How to Lead Effectively During a Culture Change

April 24, 2019

Organizational culture change

Emerging markets, rapid innovation, and unprecedented geopolitical trends create complex challenges for today’s leaders. While strong strategic leaders may be able to quickly identify a new vision for the organization, successful execution depends on an entire workforce adjusting with swift cohesion. A captain might chart a new course, but the ships that outmaneuver others will do so because the entire crew is working effectively in unison.

Given this requirement, many organizations have shifted their attention from simply defining a culture to adapting their culture as needed to meet a new strategy. Whether a company is expanding to a new global market, integrating cultures through a merger, or simply identifying a new strategic direction, how can its leaders define and facilitate a successful culture shift?

There is no one-size-fits-all cultural solution

First and foremost, leaders should think critically about this new strategic horizon and what is required to achieve success. There is no “perfect culture” and there is no “copy/paste culture” from one of today’s agile innovators. Some organizations embrace innovation while others perfect their best practices. Some organizations favor collaboration and interdependence while others rely on a divide-and-conquer approach.

The most important consideration is whether your culture fits the needs of your strategy. While many leaders feel tempted to emulate the cultures of successful peers, the best approach is to tailor-fit your culture to reflect your journey ahead. If you’re expanding into a new global region, open-mindedness and a strong learning orientation will be critical for your leaders. If you’re merging teams from separate entities, valuing cooperation over competition may be the difference between accretive and dilutive.

Create a “culture profile” of values and behaviors

Leaders need to think ahead to the implications of a strategic venture and consider both the values and the behaviors required for the workforce to be successful. While values encompass the way employees work toward specific goals in a collective manner, behaviors are the manifestation of these values in terms of what we say and do.

Leaders should be patient and thoughtful about creating a specific culture profile that identifies the key values and behaviors required for success. While mapping this profile can help articulate an otherwise intangible human capital factor, CEOs and executive teams must also take the first step in exemplifying this culture. Research suggests that culture is a tone set predominantly from the leaders of organizations.

Executives embarking on a culture change with a profile in mind should think critically about those senior leaders that may naturally set this new tone with authority. Who can lead by example with the right behaviors to model the new values for a successful culture change? Consider rewarding these individuals with new roles and/or increased responsibility. If making new hires, think through the lens of the critical values and behaviors of the future when making final selections, and marry that with what is critical to succeed in the current environment.

Finally, speak with clarity around the new intended direction, what behaviors are expected of the workforce overall, and what will simply not be tolerated.

Become the “cultural glue”

Change can be difficult, and changing in unison may be especially challenging for CEOs and executive teams. Enterprise leaders will need to be especially thoughtful and wary of “how we got here” and determine whether the values and/or behaviors will get the organization to where it wants to be. Working through a culture diagnostic exercise, companies can distill and prioritize the leader behaviors required to achieve each tenet of the new strategy. Simply posting posters or placards does nothing to accelerate the shift to a new culture.

Succeeding with culture change

Teams will need to assess who is naturally wired for the new direction and who may need additional development, encouragement, or incentives. Such assessments may help identify gaps that need to be addressed through leader changes or distinct adjustments in leadership style. In addition to identifying what existing leadership brings to the table, an equally important discussion should concern whether these leaders can adapt to new expectations.

Once these questions are answered, a leader’s role then shifts toward ensuring the team is aligned on these cultural anchors and emulates the changes in leadership style, particularly during those most valued moments where bad cultural norms can “rear their ugly head.”

An aligned leadership team championing new behaviors and values that align with a desired strategy creates the greatest chance for success in organizational culture change.

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About The Author

Anthony Abbatiello leads the Russell Reynolds Associates’ global Leadership & Succession business. He brings more than 20 years of leadership consulting experience to advise senior clients in all industries, working as a trusted advisor to drive organizational optimization and high-performance executive teams.

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