Leadership Puzzler: Culture Change – Is it Even Possible?

leadership puzzler culture changeI worked with a brilliant man once who was in the “culture change” business. He went into large companies and helped with mergers of two disparate cultures to move the united company forward or came in after a leadership change to reinforce the new culture. What he said was that he was the “coach” to the organization, not just the CEO, and in that role of coach, he had to first ask questions and really listen to the answers.  He always had the most astute insights into the companies “gut” or culture and could usually find the one or two things that would make a course correction. So I’m going to attempt to give you one or two insights into cultural change that might help if you ever find the need to do so in your organization.

The short answer is “yes,” it’s possible to change a culture. It’s not easy and there are likely to be casualties along the way in the form of personnel departures, but it can be done. Let’s use the story of company “X.” They are a professional services firm specializing in marketing, sales, graphics and web design. The company was the result of a merger of two smaller companies and the combined revenues were $40M. The founder was still with the company, but not working on a daily basis and the organization was led by a CEO who came from a financial background and had no knowledge of the industry. The sales bumped along at a tepid 5-8% growth rate and some of the management team were getting restless as they were led to believe the vision was to grow to $75M and become an acquisition target. No one was happy and some key individuals were departing. All believed that the founder had no idea what was going on.

So what change needed to happen to get the company back on track? First and foremost it needed to get back in touch with what had made it successful in the past – an edgy, smart bunch of individual collaborators that created amazing work for their clients. They had lost their edge and competitors were circling and picking off their talent. The COO came forward and using the work from Dave Logan’s Tribal Leadership. She started with the leadership team and attempted to define the company’s values. She met strong resistance at first, but after identifying the real problem – that the company had lost its focus and needed a reboot – more people bought into the premise. When the leadership team had agreed on their seven core values and definitions for each, they rolled it out to the entire company. They made little table tents with cool graphics and gave one to every employee to put on their desk. They talked about them in meetings and they even used them to help make decisions in the company – it really became their kiddie bumpers on the bowling alley to avoid making any more gutter balls. New clients started to come on board and employees were “enthusiastic” again.  Revenue started to climb at a 10-15% clip, far exceeding earlier projections. The company had its “vibe” back.

So what’s the catch? The only person not on board with values and “culture” was the CEO. He declared it a waste of time and demeaned the effort at every opportunity.  Most COOs would have given up in the face of such negativity – especially since it could be a very career limiting move to proceed – but this one didn’t and the more support she had via the tangible results in both morale and revenue, the more she pushed forward.  He made an attempt to fire her, but the COO had already gone to the founder with the results and briefed her on the initiative so when the CEO tried to have her fired, the founder intervened. What happened next was the surprise, the founder let the CEO go and promoted the COO.

The troops were thrilled and today the company is thriving under “culturally aligned” leadership. The COO had what Logan calls her “hell no” moment when told to shut down the initiative.  She knew it was the right thing to do, so she pressed on.

You never know who the casualties will be of cultural change, you also never know who the stars will be, but there will be both and it’s all okay. Be prepared for resistance, acceptance, brilliance and disappointment, and always be willing to change.