Fake Culture

“Fake culture” refers to all the surface level objects that people point to as culture. These are artifacts of culture which give clues into the deeper layers of culture. You may have heard the saying, “There is more than meets the eye.” That is a very good way to think about real culture. It goes beyond what you see around you.

Culture is NOT:

  • Foosball tables, flip flops and free beer Fridays
  • A fabulous set of values written on the walls
  • Colorful office walls, open concept workspaces and standing desks
  • A style of dress. Suits, uniforms, or hoodies and distressed jeans (how much did you pay for jeans with holes?!) may be the prevailing dress code, but are not culture
  • Fun food and free drinks (no – a whiskey bar is lots of fun and totally on trend, but it’s not culture!)
  • Nap pods and meditation rooms
  • Quirky CEO’s with cool concepts and hot-off-the-press books
  • Slogans, T-shirts or campaigns

Most people can agree on the fact that culture exists and that it influences behavior in organizations. What is not so widely agreed upon is the precise definition of organizational culture. Getting culture defined correctly matters, because a lot of time and resources are poured into things that are falsely labeled culture – and when the real issues aren’t being addressed, there won’t be real results.

At the foundational level, culture is the collection of deeply held beliefs and assumptions that drives behavior within organizations or groups of people. It’s why we do what we do in different situations—culture is how you are expected to behave and comes from shared beliefs through common learning. Ideally these “unwritten rules” correspond to the stated values and beliefs of the organization.

How culture is formed?

Many leaders say they want an innovative workplace culture where people are free to take risks, try things and make mistakes. But if a team member is publicly chastised by the leader, what kind of culture is being created? The team member learns that he will be humiliated if he makes a mistake. So next time there is an opportunity to take a risk, he will apply what he learned and avoid it. This is why culture is a leadership responsibility (not owned by HR, or a culture team). While everyone plays a part in creating culture, leaders set the tone—and it’s fascinating how often a leader’s words and actions are unintentionally out of sync. 

“Culture is caught not taught, reinforced not announced.”

For example, an executive we were coaching was in a meeting with over a dozen attendees. The person leading the meeting was not well prepared and hadn’t set clear objectives. This leader got frustrated with the time that was being wasted and the lack of productivity. So, she took over the meeting and made sure that the needed outcomes were achieved. Unfortunately, those actions had unintended consequences. The team member leading the meeting didn’t learn how to improve, he learned that if he didn’t do it the right way someone else would do his job. Instead of stepping up, next time he’ll step back.

Culture is caught not taught, reinforced not announced. Imagine that you are in a meeting, and you believe that it’s polite to say, “bless you” when someone sneezes. Someone sneezes and you are the only one to say, “bless you.” You’ve just learned that with this group of people, that is not the correct behavior. No one had to teach this to you, it’s learned through observation and experience. Leaders can talk about their ideal culture, but it’s only through shared learning and consistent action that culture gets created.

Can you change culture?

Culture change is possible but not easy. If you think about culture as organizational habits, it helps you see that these consistent patterns of behavior that are learned over time don’t change just because a new set of values gets rolled out! Think about how hard it is for you to change a habit. Now imagine that multiplied by all the employees in an organization.

Change starts with understanding. Are you sure that you clearly understand the culture that is driving the behaviors in your organization? A rapid way to ensure that you get a complete assessment of your organization is by conducting a quantitative survey combined with qualitative focus groups and interviews. The survey you choose should ask questions that expose the underlying behavioral expectations for the organization, not just give you everyone’s opinion on wearing shorts to work on summer Fridays!

We are currently working with the new CEO of a long-standing organization that is facing external challenges that are forcing the need for significant change within the organization to remain relevant in the marketplace. Our client just started within the past 60 days and wants to know what the real culture of his organization is, so he can focus his change efforts on the behaviors he needs for the new strategy to be the most successful. Within 4 weeks of starting the cultural assessment, we will be able to have conversations about real cultural change that can have a rapid and meaningful impact on the execution of strategic initiatives and result in a successful future for the organization.

Don’t be fooled – Take time to understand

I have worked with many CEOs as they have come on board and/or attempted to make shifts in business strategy. In my experience, the more successful leaders are the ones like our current client that take the time and make the effort to clearly understand the culture driving the business they lead, then purposefully shape the culture to meet the needs of the business strategy they are moving towards. If you mistake the fake factors for real culture, then you will not address the underlying beliefs and assumptions that truly drive culture.

Don’t be fooled by fake culture. Be aware and be intentional. Accurately assess your organization’s culture and get clear on where you stand today. Then, decide if that culture will serve you well in executing your strategy or if it will hinder your rapid and successful progress. This knowledge will provide the foundation for success as you determine your next steps.

How does your organization help its members feel safe to take risks—to step up, not step back? What’s standing in the way of making changes that matter? Please share your comments on the social channels below.

Customer Clarity…Exactly who is your Customer?

