Time To Change Your Culture? (Five Key Questions Every Leader Needs Ask)

By Natalie Michael, CHRP

As an executive coach, I have noticed a recurring theme in my recent coaching sessions: CEO’s want to change their corporate culture.

In a recent coaching session the CEO of a $40 million BC company said to me, “I believe our culture is too country club.” Another, the CEO of a $120 million manufacturing firm commented: “I believe our culture is too fun. We are missing the business agenda.”

While the personal perspectives are varied, consensus is found in the culture focus.

It is refreshing to see CEO’s tending to their culture, but not surprising. There is a reason that this is a primary topic, as well as a hot button for all HR professionals. In a world where culture is touted as a primary source of competitive advantage, and a true asset for attracting and retaining key talent, to ignore culture is costly.

Culture can be difficult to define, and without definition, even harder to change. If you believe your culture is off, here are five questions to help you determine where your efforts might be best spent.

#1    To what extent does your culture drive the business agenda?
A company’s culture is a complex ecosystem of behaviours, feelings, thoughts and beliefs that determine and define “the way we do things around here.” At its best, an organization’s culture provides impetus and competitive advantage, attracting and energizing people to get the right things done. Innovation is a byproduct and success fosters further commitment. Alternatively, a culture can have the opposite effect; it can actually reduce productivity, emotional commitment and undermine success. As with yogurt, it is remarkably easy to determine when your corporate culture is off.

Overall, few companies are at either extreme, but a blend of both with plenty of opportunity better align in between.

On the whole it is important to ask yourself if the culture is in sync with the strategy and whether it leads to consistent and attractive growth and profitability. By making the link between culture and the business strategy executives are able to answer the questions: “What is this all for? Why is the cultural conversation so important?” The correlation is direct. If your culture is on track, the business results will be there.

#2    Is the CEO effective at reinforcing the desired culture?
The CEO is the prominent leader in the company and, ultimately, the chief cultural executive—serving as both catalyst and role model. There is a difference between understanding the importance of culture and being effective at leading a cultural vision. As mentioned, the first step in leading a cultural vision involves understanding how a healthy and productive culture drives the business strategy. Regardless, to a lead a cultural vision the CEO needs to be engaged with key change management principles, such as stages of and resistance to change, as well as how to leverage multiple communication channels to skillfully deliver and reinforce messages.

#3    Does your culture honour diversity?
Diversity is a must for any organization seeking to unleash the full promise of a company culture, make better decisions and drive innovation. Differences of opinion, nationality and gender are equivalent to strategic power, yet can also be challenging to uphold—especially when differences in style lead to temporary frustration or communication “noise” between teams and individuals. Nonetheless, the reality is that there is ample research which shows the advantage that cultures which value the strength of their differences possess.

It is important for an organization to check whether there is a conscious and subconscious commitment to inclusion, and how the diversity mindset shapes the culture.

Another key is identifying where biases, processes, and interactions are putting the brakes on diversity aspirations. In my coaching sessions executives often comment how frustrating it is to work with people who are “cut from a different cloth” because it is so much faster to deal with people who think and act like them. Fortunately, most recognize that what may feel like speed today could lead to failure tomorrow.

#4    Is there healthy tension between sub cultures?
Although the organization’s values provide are a common fabric across the business, the reality is that every team and department has its sub cultures. Depending on who is leading it, the type of work that they do and the dynamics involved, these sub cultures can involve diverse participants and generate fruitful friction. One of the biggest challenges with any organizational culture is having a sense of unity across teams, while also having productive tension.

Is your organization skillfully aware of competing tensions in the business, and are these viewed as normal and healthy? Is there any value or belief that trumps tensions as an absolute standard? For example, “the customer is always right” or “we must be profitable as a base line standard.”

Are these macro cultural forces productive or are they outdated beliefs that do not take into account the full complexity of a situation and the competing tensions that often arise? Or worse, are they simply individuals exercising power and dominance in a way that is not grounded in the higher principles of how the organization wants to function?

#5    Is there a counter culture rising?
A counterculture is different from a subculture in that it is considered to be deviant in contrast to at least one aspect of the dominant culture. When a counter culture arises it usually stems from a desire for change, and is often interpreted by the establishment as “misbehaviour.” However, as is often case, a few years down the road the same behaviours may be re-framed as bold, transformative, or innovative. (i.e. the ‘hippies‘ who protested the war in Vietnam, the formation of a union, recent uprisings of Chinese workers in manufacturing plants protesting work conditions or the organic food movement contrasted to conventional farming.)

If a counter culture is rising in your organization it is important to be mindful of the tendency to label it as deviant and to ignore the protests and key messages. Rather, than dismiss the messages, examine the counter culture through the lens of progress and innovation.

What could be gained from this contrarian counter culture down the road? If we incorporated this view point into our culture today how might it expand our competitive differentiation? How might we need to shift our practices to include this counter culture and is it worth it? What business results will it lead to? What resources will we require?

Closing Words on ROI
Diagnosing and changing culture can be challenging, but it is also one of the most rewarding parts of being a leader. Having a culture that supports people to work positively together and that creates a winning feeling on the team is ultimately what leads to fulfilment at work, and extraordinary business results.

Natalie Michael, CHRP is a succession management consultant and executive coach with The Karmichael Group in Vancouver.

(PeopleTalk Spring 2014)

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