The Top Reasons for Successful Culture Change

From baseball to big trucks, culture transformation is a commitment that is not for the faint of heart. 

Inspirational and informative case studies of such transformations have been presented by leaders from the Milwaukee Brewers and Oshkosh Corporation. I summarize here their two successful organizational culture change examples. Based on their stories, I identify and share the key success factors critical to these transformations and the consistent number one factor mandatory for changing organizational culture successfully. 

Oshkosh: Putting People First to Impact Culture

Angie Zeigler, VP of Talent Management at Oshkosh Corporation, began her presentation by sharing information about the various brands that make up the Oshkosh family. While many people associate Oshkosh with baby clothes, it is actually a Fortune 500 company that designs and builds the world’s toughest specialty trucks. They celebrated a 100-year anniversary and have numerous accolades (including the Forbes Best Large Employer and Most Ethical Company awards) that support their commitment to their customers and employees.

When Wilson Jones was promoted to CEO, he made a commitment for Oshkosh to become a People First organization. Something is working, because the reviews on Glassdoor are glowing: “The People First culture and our new levels of community engagement are inspiring. For the first time in my 29 years with Oshkosh, I actually encourage folks (including my own offspring) to apply for positions with Oshkosh, ” and ” I have never worked with a CEO who was so genuine and caring. Once he meets you, he will not forget your name ” are two examples.

Oshkosh Corp

In her presentation, Angie pointed out that “the way we are working isn’t working.” When people are happy and not “just working,” they are more productive, and the number-one determinant of happiness is meaningful work among people who care. Unfortunately, what most people who run organizations learn is how to manage, not lead: to view people as objects and functions and define success as money, power, and position. Creating a work environment where people care is uncommon, but that’s exactly what Oshkosh was determined to do. The People First culture is reflected throughout the organization, as evidenced by numerous great place to work awards and a 4.5 out of 5 score on Glassdoor. (Listen to Angie discussing the synching of leader development with culture change.)

Milwaukee Brewers: Bases Loaded for Organizational Culture Change

Congratulations to the Milwaukee Brewers for clinching the National League Central title in 2021 as well as 2018! Although a World Series is the goal for a baseball team, how to get there extends beyond the players on the field. Recognizing that the entire organization contributes to the success of the team, the Brewers organization embarked on a deep dive into culture.

The Brewers are an organization with a long, storied history. When good people started leaving, they decided to investigate the deeper cultural challenges. Marti Wronski, General Counsel & Senior Vice President – Administration, presented the story of their journey as they looked to take the organization to the next level.

There are elements of an organization’s culture that bring strength as well as elements that stymie growth and innovation. Mindsets and behavioral norms become entrenched in organizations that have been around for many years. Edgar Schein participated in a webinar with Human Synergistics to discuss his book, Humble Leadership. He explained that culture is about creating stability and leadership is about creating change. When there are strategic direction shifts that require change, the status quo of culture often fights back.

C is for Culture

Marti defined culture as the “pervasive values, beliefs, and attitudes that characterize the company and are the guiding practices.” The Brewers’ journey is a partnership with leaders rather than an initiative from Marti and the HR team members. She is committed to doing it right and improving the culture and its impact on performance. (Listen to Marti’s discussion of how their leaders used Leadership/ImpactR to identify and work their ideal impact on culture.)

The Key Factors

Oshkosh and the Brewers have very different core businesses, and they each took an approach to change that was unique, yet shared certain features. Common to both stories were the following key factors that are essential for a successful culture journey.

Why – It’s essential to have a reason for doing culture work that’s bigger than the obstacles that inevitably arise. Culture change is a long-term journey that requires long-term leadership commitment. 

When Dave Barger was CEO of Jet Blue, he said that 50% of his time was spent on culture. That indicates the seriousness with which he saw the company’s culture as part of his leadership role. In his book, Hit Refresh, Satya Nadella said that the “C” in CEO stands for culture. He recognizes how essential culture is, and that it must be owned by leaders at the top of the organization.

Culture is either accidental, intentional, or hypocritical (leaders profess one thing and do something different). When an organization decides to get more intentional by focusing on an organizational culture change journey, the “why” must support the strategy or a critical business objective.

How – The two stories of transformation included similar approaches to the culture journey. The change was initiated by senior leaders, who recognized the importance of culture in supporting strategy. They began by creating a common language. Once everyone recognized and agreed upon the reasons for changing organizational culture , they gathered data to create a more complete view and expose things that otherwise wouldn’t have been known.

