Lead Culture Change

July 12, 2018

Contributor: Jackie Wiles

To enable the culture to perform, leaders must build it into systems and processes, and provide business-unit leaders with support and resources to do the same.

The CEO of one global technology company was frustrated that the most critical aspects of his company’s culture just weren’t sticking. He had repeatedly spelled out how and why the culture could drive business goals, but his leadership team still wasn’t prioritizing culture management.

“ Design systems and processes that actually embed the desired culture in operations — and enable the culture to perform”

Frustrated, the CEO upped the ante. He told every member of his leadership team to write a detailed account of what processes (e.g., rewards, decision-making approaches and management strategies) they were creating in their business units to embed the culture. “Winners” earned a spot on an elite council that set strategic culture objectives; others were denied and had to wait to reapply.

“By adopting this new policy, the CEO is role-modeling not just through communication and behavior, but by forcefully embedding the culture and its priorities in his own leadership team,” says Brian Kropp, group vice president at Gartner.

Operate for impact

Senior leaders at the vast majority of organizations (83% in our research sample) consistently communicate the importance of culture. In fewer organizations (29%), leaders consistently behave in a way that’s aligned with the culture. At very few organizations (19%) do leaders consistently manage business processes based on the desired culture.

This approach fails to maximize the impact on performance — and helps to explain why only 32% of HR leaders agree their organization is effective at embedding culture into employees’ day-to-day work.

Setting the right processes, budgets, structures and policies has the greatest impact on workforce-culture alignment, which is shown to deliver performance improvement. Communication has the least impact.


Gartner depicts what does good role modeling look like


There are many ways for senior leaders and business-unit leaders to operate based on the culture — and bring the culture to life all the way to the frontlines.

Try what the leaders of one midsize nonprofit research institute did: They not only assembled a cross-functional team, they gave the team dedicated time and money to get its job done. Team members were told to dedicate 5%-10% of their workloads to the culture efforts, and the team received a dedicated charge code.

Read more: Learn the Art of Culture Hacking

One diversified multinational enterprise underwent a major transformation effort that involved a long list of new desired cultural behaviors. Instead of talking abstractly about those new behaviors, the company let leaders choose two of six enterprisewide behaviors to promote in their business units. Those leaders then made concrete plans for how to embed the behaviors into processes to support the chosen behaviors.

“ Abstract cultural goals can be translated into specific business objectives”

By taking this approach, abstract cultural goals like “collaboration” and “visionary leadership” translate into a specific and compelling business objective like “Design and implement an easy purchase innovation process.”

In this way, you don’t just role-model the desired culture, you design systems and processes that actually embed the desired culture in operations — and enable the culture to perform.

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