, for instance, can be destabilizing for organizations unfamiliar with high-impact facilitation. Operating as a high-impact practitioner is the opposite of playing it safe, and not everyone has the ability or willingness to take such a risk—thus why it is such a respected status. Leaders looking for this kind of genuineness grant unusual access and influence to these practitioners because they know how scarce they are and how important they are to the success of their change endeavors.

In Summary

Sound methodologies for cultural change will appeal to a client’s intellect, but character and presence are what speak to their hearts. Only by fully, visibly incorporating who you are into your work will you generate the most value for leaders and achieve the greatest professional fulfillment for yourself.

I invite your thoughts and comments via LinkedIn and Twitter.


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