Both organizations used qualitative and quantitative methods to gather data. By gathering quantitative culture data (add link to, you will have objective information about the current culture that allows a robust discussion about what exists. Further, it increases the trust and acceptance by senior leaders who may discount internally gathered qualitative data. 

Using an external survey instrument focuses attention on the results versus challenging the survey’s validity. As one presenter said, “If there is already a disconnect between leaders and employees, why would true answers come from employees? Use a third-party assessment.” A validated culture survey also enables an organization to establish a baseline and measure progress over time.

Qualitative data helps tell the story behind the quantitative data. They can be gathered through interviews, focus groups, observation, customer interviews (where appropriate), and other internal research. Adding qualitative data leads to a fuller understanding than quantitative data alone. 

Leaders can draw erroneous conclusions from survey data when they miss the context of qualitative data. Quantitative and qualitative data together create the complete picture to build a common language and understand how culture is impacting the business strategy and future of the organization.

What – Assuming you have a compelling reason to change and everyone has a common language with real data, it’s time to act. The data will likely point to specific areas (such as human resource systems or structural factors) that can become levers for change. 

The Brewers realized that their culture was not bad, it was ineffective. Sometimes, leaders look at culture results and are quick to characterize a culture as bad. Don’t dismiss what exists; leverage what works and build on it. Use the strengths of your culture revealed by the data and pay attention to where change is needed. 

More generally, Marti points out that once you get your data, “the one thing you can’t do is nothing.”

The Brewers used their data to plan, communicate, and take action. But first, leadership must get aligned with respect to what they learned, what needs to be done, and the direction everyone is going. 

Proper leadership mindsets fuel consistent action. Like the Brewers, start with changes that can be made to demonstrate commitment and create quick wins. Evaluating the structure and making appropriate reporting changes, updating the workspace, and improving communication are all examples of changes that can create momentum and show visible action.

The takeaway from both stories is that culture change is achievable for any type of organization that wants to improve results. The final key factor in common between the two organizations is also the most essential to culture change success.

#1 Reason for Success

Successful culture change is a leadership commitment, not a project. Leadership is about action-behaving in new ways that set an example. Commitment is needed because employees look to the leaders to see whether their behaviors align with their words. The number-one reason–the critical key factor–for culture change success is sponsorship. 1 Sponsorship involves being a visible participant, communicating support for the change frequently and effectively, and building a coalition of other supporters.

Take Action

The People First culture at Oshkosh is supported by leaders and is being taught through their “Lens of Leadership” development program. Attending this program is creating a coalition and alignment among all the leaders. Based on the frequent references to the People First culture in the corporate statements and the employee experience comments on Glassdoor, it’s clear that development and communication are working!

One of the impressive things Angie shared was the Oshkosh CEO’s recognition that culture is impacted by leaders but outlives them. He is a great sponsor of the current change initiatives but is also working to ensure there are systems and structures to support the People First culture beyond his tenure.

Marti shared that leaders face fear, fatigue, and frustration as they lead change. Longer-term changes that are needed require discipline. Without that, it’s easy to get distracted by competing, more tangible, yet short-term issues. Leaders must be resilient for culture to get reset. 

Finally, leaders must follow through. Even when there is pushback, commitment to the change is needed: “You have to believe until everyone else around you is believing,” Marti said. In her summary remarks, she noted, “This is heart and soul work.” Culture change requires leaders who are “all in” and willing to do what it takes to be successful.

If you decide to embark on a culture change journey, remember to answer the “Why, How, and What” questions. Then share with company leaders that the number-one reason for your long-term success will be their long-term commitment to the mission of successful culture change. I welcome your thoughts on social media

Photo by Anders Jildén on Unsplash.

1 Prosci. Executive Sponsor’s Importance and Role. Retrieved from 

Culturally Intelligent Change

What is failed change? Whether it’s a change that doesn’t quite get finished or a change that fades away over time, change that does not achieve the expected outcomes and benefits is failed change.

When change fails, it’s usually because the status quo culture was too large of a barrier. Status quo is a powerful force that always opposes change. Status quo is another way of understanding culture. The underlying beliefs and behaviors of an organization resist change without intentional focus on culture as part of the change approach.

Why Culture is Essential to Change Success

Culture is a result of human being’s craving for predictability and certainty. It develops over time when there is a consistent group of people and is formed from shared history and the learning that comes from many experiences together. This creates the patterns that define the acceptable ways to think and behave in response to various situations.

