Is Your Organization Ready for Culture Change

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are solely mine and not those of my employer or anyone else; nor are they intended as professional HR counseling upon which readers should rely.

“The only thing that is constant is change.” Heraclitus

We live in a fast-paced, dynamic and constantly changing environment (political, economic, social and technological) and businesses today need to be more agile than ever before. They need to be responsive, adaptable, flexible and constantly evolving to the needs and demands of their clients. Cultural change is often an essential prerequisite for successful implementation of any change program.

First, let’s come to a common understanding of corporate culture. The term has been bandied about for decades. The basic definition of corporate culture is the collective way that an organization operates: ‘how we do things around here’. However, the concept is fairly complex. Usually, a culture has developed over time and can be one of the most difficult challenges for leaders to address and change, especially in government agencies and departments.

As the Chief Human Resource Officer for a large cabinet level agency, I found that driving culture change was extremely difficult. One reason for the difficulty is while the leaders of the organization changed because of political transition, the employees did not. Consider the fact that at the highest levels of government, change occurs every four to eight years – and in some state governments, term limitations assure that change happens every two years. Yet, the majority of government employees have been in place for years, and some for decades. Many employees were grounded in the way ‘it was always done’, and resisted any attempt to do things new or in a different way. Similarly, there are other corporations and nonprofit organizations that take on the same cultural structures with 20 and 30-year employees establishing the underlying culture and new entrants arriving with different ideas and ways of approaching the business spearheading culture change.

Culture should be Intentional

Corporate culture refers to the shared values, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs that characterize the members of that organization and define its purpose and nature. Corporate culture is embedded in the organization’s goals, strategies, structure, and approaches to their employees, customers, shareholders, investors, and the greater community.

These are just some of the examples of behaviors or “things we do around here” that contribute to an organization’s corporate culture:

  • how information is communicated
  • how feedback is given
  • how performance is managed
  • how projects are co-coordinated
  • the way meetings are held and the structure of the organization
  • the hierarchy, roles, silos, matrix and/or cross-functional teams

Every organization has its own culture whether they are consciously aware of it or not. Culture matters as much as your organization’s brand. Zappos, the online shoe company has built its brand around their corporate culture. Their culture is summarized in the tagline, “work hard, play hard”. What’s important about studying an example of corporate culture like Zappo’s is not to emulate the culture, but to clearly define culture for your organization and ensure that values and behaviors align are understood by every employee.

The video summarizes Zappos unique culture.

What are the drivers for cultural change? The business must understand what the drivers are for change as this will enable the preparation of a strong business case and achieve buy-in from all stakeholders. There could be a number of drivers:

  • an economic downturn
  • challenging trading conditions
  • plans for growth or expansion
  • a change in direction or strategy
  • technological changes and advancements
  • increased competition
  • customer pressures
  • government legislation or regulation changes
  • a new election cycle.

Whatever the business reasons are for change you need to know or assess your starting point, where you are today (an honest appraisal), where you want to be and how you are going to get there (a realistic, but challenging set of goals).

Leadership – Buy In

Managers at all levels in the organization have a critical role to play in any change program. They need to embody the organization’s corporate culture, its mission (the purpose), its vision (where we want to be), its strategy (how we will achieve this), its objectives & goals (what we need to achieve), its values (guiding principles to achieve the vision and goals), its behaviors (how we need to behave to support the vision) and its practices and procedures.

Managers are vital for cascading information from the C-Suite throughout the organization. They need to be the role models for presenting and communicating the vision and mission, demonstrating and supporting the behaviors that produce the desired results and outcomes for the organization’s strategic objectives and goals.

Employee Involvement

Successful change happens when employees are involved and engaged in those changes. Managers must present a compelling story that motivates employees to accept the changes. They must also have good insight and recognize employees who may resist the change process in order to create strategies and tactics to garner support. Throughout my career, I have been responsible for change initiatives. For example, as the Co-Director of team-based structures and systems in a large telecommunications company, I spearheaded a significant change process. The driver for the change was to support the company in succeeding in a competitive marketplace. Establishing teams led the way to success, and helped make the company the first choice for its customers.

Teams reinforced the company’s values of empowerment, accountability, customer-driven focus and diversity. Teams were a way to improve work processes and ultimately customer service. That company understood its place in the competitive marketplace and used teams as a strategy for getting to where it wanted to be. You could argue that most businesses are constantly in a state of change whether that’s growth, downsizing, restructuring or right-sizing although, we need to consider how many organizations go through significant changes successfully and maintain high levels of engagement, motivation and productivity.

In my current position, as the Chief Human Resource Officer for an NGO, each year I take employees offsite to evaluate the success and opportunities we have for improvement. I facilitate a meeting which allows the employees to set goals and targets for the upcoming year. Those goals and targets become the basis for individual performance plans and accountability. I have found that when employees set goals for themselves, there is more buy-in, and employees feel responsible for a successful outcome in a more deliberate way.

These goals and targets are always in alignment with the mission and core values of the company, another critical component of culture change. Do your employees live and breathe the mission of the company? Are they guided by the core values of the company? Having a simple and easy to understand mission statement (think Zappo’s) gives employees real purpose to every task, activity and decision they make; and understanding the values offers employees a set of guidelines to the behaviors and mindset needed to achieve the vision.

Communication: Employee Ambassadors

Communication is critical to the success of any change program, before (communicating a clear vision), during (managing expectations and keeping everyone informed) and after (reviewing and measuring success) implementation. Cultural change programs often involve addressing and changing behaviors and therefore, organizations could consider employee forums, workshops and training sessions to work through the necessary changes.

Every change program needs ambassadors in the business that support and communicate regularly to the organization’s stakeholders and members. There may be a need to appoint Change Agents, depending on the size of the organization, to liaise between senior management and the employees. They might work together with the project management team and may be selected specifically to be the “voice” of the employees and ensure they are informed at every stage of the change process.

As Director of Change Management for a company, I led multiple “open space” conferences that involved over 600 employees to create ideas to formulate a corporate diversity strategy. Those employees were a subset of an organization of over 250K employees. They became the voice of their peers in formulating a powerful mission and vision for the company to support diversity objectives, and following the conference, became change agents and ambassadors for the success of the diversity program.

Changing the corporate culture is probably one of the most difficult and complex–as well as exciting type of change program. If you want to attract and retain top talent, create a great place for people to work. Happy employees are motivated and productive. So it is worth investing time, effort and energy in addressing and cultivating your organization’s culture.

About the Author

Janie L. Payne is an accomplished, innovative and forward thinking Human Capital leader, Change Management Architect, and Senior Coach with 15+ years of private, federal, and not-for-profit experience. Janie is currently the Chief Human Resources Officer for Global Communities; an international non-profit organization that works closely with communities worldwide to bring about sustainable changes that improve the lives and livelihoods of the vulnerable.

Prior to Global Communities, Ms. Payne enjoyed a ten-year career with the federal government. As a member of the Senior Executive Service, she held key strategic Human Resources positions with multiple cabinet level agencies. Before joining the federal sector, Payne had a remarkable career with Verizon Communications.

Janie is known for her intuitive skill in executive coaching, designing and leading complex systems change, diversity, and inclusion and social justice reform efforts. She has a Master’s Degree in Organization Development from the American University, numerous professional development certificates in Human Capital Management and Change Management. Janie is also a trained mediator and Certified Professional Coach, a member and graduate of Leadership America, a member of the National Training Laboratory, Inside NGO, The Society for Human Resource Management, and an advisory board member for FPMI.