Back in 2011, I delivered a keynote titled, "Leveraging Culture to Transform Organizations" at a manufacturing summit in Chicago. The response from the audience was overwhelming, partly because of the entertainment value, but mainly because the attendees found the topic and content of the presentation relevant, and they wanted more of it. There were close to 30 speakers at that event and only 2-3 of us were talking about culture. Everyone else was presenting on the latest technology, tools, and systems to improve results. Their talks were also relevant, necessary, and in some cases far more sophisticated in content than mine, but much to my surprise, my talk was voted by the audience to be the best of the conference. The warm reception was especially encouraging because for the majority of my 30 year career, I have had to do culture work covertly because most, not all, of my bosses thought it was too touchy feely — until they saw the breakthrough results, of course. It was nice to know there were kindred spirits out there.
Since then, as I have spoken to crowds of 200-700 people in Europe and the US numerous times, I have noticed an increase in the number of speakers who present on culture change, and my feelings about this trend are bittersweet. Of course I am pleased with the heightened awareness that all the gadgets, widgets, and work processes in the world don’t do any good if your people are not engaged and committed, but I am disappointed to see the abundance of tools and methodologies that place too much emphasis on major interventions involved in culture change, as if they were the game changers. I’m concerned that the supply and demand for cookie-cutter culture change formulas and silver bullets will continue to elude us and keep us from exploring what it takes to truly bring about permanent shifts in our workplace cultures and results.
I have witnessed firsthand, on multiple occasions, large corporations try to replicate the great things that were happening in a smaller part of the organization and distill them down to structured steps to export, only to find out that when the steps were taken and boxes were checked, the magic was missing.
The million dollar question is, “How can we initiate and scale up culture transformation efforts without losing the magic?”
My answer: "By recognizing that the magic lies in the small, seemingly inconsequential moments along the journey."
The magic happens in the moments of truth when each team member freely chooses to be fully committed to the point that his/her focus is no longer on the reasons “out there” why the desired culture will never come about, but on how he/she will begin the transformation process with himself/herself. Assuming you subscribe to this idea, the challenge becomes one of discerning how to create that moment of truth for a critical mass of the people in the organization and gain unstoppable momentum.
In smaller organizations, particularly those which have limited resources to invest in fancy tools and events, this happens organically through conversations. Some of these organizations eventually supplement their efforts with larger, more visible interventions, and that is great as long as they are intended to perpetuate the right conversations rather than replace them. Unfortunately, in larger organizations with more resources, where there is a desire to be efficient with culture transformation, the big speeches, announcements, posters, logo, surveys, and systems to measure progress tend to be perceived as the main thing and we tend to forget that the magic happens one conversation at a time, and the personal choice to be committed arises out of each individual’s experience of their workplace, or their boss, or their work.
It goes without saying that an organization of thousands must have a different strategy and employ more sophisticated tools to communicate and generate the right conversations. The speeches, the announcement, the visible signs of change, etc. all could serve a purpose as long as we are intentional about using them, rather than absolving ourselves of the responsibility to be fully committed to seizing every opportunity to cultivate commitment.
History shows us that some of the most profound game changers in worthwhile transformations have been the result of spontaneous actions that were not necessarily spelled out in a strategic plan, or anticipated or measured. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat, while in line with the basic approach of the Civil Rights movement, was not scripted. Yet it turned out to be perhaps the most iconic symbol with significant ripple effects. Likewise, the game changers in organizational culture transformation can happen in every interface, every conversation, and every decision.
The most significant culture transformation that I have been involved in was when the plant I was responsible for a few years ago went from being the worst to the best plant in the company, all due to culture transformation. Having had the benefit of hindsight, I can now clearly see all the mistakes I made as the leader of that organization. I can also think of a few overt interventions we made that clearly declared our intentions and got everyone calibrated on the direction we were moving toward, but what I cherish most are the memories of how we made believers out of people, one at a time, and we did so by demonstrating that we were 100% committed to delivering our results and taking care of our people. Now that the fog of the everyday challenges we faced has long been lifted, those moments of truth vividly stand out to me.
In my book, The Transformative Leader, I go over several characteristics of what I call a High Commitment Culture (HCC) and discuss at length the mindset and behaviors it takes to create such a culture, and contrast those with counterfeit behaviors some leaders tend to exhibit. However, all of this is presented in the spirit of provoking thought and facilitating a process by which you, the reader, pick a few aspects of the culture to focus on, based on your specific circumstances, and take on a few mindset shifts and behavior changes you consider to be relevant to the transformation you are out to cause, rather than going through the motions and checking the boxes.
What kind of culture are you committed to creating at your workplace?
Do you rely on programs and processes to bring about a culture shift, or have you declared yourself 100% committed and accountable?
What opportunities do you have to send subtle signals that clearly demonstrate your commitment?
Have a great week! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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