Change by its very nature disrupts certainty and predictability. Culture responds by attempting to maintain status quo. A change process that uses the power of culture maximizes change success, is culturally intelligent change.

Culturally Intelligent Change = Understanding and using the elements of culture (values, norms, beliefs, assumptions) as key inputs to guide the change approach to accelerate learning and improve results.

The objectives of culturally intelligent change are to:

  1. Manage, minimize or avoid culture flashpoints that create change resistance
  2. Maximize the achievement of business objectives by using culture intelligence to drive sustainable change results

How can leaders, managers and change agents apply culturally intelligent change and understand culture to improve their change success?

Assess the culture & climate both qualitatively and quantitatively

Both organizational culture and climate are essential to understand, but there is a significant difference between them. Climate pays attention to the shared attitudes and perceptions about things like mission, teamwork, and what managers are doing to engage employees. Culture looks a level deeper at the underlying expectations, norms or “unwritten rules” that drive behaviors. Both quantitative and qualitative culture measures are critical. Quantitative data provides objective measures against a standard and qualitative data provides context.

Use the culture data

The quantitative and qualitative data is useless if it’s not applied to the change. Make sure that there is clarity about the current state. What are the primary beliefs and mindsets that exist and how will they support or subvert the change? Once you are clear on what exists, then consider what beliefs, behaviors and cultural norms are needed to achieve the change. That’s the gap, and it is foundational information needed to build a change plan that succeeds. 

We’ve identified fifteen key culture actions that connect with the five key process groups from the ACMP Standard for Change Management.

15 Key Culture Actions


These key culture actions are intended to be layered into an existing change approach. They can also be used as a checklist to ensure that these critical actions are part of the Change Management Strategy and Plans. For a complimentary copy of the checklist, download it here: 15 Culture Actions 

How will you use the 15 Key Culture Actions? Please share your thoughts on social media.

Culture – Why is it Complicated?

Culture – Why is it Complicated?

Culture is not about employee happiness, how an organization feels, or about employee morale. Culture isn’t casual dress or foosball tables. Culture is multi-dimensional and interconnected. Culture is unique and complicated because people are unique and complicated.

Shared Experiences

Culture comes from the shared experiences of a group of people. Together people learn and make sense out of those experiences. For example, when I worked at Coopers & Lybrand, a project would begin and the leader would set the start time for the day. Then each day the team would show up a few minutes before the work day would start at 6 am or earlier. There was a legendary team that worked on an automotive account that would go out all night and then head into the office in the wee hours to begin their work day!

The shared experience taught employees that they were supposed to work hard and play hard. It also reinforced the belief that the number of hours you worked was a badge of honor. It was a culture where Saturday work in the office was expected and we felt lucky because we didn’t have to dress formally! We learned that success was measured in hours and face time.

Culture comes from the shared experiences of a group of people.

This visual representation of culture is based on Dr. Edgar Schein’s explanation of culture.

Culture Levels


Seeing the layers helps explain why “flip flops and free beer” is not culture. These are artifacts that you may see but there are underlying values and beliefs that create the true culture of the organization. This is the deep, stable (change resistant), interconnected nature of culture.

We worked with an organization whose CEO fancied it a high-tech company. The lunch rooms got a makeover and the walls were painted bright colors. Some walls were so bright they had to soften them by painting them a more subdued shade! The new décor didn’t create a high-tech culture. Their processes were still cumbersome, managers still believed people had to be in the office to do productive work (versus being able to work remotely) and the office was deadly silent versus buzzing with energy.  The artifacts contradicted what was really going on in the organization.

As you observe the artifacts of culture, be careful not to attribute too much meaning. There are beliefs and values that drive behaviors which could be very different than what you see. This is why change is much more challenging than making a declaration explaining what’s changing.

It’s complicated

Some leaders believe if they emulate the Google work environment, they’ll create the Google culture. Hopefully, we’ve shed some light on the reality that nap pods, free lunches, and cool décor are only a small aspect of culture. Deep levels of change require reworking foundational beliefs and mindsets. Culture is complicated!

Do you agree, or do you have a different perspective on culture? Please share your thoughts and ideas on social media.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from

Reprogram Your Culture

Reprogram Your Culture

Stories are the programming language of culture. The stories people share in an organization reinforce the underlying beliefs and assumptions that shape the culture. To shift culture, reprogram it with new stories.