Customer Clarity

Customer Confusion

Ask 10 random people in your organization “Who is our customer?” How many different answers would you get? Ideally, the answer is the same. There is only one customer. Your strategy, resources and goals and objectives must be aligned around a singularly defined customer.

Lack of customer clarity creates organizational challenges that extend far beyond customer service. A lack of clarity and alignment about the customer leads to confusion and uncertainty about critical organizational priorities. A consistent definition of customer, can break down silos, unlock lost productivity and empower your people.


The Case for the Customer:

Research consistently proves the organizational impact benefits of a high performing culture on measures such as sales growth, market share, ROI, net income, customer satisfaction, innovation, etc. If you need more convincing you can find plenty of information on Culture University to make the case.

Repeatedly I’ve worked with organizations who get results from their organizational culture assessment and wonder why customer focus is low. Multiple definitions of the customer is usually the culprit. After digging deeper we find customer confusion to be a source of incredible chaos in the organization manifesting in cultural challenges in critical and important areas.

Culture Challenges Caused by Customer Confusion:

  • Silos (Coordination and Agreement issues)
  • Operational Values in Conflict with Stated Values
  • Trust Decline
  • Lower Engagement
  • Resistance to Change

It Starts at the Top:

If you’re a senior leader in an organization and reading this post thinking that your organization may have this issue, it is time to look at your own leadership team. Getting consensus about a single definition about who your customer is can be a very powerful driver of high performance, but very difficult to achieve. You will have to contend with identifying who is not your customer, just as much as you will have to define who your customer is. Once the senior leadership team is aligned on the customer definition then it will be critical to define how each of the units led by the senior leadership team fits into the value chain of the customer.

Misalignment about the customer at the senior leadership team impacts the entire organization. A lack of alignment is manifest in many ways. For example:

Silos (Coordination & Agreement) Different customers have different needs. What we experience when an organization allows multiple customer definitions is competition for resources. The competition for resources creates conflict and lost cooperation towards aligned goals, thereby creating silos in the organization and a lost opportunity for maximizing value. Taking this a step further, it’s frustrating for employees when they can’t get what they need to get the job done.

Values Alignment – Multiple customer definitions can result in competing goals and objectives across organizational boundaries. The customer is a driving force in an organization and when that force is applied against competing goals and objectives across a leadership team or across organizational boundaries, conflict will inevitably be played out in visible ways. I’m sure you have seen inappropriate arguments, passive aggressive behavior, and I win/you lose scenarios at some point in your career. Assuming your organization has values contrary to these behaviors, when employees experience them they are likely to lose faith in stated values.

Trust Decline – Value erosion creates enormous negative impact to culture. When stated values are not operating trust goes down in an organization.  What you see on the walls must match what you see in the halls.

Lower Engagement – Lack of clarity and alignment about who the customer is creates confusion about goals, priorities, values and trust in the organization. This ultimately stifles engagement and productivity. When multiple customer definitions exist the challenges described above create an environment where behaviors and practices in the organization decrease pride and enthusiasm for the organization. Further, employees become more cautious in their decision making due to uncertainty about their ability to make the right impact and the consequences if a mistake is made.

Change Resistance – When trust goes down, resistance to change goes up and change grinds to a painfully slow pace. I have witnessed many situations where customer confusion has caused resistance to change. In one such case, it was believed by senior management that the sales organization was resistant to a strategic change which upon a closer look we found was not the case. Actually, the employees where not resistant to the new strategy, but where challenging the implementation of it for good reason. Because they did not have clarity about who the customer was, the strategy implementation did not make sense to the impacted employees. These employees where pushing for a focus on a group of stakeholders that were not the ultimate customer.

Steps to Create Customer Clarity:

step1-e1427741297199Define and get Buy In about the definition of the customer – Who is it? Define it at the leadership level in the context of your strategy. Your customer is the person or entity that receives and in turn pays for the value that your organization provides. You cannot exist without a return of value. It may sound simple, but there are so many variations on who is getting the value and who is making the payment that you need to make sure everyone buys into the definition.

step2-e1427741491385Create a vocabulary to define the other roles – Who is not the customer? These may be people who are very important to the organization, but they are not the customer. So how do you define them? Are they internal business partners, vendors, channel partners or influencers? Define them so that they can be appropriately served and focused on by your organization. Don’t fall into the trap of using the term internal customers. Internal customers are business partners. You want your internal partners to be thinking of the ultimate customer when they are helping you to do the job of serving the ultimate customer. Everyone needs to be thinking this way.

step3-e1427741536606Map the “Value Chain” to the customer – The Value Chain. Once you know who that singular customer is, each person at the leadership level needs to be able to explain how their business function, business units or departments deliver value to the customer. It also necessary to identify how the other non-customer roles map to the value chain.

step4-e1427741565239Communicate, Align and Communicate – Once you have the customer defined and identified the value chain in the context of customer, you may need to consider how your organization is set up to service customer. Do you need to make organizational changes? Take a look at the individual goals you have set up for the people in the value chain for alignment with delivering maximum value to the customer. Take the time to thoughtfully and thoroughly explain the definition of the customer to the entire organization. Use the work you did to map the value chain as a tool to create alignment across organizational units to better service their business partners in ultimately delivering value to the customers.

