At one stage or another, most organisations have royally messed up culture change. Common errors include: trying to undertake too much in one go; failing to create a straightforward narrative; and underestimating the need for buy-in from the senior leadership team. It’s not unusual to find a combination of all three occurring at once.
The first step to getting culture change right is to put as much distance as possible between your organisation and that hazy term. Charlie Wagstaff, Managing Director of Criticaleye, comments: “If you’re going to transform the culture of a business, there has to be real clarity about what you are trying to achieve.
“It then has to be driven by executives and middle management, with a consistent framework in place to measure outputs as well as rewarding and encouraging new behaviours. Without that constant reinforcement and sense of fulfilling a purpose, the drive for transformation will wither away and be forgotten.”
We spoke to a range of senior leaders to identify practical examples of how to make culture change as quick and as painless as possible.
Set Manageable, Identifiable Goals
Any company seeking to transform the behaviour of its people has to first ask itself why it is about to go through the process.
Yetunde Hofmann, a Criticaleye Board Mentor who is also a Non-executive Director at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), comments: “Being clear on your why and setting out your goals very clearly, right at the start, will provide you with the metrics by which you can measure change.
“These stated benchmarks could, for example, relate to retention numbers. Or, you could put in place a process to monitor if stress levels are going down, or if engagement is going up. From the outset, you need to set out what the endpoint of the operation might be and then keep driving towards it.”
In those early days, it helps to chalk-up quick wins. “Concentrate on actionable things that speed up internal processes first,” comments Mark Whitby, Non-executive Director at gifts and cards business Candy Mechanics. “Work to speed up decision-making by reducing bureaucracy or aim to sharpen the effectiveness of meetings.”
“Crucially,” adds Nigel Howell, CEO at property management business FirstPort, “don’t make your goals so alien and far off that people in the company can’t easily visualise them. For me, culture change is about a series of positive and ambitious moves that are not ridiculous or unreachable in scope.”
Leadership Needs to Take Ownership
The Group function cannot deliver this kind of transformation on its own. Yetunde, who in her executive career was a HRD for companies including Imperial Brands and Unilever, comments: “Senior leaders are role models. Any tweak in their behaviour will send ripples right through the business.”
Nigel agrees with this point, saying: “You need to lead from the top. I didn’t realise, as a new Chief Executive, quite how much my personality percolates through the company. If you do not believe in culture change in your heart, and are not prepared to be consistent, then the whole thing will quickly unravel.
“I have told people in the business that health and safety is my top priority and, sometimes, my staff will test me on that. So if people ask for more budget for health and safety, I will support it… You cannot just pay lip service to the policies that you lay out. When tested, you have to be prepared to stay consistent.”
This filters through the leadership team, who need to be in agreement about why change is occurring and how it’s being executed. Before embarking on any such transformation, you must get these executives together to openly discuss their thoughts on what is being proposed.
Clare Roberts, Culture Change Expert at PA Consulting Group, who has worked with companies including Astellas, BAE Systems and DHL, recommends running a series of workshops in which executives can reflect on the case for a new approach.
“It’s important to develop a shared understanding of what your culture change goals are, allowing senior leaders to speak with one voice. Creating a consistent narrative is crucial,” she adds.
Remember the Personal Touch
Creative storytelling and transparent communication are fundamental aspects to any cultural evolution within an organisation.
At FirstPort, the Chief Exec has started a regular blog which he’s called, ‘Nigel’s Notes’. He says: “I got a reply to one of my notes on culture from a junior staff member, a Development Manager in Hull, who humorously noted that the area is currently City of Culture and what a difference it has made to them.
“On the back of that, I went up to Hull to visit our staff there last week. If you can use any kind of media to get to know you employees better, then do it as this will help with the culture change process.”
For Mark, there’s a simple point which leaders have to bear in mind. “When driving culture change you shouldn’t be afraid to over communicate. Face to face communication is best or, when that’s not possible,use technology like regular video messages, weekly updates and chat tools. They need to have that personal connection with their senior leaders.”
Deal with doubters
When undertaking culture change, be sure to know who your advocates and champions are in the organisation. “These people tend to be vocal high performers who volunteer for things readily,” comments Yetunde.
“They are not difficult to identify and exist up and down the business. You need to arm your ambassadors with information about the plan, so that they can go out into the business and be evangelists for culture change.”
Repetition is also important when it comes to onboarding the reluctant. “People have to know that you won’t let up,” comments Mark. “Don’t be afraid of impressing the point on people several times, even if you think they have got it, keep going just to make sure.”
Yet with all the will in the world it is sometimes impossible to win people around to change. It’s inevitable that some are naturally risk averse they fear change because they think they will be losing something (sometimes justifiably).
“You have to provide a place of psychological safety for people who are unsettled by change. Offer an opportunity to contribute and also offer training and retraining programmes, but if that doesn’t work give people the opportunity to opt out in the most honourable way,” comments Yetunde.
“But most importantly, treat your people with dignity. Provide security and reassurance, because a person who is feeling confident and psychologically safe could suddenly jump on board and become your biggest advocates. If they don’t feel safe then they are simply going to resist, resist, resist.”
By Robert Leeming, Editor, Criticaleye
By Robert Leeming, Editor, Criticaleye
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