There is power in story as they inform, persuade and educate. Using the power of story, you can tap into foundational beliefs that shape culture. An example of the power of story is the one that’s been told and retold about Nordstrom. Someone brought a set of tires to the customer service desk. Although Nordstrom does not and never has sold tires, they processed a refund. Although that’s unlikely, the reinforcing power of the story is that it communicates the value of customer service. It’s far more impactful to share that story than to say, “a Nordstrom core value is customer service.”

Benefits of stories

  • Stories capture your imagination, which makes them easy to remember and pass on. One startup I worked for had a leader who repeatedly shared the story of how and why he founded the company. It created a compelling draw for new employees and invited an entrepreneurial culture with a “can-do” attitude. It shaped a culture that grew to 25 offices and 1,600 employees in five years. There was a consistency of culture because of the emphasis on that shared story.
  • Stories connect emotion with facts which inspires people to take action. As Alan Weiss says, “logic makes you think, emotion makes you act.” This is especially helpful when making the case for change.
  • Stories have the power to break down barriers by addressing potential objections, suspicions or concerns before they are even raised. They can also serve to reduce barriers by building trust. For example, a leadership team replaced a previous administration that reigned terror on the employees. The new team acknowledged the damage and shared their vision for a more constructive culture. They created a vision for a new way of working together.

Stories reinforce beliefs that either support or undermine your culture change. We are guided by stories. We listen to stories, tell stories, share stories and most importantly behave in ways that support stories. Change your stories and be changed by them.

Culture Stories

There are four types of stories that shape culture. Identity stories are about who we are and where we came from. They capture what’s unique and special in the DNA. Success and Failure stories are about what is rewarded versus punished. Finally, future stories are about where the organization is going.  ISFF (Identity, Success, Failure and Future) are the core stories that you can tell or will be defined by your culture. Change the story to change the culture.


Do all employees understand why the organization exists and how it came into being? A powerful identity story shapes the essence of the organization and the connection employees feel. A colleague told us about a sales meeting where his client shared the story of their founding and why they exist. He talked about the struggles of the early days and all the leadership team did to make it successful over the years. Not only was it inspiring to our colleague, it made him want to work harder to win their business and help them be even more successful.

Questions to Shape an Identity Story:

  • Where did we come from and why do we exist?
  • Who are we and what makes us special?
  • How do we fit in to the industry, field or organizational landscape?
  • How do we view the world around us?

Success and Failure

These are the stories that provide employees with clues on how to behave. Success stories talk about what happens when you do something well. One organization we work with had research scientists that did something amazing decades ago and were still revered. They were well compensated despite contributing nothing in the recent past. The success story of this organization was to make one big contribution and you will have a meal ticket for life.

Questions to Shape a Success or Failure Story:

  • What do people do to get promoted, raises or recognition?
  • When something fails, what happens?

There are people who are doing the things that represent the way you want your culture to be. Find them and showcase them. Celebrate the success of what’s working. You get more of what you focus on. Tell stories about what’s wildly successful.

The Future (AKA Vision or Strategy)

Does everyone in the organization know the direction to move? There are millions of dollars in lost productivity from decisions made that do not align to the vision of the leader. The more clear and aligned employees are to the vision and strategy, the more consistently resources are deployed, decisions are made and actions focused on the right future.

Questions to Shape a Future Story:

  • Where are we going and how will we get there?
  • Why is this the right direction for our organization?

As you shape new stories, answer the questions and make sure you have all the pieces:

  • The Point represents the main message, central idea or the theme that you want to convey through the story. What element of your culture is highlighted by the story?
  • The Background or the setting (when and where did it happen?) and the people (who are the characters?).
  • The Plot is the series of events that took place to overcome obstacles or achieve goals, what was the struggle and how did the characters overcome it? This is all about “what happens?”
  • The Conclusion is how does it end? Connect this to the point that you want to reinforce.

Once you have the pieces, make it sticky. Pull all the pieces together in a compelling story that creates curiosity and compels people to care.

If you have some interesting stories related to culture or story resources, please share on social media. I am on a journey of discovery as I improve my storytelling capabilities while helping organizations improve theirs.

Top Ten Reasons to Care for your Culture

Top Ten Reasons to Care for your Culture

Caring for Culture

Caring for your culture is not an annual event or even a monthly event. Just like sleeping and eating, caring for your culture is a daily activity that requires an investment of your time and attention. Caring involves Clarity, Accountability, Relationships and Esteem.

C – Clear behaviors (actions speak louder than words) and values that are consistently modeled by the leadership.

A – Accountability for all, leaders do not get a pass; there are rewards and consequences for adhering to or violating culture.