Customer definition is key organizational culture performance driver. Watch and see the alignment that results in your organization when you create alignment about goals, priorities, products and services for a singular customer definition.

What about you…what issues have you experienced as a result of a fuzzy customer definition? What did you learn in establishing clarity? Please share your experience on social media.

The Secret Steps to Shaping Values

The Secret Steps to Shaping Values

What’s your perspective on corporate values? Are they silly, meaningless words that have to be invented to complete a vision, mission and values trio? Or are values a competitive edge that helps attract and retain the right people for your organization?

I was recently involved in a session with the CEO’s and Senior Leaders that are participating in a cohort leadership development program. The heart of the discussion was about values. We talked about what they are, why they mattered, who defines them and whether or not they make a difference. The debate was healthy and the learnings from this group of seasoned leaders regarding values was rich.

Learning from Senior Leaders on Values:

Learning #1 – Values always exist; the question is whether they are intentional, accidental or hypocritical.

Learning #2 – It doesn’t matter who creates them; it matters how they are defined and lived out. Research shows that whether values are created by a democratic process with employees or defined by leadership, the reason for success or failure is connected to how well they are defined. Are there specific behaviors that make it clear what each value means and does every employee, from the top to the bottom of the organization, live in accordance with those definitions?

Learning #3 – There is always a cost; the question is whether you want to pay now or later. Volkswagen is a great example of a company that chose to pay later. They violated values and are paying a price.

Learning #4 – Values inspire people, rules squash ethical engagement (and people look for ways around them.) You can never make enough rules to cover all potential situations. The more rules you have; the less compliance you get with them. This is why lived out values are so impactful, they create the “playing field” within which people can do their work.

Learning #5 – There is no magic number; as few as one and as many as six. Ken Blanchard advocated for three values. The reality is that you need to keep it simple enough to remember and sufficient enough to serve the purpose of defining HOW you do your work.

Values are highly beneficial for an organization. It is values that can separate you from the competition and connect with customers. Employees use values a basis for bringing competence to what they do and how they do it.

Development and Implementation of Values:

When developing and implementing values here are the secret steps to shaping values and bringing them to life within an organization:

1. Pick the right words – the right words are within what matters most to the organization. Find out what matters most by asking:

a. How will we work together?

b. How will we serve customers?

c. How will we make decisions?

d. How we treat each other?

2. Define the words – give real meaning to each of your value terms by defining them explicitly with a supporting behavior statement that tells everyone what living out the values can look like.

3. Animate with story – bring values to life by identifying and telling the story of a real person inside the company exemplifying the values in real situations.

4. Bring to the front line – make your values stick by having each employee make a pledge to do one action that supports the values on an ongoing basis. Here is one way that an organization achieved all 300 employees making that pledge:

a. The CEO shared a story about why the values matter personally.

b. The executive team was prepared to present in teams, on one of values per team, to define the value and to give a story about somebody in the room living that value concretely.

c. The room was broken into work teams of 6 – 8 people. Each team was challenged to come up with a minimum of 10 values illustrating stories of real people from inside the company, with real names, who were taking actions that exemplified a value. No negative stories allowed.

d. Each team presented the stories and the stories where captured for sharing later.

e. Then each individual person wrote their pledge and shared it with the rest of the room.

Take advantage of the numerous benefits of values that are rich and specific. Identify what is important to the organization, name the right words, define the behaviors and then take them to the front line of the organization in an engaging, compelling and lively manner.

How is your organization taking its values to the people at the front of the organization? I invite your comments and ideas on social media. 

Culture Creep: The Impact on Business Results

Culture Creep - The Impact on Business Results

Research shows that organizations with high performance over a sustained period of time achieve their success because their people are coming to work each day to do more than punch the clock. Organizations are great not just because a leader is doing something great, organizations are great because lots of people are going above and beyond their job description and making a difference every day.

How do you get an organization full of these people? The role of leadership is to intentionally build a sustainable, constructive organizational culture. A constructive culture is one that encourages people to set challenging but realistic goals, develop themselves, be supportive of people and treat people as members of the team. Ultimately, a constructive organizational culture delivers greater results and adapts to the world around it with greater levels of innovation.

Building a high-performing, constructive culture is not easy work but it is possible. Over my two decades of professional practice I have seen many organizations improve bottom line results by purposefully building constructive culture. I have also seen business results erode when the leader of the organization moves on or when the leader takes his or her focus off of cultivating a culture that achieves results. We call this erosion “Culture Creep.”

