Culture Change in a Mature Organization: The Effort and the Outcome

The Monday after Thanksgiving in 2005, November 28, was a cold, windy, and gloomy morning. The atmosphere inside of Tasty Catering’s building was neither cold nor windy, but it was very gloomy. We had moved into a building five times the size of our previous building on the first of that month. For the previous 27 days, my two brothers and I had been involved in constant bickering, which was a result of three alpha males trying to assert their dominance and mark their territory. The tension was evident.  The toll on staff was obvious. As the senior leader, I did not have the wisdom to change. I was a victim of my emotions.

That morning, I crept into the front of the building, sat at my desk with a cup of coffee, and began to focus on what type of offense would work best to take control of the bickering. Two young staff members approached my desk. Tim was 23 years old. He had started as dishwasher in his early teens and worked seasonally until he graduated with a degree in accounting. Jamie was 22. We had known Jamie from a very young age. She had recently joined us full time after graduating with a degree in communications. These two were future leaders of our company.

I looked up and made eye contact. Jamie locked eyes and said, “If you don’t change, we are leaving!”  A quick glance at Tim revealed the same steadfast determination. I asked, “Change what?” They said they were no longer interested in command-and-control leadership. They wanted an employee-created company culture. After pondering those words for about 15 seconds—15 seconds of thinking, “throw ‘em out” and “they are our future”–I said, “I don’t know how to change, but we [the organization] will support you.”

View this clip from the Ultimate Culture Conference for some of the highlights from Tasty Catering’s culture journey. If you have not already done so, sign up and join our Ultimate Culture Community to view the full video.

The change took one year for the construction of the foundation and three years to become, as Edgar Schein states, an “assumed behavior.” The book Good to Great, by Jim Collins, (HarperBusiness, 2001) was purchased for every employee. The organization was divided into nine teams. Each team read the book as a book “club.” One member from each team was selected to create the culture statements in the “Good to Great Council.” The Good to Great Council would meet every other Monday until the statements were defined. The statements would be brought back to the teams to review and approve. The three owners were not allowed to participate. If they create it, they will own it.1

We did not know of John Kotter’s Eight Steps of Change (Leading Change, Harvard Business Review Press, November 2012), but in retrospect, we followed the eight steps in order. We did not know of Edgar Schein’s “Three Levels of Culture: Artifacts, Espoused Values and Basic Underlying Assumptions” (Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass, August 2010), but the end result was an assumed behavior based on the espoused culture statements and organizational artifacts that supported them.2, 3

The complete espoused culture statements were placed on signs and posted in every open room. The statements are read before every meeting of five people or more so they become an assumed behavior. The only pictures on the walls are those of employees in work and recreational settings. The most important people in the organization are “them,” and we feature their pictures with pride.

The expected outcome was a better organizational climate, such as increased cooperation, better problem solving, and superior customer service. The unexpected outcome was incredibly high employee engagement, extremely low turnover, and amazingly high performance. To validate these outcomes, our organization has won many awards for being a “best place to work,” perhaps the most significant being the American Psychological Association’s “Psychologically Healthy Workplace” in the Small For-Profit category.4

Though we had noticed positive changes, we desired a more scientific approach to measuring our culture, and we found it in using Human Synergistics’ Organizational Culture Inventory®. The results of this tool were amazing. We determined that our employees shared the owner’s opinion of our culture, which is Constructive.5

Jamie and Tim not only led Tasty Catering’s culture change; they also led the change in my leadership style, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Changing a mature organization can be daunting, but the outcome is well worth the effort. People make the organization, and combining their input with established assessments and processes can lead to great results.

In a follow-up response to a participant’s question at the Ultimate Culture Conference, Tom Walter responds here: In our family-operated organization, we have one person who is most influential in our org. that keeps our culture stuck.  Without his support, we are unable to change of has some culture change despite support from all senior leaders?

It appears the organizational change process depends upon this person’s desire to participate in the change. It also appears that this person has a leadership position, or perhaps better stated, a control position. Evidence based research has proven that organizational change will not occur unless leaders actively support and participate in the change.

Why is this person resistant to change? The answer will determine the path needed to effect the personal change. The resistance is a result of that person not understanding how the benefits of the change will help this individual. The most important message should be not about the attributes of the change, but of the benefits to the participants. There has not been a clearly defined benefit that would motivate the resistor.

There is likely an opportunity for positive change in your organization. Are you ready for the effort and reward?

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1 Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York, NY: Harper Business.

2 Kotter, J. (2012). Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

3 Schein, E. (2010). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

4 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards. (2014). Retrieved from

5 Cooke, R. A., & Lafferty J. C. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics International.