R – Relationship between leaders and employees. Culture is built through shared experiences. It comes from the stories told, the lessons learned and relationships with the people around us.

E – Esteem: this word means to recognize the worth of a person. Esteem is a fundamental view that’s necessary for leaders to care for culture. If you do not value your people, it’s difficult to care for culture.

As a leader, when caring for your culture, you must explain and demonstrate the behaviors of the culture you want to create, hold people accountable for adhering to the culture, build relationships with employees and hold them in high esteem.

Here are 10 thoughts about caring for culture and why it’s absolutely essential.

  1. Leaders must deliver results. When a leader understands culture and uses it to deliver on their strategy, they will accomplish radically better results. Culture is always in service of the business results accomplished through the strategy. Culture ignored puts results in peril. If you don’t understand and care for your culture, your ability to deliver results is significantly diminished. I worked with a large financial services company in New York. Over the course of four years they turned over an equivalent number of leaders in the SVP of HR role. While each leader was a unique leader, what they shared in common was a complete miss of the culture signs that ended up being stumbling blocks. They each arrived with mandates from the CEO and lots of great ideas. The ideas were not bad but each leader tried to implement them the same way he did at his previous company. Without understanding the culture and tailoring the approach to the new organization every leader was doomed for failure. The culture fought back fiercely to prevent the changes each leader needed to make. Fortunately, the current SVP is thoughtful and tuned into the uniqueness of the organizational culture.
  1. Culture amps up or annihilates employee motivation. According to Bersin by Deloitte, 95% of employees say that culture is more important than compensation. The science of motivation has repeatedly proved that money is not a primary motivator. Whether it’s Daniel Pink’s trio of autonomy, mastery, and purpose or Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s troika of mastery, membership, and meaning, culture will enhance or diminish these motivators. Create a culture that supports these motivation essentials and your motivated employees will thank you with increased productivity.
  1. Culture attracts the right people. According to many headlines there is a “war for talent.” This means that numerous organizations are competing for the same people. A well-defined and cared for culture makes an organization a talent magnet for the right people. The opposite benefit is that it also repels the wrong people. Caring for culture makes talent management’s job easier by serving as a prescreen to get the right people to apply. Think about Zappos, they have a well-publicized culture. It creates clarity about who should and shouldn’t work there. This streamlines their talent process. They further streamlined their process by completely eliminating job postings. In keeping with their culture, they’ve created their own social network called Zappos Insiders. If you want a job there, you need to sign up and ask for an interview. The very process they are using to bring people into their organization connects to their culture and either attracts or repels people.
  1. An effective work culture is foundational to unlocking a company’s growth. The Katzenbach Center study shows that 84% of the participants believed culture was critical to business success. Why not pay attention to culture and activate a business lever that costs you nothing? This free lever can help you to increase productivity, innovation, creativity and more. A Senior Executive in the same organization as the failed SVP’s in #1 recognized that he needed to make monumental changes that his department was not equipped to make. They were unprepared to move at his pace. He wisely took time to assess the culture, understand where it supported his strategic changes and where it would be a barrier. The culture action plans in combination with a great strategy delivered stunning sales growth over the last three years.
  1. If you don’t control culture, culture controls you. In Edgar Schein’s words, “The bottom line for leaders is if they do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them. Cultural understanding is desirable for all of us, but it is essential to leaders if they are to lead.” How can you be in charge if you are not in control?
  1. Culture serves as a differentiator and a competitive advantage. Culture is your secret sauce. Did you know that Southwest Airlines was not the first low cost airline to focus on fun? Southwest’s founder Herb Kelleher studied and copied the strategy of California-based Pacific Southwest Airlines. PSA’s slogan was, “The World’s Friendliest Airline.” Herb took PSA’s strategy and with laser like focus on fostering a specific culture at Southwest, he created an airline that both customers and employees love today. As John Stumpf, CEO of Wells Fargo said, “It’s all about culture. I could leave our strategy on an airplane seat and have a competitor read it and it would not make any difference.”
  1. Culture supports the success of your strategy or diminishes its impact. Your culture will not eat your strategy for breakfast and lunch or dinner, but it is the accelerator or roadblock to your success. Look at the crash and burn failure of Ron Johnson at JC Penny. He was responsible for a strategy shift (a major rebrand), which later led to company shares declining 51%! The culture was not amenable to the changes he wanted to make despite his success at Target and Apple. Care for your culture and beware … it can bite!
  1. Strong culture requires fewer rules. When everyone knows what game they’re playing, their position and role responsibilities, and how we win, employees are free to make it happen. Recently, I worked with a leadership team that was struggling to get various teams aligned. They were embarking on a culture initiative to more clearly define their culture and understand how work gets done, people get managed and money gets spent. What they came to realize was that their shifting culture had left the staff with such confusion that people were either “in a holding pattern” or stepping on toes because they didn’t know the rules of engagement. The leadership worked to define and align the management system for the entire organization and have already seen people feel empowered to get work done rather than focus on rules.
  1. Culture trumps engagement. With all the effort and energy spent measuring the employee engagement, little has changed. Culture is a better measure and the right focus for leaders to deliver business results. Culture trumps engagement because it provides a more complete picture of the organization.
  1. Culture is one of the top reasons that M&A initiatives fail. Since this is a critical growth strategy for many organizations, it’s imperative to care for culture in a way that facilitates integration success. I am working with a technology company whose leadership team recognized that their culture is not “acquisition friendly.” The CEO is intentionally focusing on the culture, doing an assessment and planning an intervention to prepare them to be successful when they are ready to acquire. Whether it’s pre-acquisition preparation or incorporated into the integration playbook, culture care is a critical success factor for M&A.