Culture Creep occurs when the necessary underpinnings of a strong, sustainable culture are missing or leadership behavior changes. To prevent Culture Creep, consider taking these three actions.

Every leader casts a shadow across their organization that impacts its culture.
Larry Senn

1. Create and sustain urgency for the vision

A foundational part of a performance culture development is to craft a vision that captures the energy of the people hired to deliver that vision. Once that vision is established and understood throughout the organization, focus must be maintained to ensure the vision statement does not become just words on posters in the company lobby. Daily work can become mundane and everyday frustrations can become demotivating to people who are not connected to the value of their work. Those who see the urgency of achieving the vision will apply their creativity, collaborate to overcome problems, and radically ratchet up their productivity.

To maintain focus on vision, use performance goals and milestones to track progress made in relation to the vision. Help employees find a personal and emotional reason to care by using stories about how the organization is making a difference in the world. Leaders should draw a direct connection between the work employees do each day and the vision of the organization. Help employees understand the impact they are having on customers and, when possible, create a direct connection to the customer. A sense of urgency and purpose is strengthened when employees connect with people and their stories.

The more employees are able to connect with and personally track progress towards the vision, the better connection they have on the ultimate purpose and value being delivered to the customers. This connection will capture the energy and creativity of the organization and improve business results.

2. Live the values

A “principle-centered” organization creates a firm foundation. Values are an expression of an organization’s principles. When values are well defined and operationalized, employees experience a clear set of boundaries that guide their decisions and actions.

Shared values within an organization give space for trust to grow. Trust inspires employees to work together to achieve the vision. Further, as Stephen M.R. Covey writes in his book “Speed of Trust,” when the level of trust in an organization goes up the speed of change goes up with it and the costs of getting things done goes down.

Operationalizing values means that everyone from leadership to front line employees know and live out the values. This includes the planning, organization, decision making, supervision, hiring, firing, employee evaluation, and rewards. One of the most significant ways to make values operational is to hire people who already hold the organizations values in high regard. After we hire, manage to the values.

People and organizations are judged based on their behavior, not their words. Trust is established and sustained based upon actions not promises. Therefore, making sure that values matter begins with the action of the leader. Leaders must walk the talk and become a model of how the values are executed.

3. Focus on leadership behaviors

Leaders have a direct impact on the behaviors of others in the organization. It is that simple. It really does start at the top where a leader exhibits behaviors that impact how employees will approach things such as goal setting and efforts to reach those goals, or understanding and solving customer problems, or how they interact on teams.

An unintentional culture will take shape when a leader’s behavior is not aligned with values and the culture they want to shape. Many approaches are available to understand leadership behaviors such as 360 feedback survey and 1:1 discussion.  Whatever tool is used, the critical outcome is to link leadership behavior with the culture being created. As Larry Senn has said, every leader casts a shadow across their organization that impacts its culture.


Whether you have successfully shifted culture, are in the middle of culture change, or are just humming along at high rates of performance, the actions described above can be applied. Organizational culture is not static and requires continual effort and attention.

Maintain the benefits of building a high performing culture by focusing on vision, values and leadership behaviors. These three important actions will help you avoid the erosion of your culture before it creeps, seeps and leaks away.

What can you add to the conversation? I invite your thoughts and comments on social media. 

The Ghost of Cultures Past

The Ghost of Cultures Past

One of the unfortunate consequences of leadership churn, mergers and acquisitions and failed projects is that they leave behind remnants of cultures past. These ghosts of the past can come back to haunt culture change initiatives and current change projects.

You can catch glimpses of the ghost of culture past by listening carefully and observing behaviors. When people are showing resistance to change there may be elements of the past culture that is haunting them and holding them back. The ghosts of culture past is especially present in Mergers and Acquisitions when the people side of change is poorly managed.

For example, insurance company employees had three different leaders in four years which created an environment where change was met with a “wait and see” attitude. The employees who had significant tenure looked back on the good old days and believed they could “out wait” the new leader and any change he wanted to create. When the new leader introduced a centralized model for key processes, they stubbornly clung to the past ways of doing things because they thought that it would trump any change a new leader attempted. They reminisced about the last time someone tried to make that change, remembered how it failed and lived in the belief that the past culture would prevail.

Another culture ghost is haunting a technology company who is a “mashup” of four different companies. They didn’t take the time to become one company united in a company purpose or vision so there is internal strife, competition and a reduction in the productivity potential. It was so bad that one of the comments on an internal culture survey was:

Cutting directly to the chase, change whatever needs to change for the XYZ office to stop hating us.  We’ve been one company for almost three years, and have been trying hard to work together across locations, but still, to this very day, we hear very hurtful things said about us by people in the XYZ office, even by people we thought shared mutual respect.  I don’t care if we’re not friends.  I don’t even care if they like me, as long as we’re able to effectively work together.  I would even prefer if they would just be “up front” with us about it, rather than waiting until they hang up the phone to make their comments and rude gestures.”

