– usually attributed to Peter Drucker, Austrian-American change consultant
Culture's impact on an organisation is profound: it shapes how people think, act, and collaborate. While strategy provides a roadmap, culture defines the landscape. An organisation's values, behaviour and beliefs influence the acceptance and execution of strategic initiatives. If cultural norms clash with strategic goals, resistance ensues, impeding progress. Culture, deeply ingrained, influences daily decisions and interactions, often overpowering strategic plans.
So, how does a leader and a manger change culture?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.
– from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Articulate a compelling vision for the future, making it aspirational, clear and measurable. But first, consider who needs to buy in. If you are a CEO, is it the board and senior management team? If you are a team leader, is it your manager and your staff? If you are in a team of one, then who amongst your stakeholders are you going to share your vision with?
Help your team or organisation understand the purpose and positive outcomes of the proposed cultural changes. A powerful vision serves as a guiding light, inspiring people to see beyond the challenges of culture-change. A vision needs a team and a team needs a vision.
“In 1962, President John F Kennedy visited NASA for the first time. During his tour of the facility, he met a janitor who was carrying a broom down the hallway. The president casually asked the janitor what he did for NASA, and the janitor replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” – Author unknown
People generally like to make decisions and come to conclusions for themselves. Great leadership recognises that the strength of change lies in the collective wisdom of the team. Involve and empower every member who wishes to be part of the change journey. Ask for their feedback early and often. Every person in every role must share in the task of striving for improvement, and improvement necessitates change. Be the cultural change that you want to see.
“Empathy doesn't require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us...Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.” - Brené Browne, American professor and author
Leading change well requires empathy for what others stand to lose from the change. Anticipate resistance and proactively address it. Foster a resilient mindset to navigate challenges and setbacks. Some might say that humans are generally not wired to embrace change; rather, many of us are wired to embrace predictability and stability. Change is more often successful when it is sold well: what’s in it for me? What’s in it for my team? Marketing is often seen as an externally focused activity, but internal marketing – selling what we are doing and why we are doing it – is just as important.
“Good leaders build products. Great leaders build cultures. Good leaders deliver results. Great leaders develop people.” – Adam Grant, American organisiational psychologist and author
Consider the skills and knowledge people in your organisation will require to harness and adapt to the cultural change, and provide appropriate training. Your own colleagues might surprise you – before deciding what training is needed, consider carrying out an audit to better understand what knowledge, skills and attributes your team has already got.
“Great leaders communicate and great communicators lead.” – Simon Sinek, English-American speaker and author
Effective leaders understand that communication is not just about words; it's about fostering a shared understanding, ensuring everyone is informed, engaged and aligned. Think carefully about how you can keep all stakeholders in the loop so they feel confident about what is taking place. Think about who you should communicate with first – for example, your inner team, to ensure those closest to you do not feel surprised in public. Consider over-communicating, sharing more detail than you think is necessary. Transparency is valued in leadership, but think carefully about what you share, when you share it and with whom, knowing, equally, that no one likes to be blindsided.
Bring people with you
“You don't have to be the boss to be a leader. The leader's job is to create and nurture the culture we all need to do our best work. And so anytime you play a role in doing that, you are exercising leadership.” – Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management, Harvard Business School
Foster a collaborative atmosphere where individuals feel heard and valued, ensuring the cultural shift resonates with the workforce. This inclusive approach promotes buy-in, making employees more likely to embrace and champion the evolving culture as their own. It is crucial to understand and respect the existing organisational culture. Align the cultural changes with the values and norms of the existing organisation, considering how to communicate them in a way that will make sense to those in the organisation. A change of culture need not be a change in values. The values may be constant but the culture must adapt to the changing needs of the organisation.
“You need to spend political capital – be unafraid to introduce people, compliment somebody when it’s deserved and stand up for something you really believe in, rather than just go with the flow.” – Amy Schulman, Polaris Partners venture capital firm
Establish and share clear outcomes for what is expected of people and celebrate achievements and excellence. Avoid celebrating mediocrity because people see through inauthentic recognition and it can undermine the efforts of those who are going above and beyond. Not everything needs to be monetised – never underestimate the value of verbal praise. Small gestures count.
“As a leader, you get what you tolerate.” – Susan Scott, American author and “leadership development architect”
You want the changes to continue on without you. To embed cultural change for lasting impact, leaders must institutionalise new norms and behaviours. Start by integrating cultural elements into organisational processes and policies. Develop training programs that educate employees on the desired culture, emphasising its importance. Encourage leadership at all levels to champion the change. Remember that “you get what you tolerate”, so don’t be afraid of calmly and politely pointing out where behaviours and practices are not in line with the changes that have been advertised and agreed.
Cultivate an environment where the new culture becomes ingrained in daily practices. Think about creating new customs or rituals. Empower employees to take ownership of the cultural shift, providing opportunities for collaboration and decision-making, allowing individuals to contribute their ideas and initiatives. This ensures that the shift becomes an integral part of the organisational DNA and sustains itself even in the leader's absence.
“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” – Jane Goodall, British primatologist and anthropologist
Sharing explicit strategy means explaining what you want to do and why you want to do it. This could mean sharing a presentation at a staff meeting or sending a letter. The goal is clarity and alignment, ensuring everyone understands the direction and purpose you have set. The benefit of sharing explicit strategy is that everyone hears the same thing at the same time, and when aspirations and expectations are clear, so is accountability.
“Culture is more like chemistry than math.” – Theresa Agresta, American co-founder, CultureTalk
Leaders can drive change by strategically and subtly influencing behaviour without issuing explicit instructions. For example, if a leader wants to see more staff using a kitchen or shared space, they might install a free coffee machine. If a leader wants to see more collaboration between specific staff members, they might open a new Slack channel or email group. In both cases, leaders set up the environment, and team members will make their own decisions about the actions they take. This method of bringing about change draws on the principle that actions often speak louder than words and facilitates organic and lasting cultural transformation.
Find more helpful tools and resources on the ICDA website.