What other reasons can you think of that compel leaders to care about their culture? If you have some thoughts, please share them on social media.

Four Essentials of Culture Change

Donna Brighton is the president and founder of Brighton Leadership Group and is a recognized thought leader in the field of organizational change. This post is based on her Ultimate Culture Conference presentation and features insights on leading change.

Culture change is enormous and complex. There is no easy answer, magic pill or quick fix to create instant culture change. However, leaders do have control over their actions and have more influence than they realize. This is the focus of the Four Essentials of Culture Change.

Many statistics are quoted about the success of change (70%) and the amount of time it takes to change culture (from one year to eight or more years.) Whatever numbers you want to focus on, the reality is that change and culture are core to great leadership. There are many methodologies and approaches to change so this isn’t an attempt to recommend a method. The following four essentials are specific actions a leader can take to increase their success during change.

As leaders navigate their way through the complexities of culture change, clarity, communication and change capacity are essential. The ability to influence others to change through attraction rather than force is the secret to lasting change. Use one essential or all four culture change essentials to increase your culture change success.

1. Construct Clarity

In times of change, neuroscience provides clues about how people are impacted. Brain science shows us that change creates uncertainty and that uncertainty significantly reduces people’s ability to be productive.

The brain interprets change as a threat so it’s important for leaders to remember that during times of change they need to manage ambiguity. Leaders need to construct clarity for people during times of change. One way to do this is by defining a touch point timeline. Something as seemingly insignificant as a consistent touch point that provides an update or further insight into the change can radically diminish the level of ambiguity in change.

It’s unrealistic to wait until everything about a change is completely figured out in order to communicate. Imagine being on an airplane and the oxygen mask drops. Would you want to know that the captain is aware that something is happening or have the captain wait until it’s all figured out? Constructing clarity comes from timely, clear, consistent communication.

Many of you have heard about the importance of creating a burning platform. However, it’s critical to understand the correct definition of the burning platform.1 A burning platform is what’s needed for a leader to be fully committed to the change. When a burning platform is used to make a case for doing change, it leads to fear, which creates ambiguity and uncertainty, which is the exact opposite of what you should be doing.

During times of change, leaders must conquer ambiguity. Use the burning platform to measure your commitment to the change rather than creating fear and uncertainty in your people. In the midst of culture change, leaders must construct clarity through their words and actions.

In this video clip, I emphasize why leaders must understand the capacity for change within their organization before undertaking a culture change. If you enjoy this clip, sign up and join our Ultimate Culture Community to view the full video and the entire video library.

2. Communicate Effectively

The next culture change essential is effective communication. In some organizations leaders believe that “communicating is proclaiming.” Often a leader will tell everybody about the change in a town-hall. The leader incorrectly believes, that once people know what’s going to happen, the leader has communicated. The reality is that communication involves a sender, a receiver, a message, it’s impact and then feedback.

Communication is not only about sending a message but also about the impact that message creates.2 Are people hearing it in the way that was intended? Are they receiving that message in a way they understand?

During times of change, effective communication requires not only that the message is sent but that it’s received appropriately. I was working with an organization that was doing transformation in its sales offices. The project team told leadership, “They are being resistant. We presented an 80-slide Power Point session that clearly communicated every detail those sales leaders needed to understand. How come they aren’t changing? Why aren’t they getting it?” The disconnect was not from a lack of information. Believe it or not, the change had been well-received. The sales leaders were bought into the change BUT the project team missed some really important input because they left out the feedback or listening component of communication. They were efficient at sending information but lacked the effectiveness of full communication.