Another example of the past haunting the present is an M&A situation where the acquiring company went through a particularly difficult acquisition process. They acquired a company that wanted to be left alone for many good reasons. They saw that they could experience value erosion if they used the normal integration process so they empowered the company to run stand-alone until they grew to become materially significant and had to be rushed through a painful and rapid integration. They are going through another acquisition where taking time to integrate would minimize value erosion in the deal. However, the pain of that previous integration is causing executives to react to the ghost of the past deal and they are accelerating the integration despite warning signs that the newly acquired company could implode without the appropriate transition plan. Since a hundred million dollars is immaterial to the acquiring company there is less impetus to recognize the damage of the haunted response.

Symptoms of ghosts from cultures past are evident in all three examples. In the first situation, the ghost slowed the progress and caused significant resistance to change. In the second story, the ghosts of multiple cultures were creating internal confusion and frustration. Finally, the ghost of the past experience left an indelible culture imprint (this isn’t how we are going to do things here) and causing executives to react in a way that could compromise the business case.

Managing Culture Ghosts

  1. Honor the Past. While the past isn’t something to cling to, it’s important to understand the impact of the past. Value what’s good and use it as a leverage point to build on in order to honor those who hold that near and dear. In the case of the insurance company, the new leader took time to get to know the organization. He made sure that he listened to the voices, respected the past and built on the strength of what came before him. That meant he connected the vision for the future with the success of the past. This helped the employees understand the connection between where they were and where they needed to go. They felt respected and understood which gave them courage to move forward into a strategic future that demanded a lot of change. Three years into the implementation of a new strategy, growth has exploded from 2% to 22%! Have you denigrated the past to get to the future or celebrated it to move forward faster?
  1. Get a reality check on the current culture. There are many assessments and tools that provide language and data to understand what’s going on right now. Many times, the whispers of the ghost of past culture is evident in the data. Invest in the tools, conversations and focus groups that give you a clear picture of what’s present. Sometimes what a leader believes about culture is impacted by the ghosts of his or her past culture. They are bringing bias and views that color their perspective of an organization. Know what you are dealing with and find out how you can make a positive impact. A leader’s behaviors create impact that can increase or decrease their effectiveness. Understanding the culture gives context and can improve effectiveness. Think of Undercover Boss, what would you do differently if you really knew what was going on in your organization?
  1. Know where the culture came from, where it is now and what the future holds. A leader needs to understand the culture of the past, the present culture and their future ideal culture. Each of these vantage points has value. Where you came from is about roots or heritage, it gives context to the organizational struggles and successes. You can appreciate how the organization was developed and where it may haunt the present. Where you are now gives a starting point for any change or vision. Without clarity about where you are, you are lost before you begin. You can’t get somewhere without knowing where you are. When you map directions, you need a starting point. This is what clarity on current culture provides. Where you want to go and how you want your culture to become is a critical anchor to hold you accountable. Are you clear on all three perspectives of your culture?

Charles Dickens classic tale, A Christmas Carol, was the inspiration for this article. Whether you are a leader or someone impacted by culture, I hope that you are inspired to examine all the culture ghosts and use them to achieve greater levels of success in all that you do. Understand your impact and make the world a better place because you are in it.

Happy Holidays!

“I will live in the past, the present, and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me.”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol


People Powered Culture Change

People Powered Culture Change

As you lead through culture change are you “playing to win?”  Who is on your team?  Culture is all about people. In order to play to win you need to know who is on your team and make sure that the right people are in the right positions.

Throughout any change there are various roles that are played. Culture change is no different. There are the people who decide to make the change and the people impacted by the change. There are people who contextualize the change and there are teams that are assigned to “work on the change.”

Whatever your culture change approach, these are common roles that need filled during any Culture Change:

  • Leaders – decide to make the change, support the change and sustain the change. Leadership is essential in creating lasting culture change. Leaders are identified through their positional power in the organizational hierarchy. Culture change is every leader’s responsibility. They must be committed to the change and competent to lead the change. The responsibilities of change leaders include:
    • Effective communication demonstrated by clearly making the case for the change, repeatedly sharing the need for change and reinforcing the strategy, vision and values. Talking is insufficient. A leader must be accessible, listen and address feedback proactively. It’s easy to confuse message sending with true communication. Leaders cannot be a “talking head” they must remain active and play an ongoing role during culture change.
    • Engaging peers to support the change. This is horizontal leadership and is often referred to as building a coalition. All leaders must become advocates and hold each other accountable for demonstrating the changed behaviors. Nothing kills change quite like a leader who says one thing and behaves differently. A CEO I spoke with wanted to do culture change in order to make his employees work harder and achieve greater results. He believed that if they received some training it would help them become more productive. Unfortunately he didn’t understand that they were at capacity and his frequent hunting and fishing trips created dissonance with his message that they should work harder.
    • Providing resources to accomplish the culture change. Will power or wishing cannot make culture change happen. Leaders must set aside the time, money and people capacity to be successful. An idea doesn’t implement itself and a change without resources is destined to take longer and not fully achieve the intended outcomes. I worked with a Senior Executive who was implementing a significant strategy change. He recognized the need for a supporting culture change and ensured that there were adequate resources. This leader was committed to the change and resourced appropriately. Because of his dedication to strategic success he prioritized the culture change work and I helped the organization build change capacity through education, the introduction of the Change Advisory Network and setting up a Strategic Change Office.
  • Managers and Supervisors – play the role of translators. They give context and reinforce the message from leaders. They are also the ones who talk with the employees and help them to process the change. Managers and Supervisors are a potential source of resistance. They are dealing with their personal change challenges while expected to communicate their support of the change. Managers and supervisors need:
    • to know what is expected of them during the change
    • the skills and the tools to lead their people through the change
    • support and reinforcement as they go through their personal change process

