Leading Culture Change in a Legacy Organization

Are you leading culture change, or are you just talking about it?

Long-overdue recognition of the role that culture plays in organizational performance is resonating across business and governmental entities. However, close examination reveals most of the conversations about the need to improve organizational culture remain just that.

Few organizations readily initiate actions to undertake a comprehensive effort aimed at shifting to a culture that would better serve the organization in addressing performance challenges or a shift in strategy.

Change Leaders or Change Leaders

When it comes to leading a culture change effort, there is an axiom that sums up the challenge facing leaders of an organization with a limiting legacy culture: “Change leaders or change leaders.” It is the reality that we have seen play out time and again in organizations that have successfully shifted their culture. Senior leaders, by the definition of their role, give form to an organization, including its culture

Culture begins with and is shaped by the behavior of the senior leaders. In mature organizations, the leaders have been influenced by the current culture as much as they have given shape to it, and they currently benefit from perpetuating the current culture. They are masters of the current culture; it is merely in their immediate personal best interest to maintain it. And therein lies the challenge for executive leaders. 

Leading culture change starts at the top

Leading a shift in culture is a counterintuitive action that is threatening to many senior leaders. This mostly unacknowledged threat is a primary contributing factor to a lack of action, weak sponsorship, and low commitment to champion a long-term initiative focused on shifting culture. The aforementioned is true even when a change in culture is necessary to support a shift in strategy to one that better meets marketplace demands.

Case in point: We continuously encounter organizations desiring to evolve from being a laggard in the digitization of business into a leader in this realm, knowing their ultimate success in a disruptive marketplace is dependent on this shift. While some believe they can achieve success by installing the best digital technology, others know they will likely not accomplish this transformation without fundamentally shifting their legacy culture..

Conversations with leaders in this situation will produce affirmation for the need to shift culture, yet few take action to do so. Why is this?

A Critical Obstacle: The Current Culture Serves the Top Leaders

Starting an initiative to shift culture is nothing to take lightly, especially in well-established organizations. It is hard work, necessitates strong executive sponsorship and commitment, requires significant resources over time, and takes a relatively long time to accomplish. More importantly—as discussed above—the current culture fits and serves the top leadership quite well.

Leaders most likely know this at an intuitive level, if not at a conscious level. It takes a courageous and highly self-aware senior leader to sponsor and lead a shift in culture across a legacy organization, whereas a recently hired executive leader who is not hindered by the legacy culture may find it easier to sponsor a culture change initiative.

In either case, the rest of the senior team and middle managers are not likely to embrace the desired shift in culture. They may give “good face” to the effort, but in reality, they will “slow walk” or subvert the change effort.

Keep in mind that the current culture works for them. They have mastered it to get into the positions they hold, and their desires for the future depend on it.

Begin with the Hard Conversation

Having the difficult conversation addressing the crucial role senior and middle-level managers play in leading culture change—and the need for them to fundamentally change behavior and the way they manage—is a critical first step in kicking off a culture change initiative.

An honest and straightforward conversation about this topic opens the door for developing sponsorship and a change strategy that has a realistic chance of success. With the proverbial “elephant in the room” out in the open, the sponsor can move on to develop a plan that has the right blend of helping leaders to change or changing leaders.

Depending on the sense of urgency needed in response to marketplace demands, experience has shown there is a decreased negative impact on an organization when the change strategy begins with a sincere effort to support senior and middle managers in changing their behaviors and styles. However, the change strategy needs to have accountability for shifting behaviors baked into it, and it needs to include elements for recruiting and promoting new leaders and displacing those who are unwilling or unable to make a timely change.

A shift in organizational strategy may require new or enhanced technical or business competencies across the leadership team, and this needs to be considered when choosing to help leaders to change or change leaders.

Focus on a Mix of Behavior Change, Coaching, and Skill Development

When developing a plan to help leaders change their behaviors and leadership styles in support of changing the culture, a comprehensive approach should include behavioral-based assessments, coaching, and skill development. The current leaders need to have a clear picture of their behavioral patterns, the approaches they use in carrying out their responsibilities, and the impact their behaviors and styles are having on employees. It should also include feedback showing the types of behaviors the leaders are motivating in their employees.

The Human Synergistics suite of 360 degree feedback assessments for leaders and managers, including the Life Styles Inventory™, Leadership/Impact®, and Management Impact®, provide excellent behavioral-based feedback and guidance to help leaders shift the behaviors and approaches they use in managing people. Leaders will often have basic leadership skill and knowledge gaps left unaddressed because they were not needed in the past operating culture.

The leadership development plan should support leaders in acquiring the skills and knowledge required to model the desired behaviors and approaches that will produce a shift in the culture. The development program should provide personal coaching to those who need assistance. As far as an overall approach to coaching leaders, our experience has shown peer-to-peer coaching to be highly effective in supporting changes in leadership behavior and style, and we highly recommend it to our clients.

Integrate Leadership Development and Performance Improvement

Given the fact that employees take their cues from leaders and are impacted by their approaches, each leader’s development plan needs to be transparent and tied to solving real organizational challenges. Paraphrasing a few quotes from Edgar Schein, “Cultures are built through shared learning and mutual experiences in solving problems.”

Integrating leadership development plans into efforts focused on solving performance challenges provides a clear message to employees about “how things are going to be done around here,” especially when the problem is successfully addressed. Finally, monitoring progress and taking timely action to replace leaders who are not progressing or demonstrating the desire to make the necessary shift in behaviors and leadership styles is an essential element of the overall leadership development strategy. Keep in mind the accountability responses need to be aligned with and model the desired culture.

In the current era of continuous disruption and exponential change in the business world, organizational leaders will experience a greater need to align culture in support of shifting business strategies.

When deciding to sponsor an initiative to change the culture, openly addressing the need to “Change Leaders or Change Leaders” early in the process will help them overcome one of the biggest obstacles that hinders a successful, timely shift in culture. Once it is on the table, leaders can develop and proceed with a more effective plan for leading the culture change their legacy organization needs.

Human Synergistics is expert at helping leaders through cultural change. Contact us today to learn how we can help.

About the Author

Avatar photo
Madeline Marquardt

Madeline Marquardt, President of Ephektiv, Inc., is a business consultant, trainer, and entrepreneur. For over thirty years, Madeline has focused on assisting national and international clients to manage systemic change, clarify strategic direction, complete structural redesign, transform culture, develop executives and leaders, improve inclusive diversity, and strengthen employee engagement. She has worked collaboratively with nuclear power industry leaders to define an optimal culture for nuclear power plants and has served on various nuclear safety culture oversight boards. She has helped leaders in the U.S., Canada, and Europe develop and implement long-term initiatives to transform performance through culture change, leadership development, and employee engagement.