So often during times of change it’s easy to slip into efficient or partial communication, where we’re busy producing information and sending it out. Without taking time to listen, refine, adapt and engage in the full communication process, the communication can be efficient but never as effective. During culture change, communicate effectively by speaking to people “in their language” and then taking the time to listen so that you know your message was received as intended.

3. Create Attraction

The third culture change essential involves your approach to lasting change. You can tell people to change. This usually results in begrudging compliance at best and outright resistance most of the time.

Since telling doesn’t create change, you may consider approaches such as, selling people (explain the benefits), using rewards (if you change, you get something in return) or peer pressure (everyone else is doing it.) While each approach can be helpful in shaping change, lasting change only occurs when you attract people to a better version of themselves. That is the essence of creating culture change.

A clear, strong culture enables leaders to attract and retain the people who share the values and the organizations cultural essence. Zappos is an excellent example of a strong culture. Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO, decided to make a culture shift by changing to a management approach called holacracy.3 The jury is still out on this approach but leadership was very clear in their communication and unambiguous about the change. They appealed to the interest of their employees as they explained how this approach would enable them to act more like entrepreneurs and self-direct their work instead of reporting to a manager who tells them what to do. For people who were attracted to that kind of culture they stuck with Zappos. What happened to the rest? They left. And that, is how lasting change occurs.

While all organizational cultures can be constructive, they are not equally created to enable every human being to perform at his or her best. Just as human beings are unique, organizational cultures are unique. When it comes to shaping, shifting, or changing culture, it’s essential to use attraction so the right people stay and the people who do not fit the culture move on.

Insufficient capacity is a sure way to fail in any change initiative, especially a culture change. Proactively build change capacity through resilience and the creation of a flourishing workplace.-Donna Brighton

4. Change Capacity

Every person has a capacity for change. That capacity gets absorbed by both personal and professional changes, macro and micro changes, that are happening. Many leaders have no comprehension of the amount of change that’s absorbing the capacity of their people. Culture change is impossible when people run out of capacity.

There are many employees who want to do the right thing but they’re overwhelmed. There’s more change than they have a capacity to absorb. Despite their best intention, people without sufficient capacity are incapable of making a change.

To understand organizational capacity a leader must make the time to understand the full landscape of all changes happening in the organization. What is the change, what is the impact and what capacity is available? As a leadership team, work through and prioritize the changes that are absolutely vital versus those that are not, and focus on those of greatest priority to ensure success.

Change comes from many different places in the organization and collectively it diminishes people’s change capacity. A leader can prioritize and remove changes to manage capacity. An alternative is to increase capacity. Change capacity in an organization is increased by building resilience.4 There’s a variety of different approaches to building resilience but that is the secret to increasing change capacity within people and the organizations they serve.

Leaders must understand the capacity for change within their organization before undertaking a culture change. Insufficient capacity is a sure way to fail in any change initiative, especially a culture change. Proactively build change capacity through resilience and the creation of a flourishing workplace.

Finding Hidden Gems

In every organization there are hidden gems. These gems represent the strengths of people and the organizational strengths. The most successful culture change happens when those strengths, or hidden gems are identified within in the organization. Once identified, build on them to create, shift, shape and change. Culture change doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Find the firm foundation of the hidden gems of strength. Then build culture change around them to achieve lasting success.

These four culture change essentials are specific actions leaders can take to be extraordinarily successful during times of change. Leaders must conquer ambiguity by being clear, communicating effectively—not just sending messages but listening—and by creating attraction to the change, inspiring people to be a better version of themselves. Finally, to be successful in culture change, leaders must ensure sufficient change capacity. If your people are so overwhelmed with other changes going on in the organization that they don’t have capacity, the culture change will fail. Apply one or all of these culture change essentials to increase your success.



1Fuda, P. (2012, June 28). From Burning Platform to Burning Ambition. Retrieved from  

2Johnson, J. (2015, August 19). To Impact Culture, Connect Where It Counts. Retrieved from

3Zappos Insights. Holacracy and Self-Organization. Retrieved from

4Brighton Leadership Group. Resilience Discussion. Retrieved from

Are You Ready for Culture Change? OR Culture Change Readiness

Culture Change Readiness

There are plenty of articles that define culture, explain what a high performance culture looks like and gives angles on creating culture. The purpose of this article is to provide direction for anyone tasked with creating culture change. It is assumed that you understand what culture is, you have decided to make a change, and you want to know how to successfully implement a culture change.