The unique role that managers and supervisors play during culture change is often overlooked. They are essential because they provide the connection between the leaders and the front line employees. Managers and supervisors need skills and support during culture change initiatives. They need the skills to effectively communicate, coach and comfort their people. They need the support to deal with the downward pressure of leaders and the upward pressure of their team. Unfortunately because of their role, managers and supervisors are often pressed for time and are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of culture change. Leaders need to consider how to support this essential group in the midst of culture change.

  • Employees – “change target” is the official change management term for employees in the midst of culture change. A change target includes anyone that is directly impacted by the change. Change Targets are people. They move through change at different speeds and have different challenges to overcome along the way from the current culture to the ideal culture. To be embraced, a change effort must be coordinated in such a way that the change targets are engaged in the process. People generally aren’t opposed to change, they are opposed to being told to change. Rather than telling them about a finalized plan, bring employees in from the start, rely on their input and incorporate their ideas. The heart of change management is engaging this critical group of stakeholders by applying the right change levers to accomplish the desired outcomes.

The magic of change management is the ability to help people move from where they are to where they need to go with the least disruption. There are processes and methodologies galore to do change management. However, the essence of this discipline is to speed the change from your current culture to your ideal culture and get the full benefits of the change faster. There is a reason that the culture needs to change. So apply change management to get further, faster!

  • Culture Change Team – these are the people assigned to focus on the culture change. They have skills ranging from planning and project management to communications and change management. The value of a Culture Change Team is their dedicated focus on the success of the culture change. Members of the team may include:
    • Change Lead – responsible for facilitating the overall change process. This individual works closely with the leader and supports the execution of the change strategy. The Leader is ultimately accountable for the success of the change. The Change Lead supports the Leader and manages the Culture Change Team throughout the change process.
    • Change Team Members – support the culture change by performing specific tasks such as handling communications, measuring readiness, managing resistance and redesigning structures or rewards to ensure the culture change is sustained.
    • Change Agents – These are employees from across an organization that are intentionally selected. They help support the change by implementing processes, educating employees, and serving as a role model for the culture change. A successful team of change agents has clearly defined roles, responsibilities and the right skills including the ability to influence and the ability to communicate effectively.
    • Change Champions – in addition to change agents, change champions are recruited as a means of further penetrating the organization. They extend the change team’s capacity to replicate skills and tailor messages so that they’re relevant to employees at a local level throughout the organization. They must be part of the organization’s informal network and have the ability bridge disconnected groups. The culture champions serve to formalize your informal grapevine. They open new communication channels within the organization be serving to send and receive messages at deeper levels.

The purpose of getting clear on these roles is to ensure that the right people are in the right roles to support your culture change initiative.  Build a winning culture change team by identifying the people in your organization who can serve in these various roles.

Is your change team in place? Are the right people in the right positions? What other ideas can you add? Please share them on social media. 

The Sweet Spot of Success – Understanding Culture, Change and Leadership to Accomplish Business Results

The Sweet Spot of Success

A Sweet Spot exists at the intersection of three areas of context for any business transformation (Change). It is critical for leaders to get context clarity on these areas to make the difference between a resounding successful change and a crashing failure.

The Sweet Spot

Sweet Spot of Success

  1. Leadership Context – What are the leader’s skills, strengths and experiences in leading change? What is the leader’s commitment to the change?
  2. Organizational Strategy (Change) Context – What must change? Why is change needed? As a result of the change, what does success look like?
  3. Organizational Culture Context – What are the underlying beliefs and behaviors that shape the performance and potential of the organization?

Sweet Spot = the winning formula for leading change

1. Leadership Context

For a leader to be successful implementing change, the leader must be aware of his or her own ability to lead the change within the context of the organization. Prior success in another organization does not mean automatic success in the present organization. There are countless examples of successful leaders that have been swallowed up and spit out by the culture of a new organization when they have attempted to implement new change.