Preparing for Change

To successfully change culture there are some prerequisites to success. These prerequisites include change clarity, change commitment, change capacity, change capability and change effectiveness which are needed to successfully accomplish the culture change. The purpose of evaluating the presence of these prerequisites is to prevent obstacles that would otherwise delay or stymie the culture change.

Think of these Culture Change Prerequisites as due diligence for culture change success. Just as you perform due diligence before any significant business transaction, it’s critical to perform due diligence in preparation for culture change.

Prerequisites for Success

  • Change Clarity – to be successful change must be understood and valued. That’s impossible if the change cannot be explained clearly. There are two crucial components to change clarity.
    1. Definition of Success – This is also referred to as a vision. Unfortunately, visions can be dull, flat and missing critical components. A multi-dimensional definition of success provides clarity about the rules of the game, who is playing and how we win; it’s the Future in 3D. This answers the question, “what does success look like?”
    2. Case for Change – it’s essential that the reason for the change is fully understood by the people undergoing change. Understanding increases the motivation to change and reduces resistance because the reason for the change is clear. The change explanation must be both relevant and meaningful. It helps the people understand how the change connects to them personally and to their view of the organization. The case for change answers the question, “why?”
  • Change Commitment – culture change begins at the top. There must be courageous leaders who are willing to do whatever it takes to be successful. Culture is a leadership issue and it cannot be delegated. Without strong leadership, culture change will sputter and burn out. Commitment is needed in abundant quantities in order to overcome the change hurdles, pockets of resistance and status quo malaise. It takes time to do culture change well. In this instant society, the commitment to long term change fades over time.
  • Change Capacity – change saturation is a common cause of organizational dysfunction and change failure. Terrific, talented people reach their capacity to absorb change and they check out. Every person has their own “change sponge” that has a maximum amount of absorption. Both personal and professional changes decrease the change capacity. Employees become disengaged when they run out of capacity. All the leadership commitment, compelling cases for change and brilliant change strategies in the world are irrelevant if you do not assess and manage change capacity.
  • Change Capability – how well does the organization adapt to change? Do managers and leaders have the skills to effectively communicate, model and lead change? Change capability is the organizations ability to do what’s needed for the change to be embraced and the intended results delivered. A McKinsey study(1) of forty projects compared expected and actual returns on investment to change capability and determined there is a direct correlation between the two. Programs with above average change capability realized 143 percent of expected value while programs with below average capability realized just 35 percent of expected value.
  • Change Effectiveness – this is the historical experience of change within the organization. Has there been a pattern of success in previous change initiatives? Change effectiveness is about evaluating the organizational memory for the past successes and failures of change in order to learn from them. It’s about identifying what’s unique and good about the organization that can be leveraged in the context of the culture change.

Assess First

Assess Readiness for Culture Change against these prerequisites, by answering the following questions:

  1. When leaders convey information it is sincere, complete (all information needed to be successful is shared) and truthful.  Yes or No
  2. When leaders make a commitment they follow through. Yes or No
  3. The success of the culture change is the top priority of leadership. Yes or No
  4. The leadership team owns this change and agrees on both the motivation for the change and the definition of success. Yes or No
  5. The culture change has been adequately resourced. Yes or No
  6. There is a shared understanding of the need for the culture change. Yes or No
  7. The organization has a history of adapting to change well. Yes or No
  8. Although the pace of change and extent of change around here is significant, it is also manageable. Yes or No
  9. Leaders and managers are skilled in leading through change. Yes or No
  10. Is the organization ready for this change? Yes or No; why?

Measure Twice, Cut Once

If the answer to more than three of these questions is no, then stop and consider how to improve the clarity, commitment, capacity or capability before embarking on a significant culture change project.

One of the first steps to preparing for successful culture change is to assess the sufficiency of change clarity, change commitment, change capacity, change capability and change effectiveness. In addition to the questions listed above, there are formal assessments that can be used to determine the organizations readiness for change.

The benefit of determining readiness for culture change is that the prerequisites to success can be worked on and improved prior to undertaking a doomed change.

How did you do on the prerequisites above? Are you ready for change or is there room to prepare? And what can you add to or share about this process? I welcome your thoughts.

(1) LaClair, Jennifer A. and Rao, Ravi P. 2002. Helping Employees Embrace Change. McKinsey Quarterly (2002), no.4.