Leading change well is an essential capability for all leaders. Change leadership attributes include:

  • Demonstrate Integrity – results and relationships are the twin markers of this attribute. As leaders are achieving results are they maintaining great relationships or leaving a wake of dead bodies behind as they accomplish great things? Results that violate people lead to long term failure and more difficult change in the future.
  • Model Change – in order to lead there must be followers. In order to have followers a leader must build trust, communicate effectively, inspire others to support the change and be an exemplar for the change. Being an exemplar of change leads back to integrity. When words and actions don’t match (integrity) the leader will lose trust. Without trust the change takes longer, costs more and makes a damaging imprint in the cultural memory of the organization. Do leaders do what they say and say what they mean?
  • Manage Complexity – we are drowning in information, activities and stuff. The best leaders make meaning out of the madness and simplify whenever possible. The business methodology of the same name addresses the activities around the four pillars of strategy, transparency, total value chain and sustainability. All that translates into focusing on what really matters and eliminating the rest. Is your leader simplifying or making things more complex?

An assessment against these leadership attributes will reveal a leaders strengths and opportunities for improvements.  Change leadership is simple yet difficult. Most leaders know what to do, it’s the doing that’s hard. Close the “know | do gap” in order to maximize change leadership.

2. Strategy or Change Context

In assessing the context of a change a few questions must be considered:

  1. What are the change impacts on people?
  2. What does success look like? What is the strategy, result or goal that must be achieved? Can the change be described in an inspiring manner with absolute clarity?

Understanding the Change Environment

Changes don’t occur in a vacuum. An organization has a maximum capacity to absorb change. It is possible for people within an organization to become saturated with change. When change saturation occurs, dysfunction begins and the change will slow down or ultimately fail to achieve the intended benefits.

An assessment of the cumulative impact of changes within an organization will enable the leadership team to make informed decisions about how to implement a portfolio of changes. Changes can be canceled, staged, extended or altered in some other way to reduce the impact to stakeholders at a given point in time. What is important is that changes are managed in a way that enables successful implementation while still successfully serving customers.

Understand the Change:

Before a leader begins any change, he or she must start with an understanding of the change by answering the following questions:

  • What is the change? This isn’t the action that you are taking, change is the difference between the ways things are today and how you intend them to be in the future.
  • Why does the change matter? Why is the change happening?
  • Who is being impacted, directly or indirectly by the change?
  • How significant is the change to the people being impacted? This is from their point of view not the leader’s point of view. It’s easy to assume the change is insignificant when it’s observed from a higher vantage point.
  • When is the change taking place? While one change may seem rather minor, the impact is compounded when change is happening in the midst of multiple changes. There are limited resources for adopting changes. Be careful how you use up your people’s change capacity.

3. Organizational Culture Context

Culture is the shared patterns of belief and behavior that create an outcome. Collective outcomes are known as performance or productivity. When it’s time to change the outcome, it’s time to change the culture.

These shared patterns of beliefs and behavior are essential to inspiring change and reducing resistance. Before starting down the path of change, leaders must understand the cultural context. It is akin to knowing how much you weigh prior to beginning a weight loss program. If you don’t know your starting weight, you won’t know what to change or how much to change to get your result. It’s the same for culture, measure before you begin.

Three Simple Steps to Success:

  1. Assess – where you are to get an accurate understanding of your current reality. An assessment will reveal your organizational strengths and opportunities.
  2. Define – your future reality; what strengths you will build on and what needs redefined or restructured to achieve the future reality. This may require culture change to incorporate new beliefs and behaviors.
  3. Align – what you do and what you say. To achieve culture change there are a series of alignment steps that support employees as they build on strength and transition to new beliefs and behaviors. Maintaining this alignment is one of the most challenging aspects of culture change.

The Sweet Spot of Success – Change Leadership

Once there is a clear understanding of the leadership context, change context, and culture context, here are some considerations for successfully leading through the change:

  • Uncertainty drains productivity – when people are uncertain about the future or the change, it significantly impacts productivity. While leaders may not have all the answers, it’s important to share progress and create some certainty.
  • Data doesn’t have meaning until you make it – too many change messages contain lots of data that gets lost on the recipient. Without context, content is confusing. So take the time to clearly and effectively share the story behind the data and make meaning.
  • Begin with the reader / listener in mind – when sharing the change with others, remember who they are and what matters to them. Speak in their language not yours. “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart” (Nelson Mandela.) The language of the heart is the language of change.

Leadership is the magic ingredient for successful change. The best processes, methods and tools cannot overcome a lack of great leadership. So take the time to understand the changes you intend and the environment you intend to implement them in and then use these techniques to successfully achieve results.

What other changes in your organization are standing in the way of the changes that matter? How ready and aligned is your culture to adopt the change?  Please comment on social media and share this post.

How to manage the noise of culture change conversations

How to manage the noise of culture change conversations

Conversations are going to happen

At the time you announce the new strategy, reorganization, acquisition, or any significant change into your organization the conversations are likely already underway everywhere in your organization. It is human nature, and brain science has verified, we want to eliminate uncertainty in our lives; therefore, we talk to each other about what is happening around us. Continue reading “How to manage the noise of culture change conversations”

Trust Makes Culture Change Ready

Trust Makes Culture Change Ready

What is the level of trust in your culture? What do employees think of senior management?

Research says that only 49% of employees trust senior management. The scores for CEO’s are even more dismal; 28% of surveyed employees felt the CEO was a credible source of information.

Trust promotes creativity, conflict management, empowerment, teamwork, and leadership during times of uncertainty and change.  A culture of trust is a valuable asset for any organization that nurtures and develops it. Amy Lyman’s work on the 100 Best Companies to work for concludes, “Companies whose employees praise the high levels of trust in their workplace are, in fact, among the highest performers, beating the average annualized returns of the S&P 500 by a factor of three.”

As a core enabler of a high-performance organizational culture, the absence or presence of trust can be either an accelerator or barrier of organizational strategy and performance. As Stephen M.R. Covey writes in his book “Speed of Trust”, when the level of trust in an organization goes down the speed of change goes down with it and the costs of the change go up.

Before you start that transformational change, ask yourself if your organization is ready for change. Will your organization’s culture, and more importantly, its level of trust support the change you wish to implement?

What is Trust?

Here are three unique qualities about trust; it’s a process, a choice and something that is uniquely human:

  • Process – trust is a learned skill. It involves an ongoing process of relationship building, communication, and action. For example, doing what you say you will do builds trust. Building trust is a process that layers on level after level of deeper trust. When actions do not match words and trust is breached, this is also a process that works in the reverse.
  • Choice – people decide whether or not to extend trust. Trust evolves incrementally over time, is based on sound judgment, and is not without limits and conditions. Those who choose to trust understand that there is the possibility of a breach of trust, and weigh risks and benefits before proceeding.
  • Uniquely Human – while you may consider your car to be reliable transportation, you don’t “trust your car.” Trust is about keeping your word, honoring your commitments and involves a decision, action, and a response. Trust is something that is unique to human beings.

The Process of Trust Building

Relationships are complex and so is the trust building process. Trust comes from who you are, what you say, and how you behave.

Think of trust like a bank account. You extend trust credits proportional to the risk you are willing to take with someone. When that person honors the trust you’ve granted, then he or she gets a deposit in the trust account. When the person says or does something that busts your trust, then you deduct from their trust account.

Components of the trust building process:

  • Code of Honor – the basics like showing respect, telling the truth, and keeping your word are foundational to the process of trust. If you are consistent in keeping the code then you build trust over time.
  • Extend Trust – go first and give trust. Not a blind trust but rather a trust with clear expectations and strong accountability built into the process.
  • Be Open – People who communicate only when they need something or when it’s in their best interest to tell you, limit trust. Those who share information appropriately increase trust. Tell people what they need to know not everything you know. Use judgment to balance between protecting confidential information and sharing needed knowledge. Information that adds to overload or isn’t pertinent diminishes trust.

Trust accounts can become overdrawn and create situations where it’s foolish to extend trust because there is no more trust to give. Be intentional about building trust and recognize that it’s a process. That’s why they say, “trust must be earned.”

To build organizational trust, employees need connection to their work, to what’s going on in the organization, and to the leader. Here are three ways to build that connection:

  1. Help employees understand how they fit in and how their contributions make a difference.
  2. Improve the flow and frequency of communications. Employees often feel they are out of the loop and they are not involved in decisions that impact them.
  3. Close the gap between senior leaders and employees. Leaders need to take time to develop authentic relationships with employees by connecting to their daily reality.

What destroys, breaks or busts trust and how do you repair broken trust? Trust busters are behaviors that destroy trust, sabotage relationships and reduce the balance in the “trust account.” There are two key categories of trust busters.

Expectations that are broken or miscommunicated

Broken expectations occur when you give your word that you will do something and you don’t do it. Broken expectations result in broken trust. Organizations break trust with employees when the employees have expectations of lifetime employment or stable work and layoffs occur. Leaders break trust when they commit to one course of action and take a seemingly different path.

Unfairness – whether it’s real or perceived

The human brain is always evaluating for fairness. Unfairness is a brain threat that creates an instant and automatic negative response. Perceived unfairness creates an environment in which neither trust nor collaboration can flourish.

When undergoing change, there is a significant risk of these trust busters. Too often, communication is emphasized during change as an antidote to trust busting. Leaders believe that if they “communicate better” they would overcome all the trust busters. The problem arises when actions don’t align with the words of the communication or the leader just presents rather than having a conversation.

Beware of trust busters and be prepared to address them or you risk raising the cost of your change and increasing the time it takes to get the change completed successfully.

Tell us about the trust busters you have seen in your organization and what steps can be taken to repair the broken trust?