The Leaders Guide to Corporate Culture – Mind the Gap!

Changing strategy and changing culture are two of the most common areas leaders focus on to make an impact. The question is, where to start?

Peter Drucker famously said ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ but that does not mean leaders should start with setting out to change the culture. In fact I would advise the opposite. A clear and compelling strategy is precursor to give any culture change a mandate for change. Without a clear imperative to change your prevailing culture will remain firmly in place, it is after all perfectly formed to deliver the results you are getting now and is more than capable of defending itself from any attempt to change.

A good strategy process can be relied on to create ‘gaps’. Gaps between current performance and desired performance, between current ways of working and desired ways of working and between where you are now and where you want to be in the future. This is what the strategy process is all about.

Culture on the other hand is far more febrile and esoteric. It does not lend itself to easy characterisation or methodologies, despite the number of models and theories that abound, a prevailing culture can remain stubbornly difficult to shift.

One method I have discovered leaders can use to start to shift is the power of ‘Radical Action Conversations.’ These are conversations that get the heart of the issue, the very essence and core of the challenge and get people talking about the assumptions, behaviours and attitudes that need to be changed if the gap between here and the future is to be effectively bridged.

Use a metaphor to stimulate such conversations and the most effective is a simple ‘Props’ table. Here I ask a cross-section of participants to bring along two props. The first prop represents what they believe the culture is like in the organisation at present and the second, what the culture needs to evolve into for the strategy to be successful.

I then create a safe, curious and creative emotional environment to enable people to bring their props to life. The resulting conversation starts to highlight the changes that will be needed to progressively evolve the prevailing culture towards a new desired state. By engaging people in this slightly unusual way I find they talk freely about what needs to change.

It is best not to be too prescriptive in how to change, the radical action conversations will usually flow through into suggestions on how to change. There are after all, only a limited number of levers leaders can pull to change a prevailing culture and in no particular order they are:

  • Organisation structure and reporting lines – who works for who and how you organise to get work done;
  • Training and development opportunities and execution – how you value and import new skills and capabilities;
  • Communication and engagement tactics – what you say and how you say it;
  • Recruitment and promotion processes – the talent you attract and how you retain it;
  • Leadership – how leadership is exercised and deployed across your organisation;
  • Core processes and procedures – the way you do your work and the rate of change embedded in your core processes;
  • Objective and target setting – the degree of ambition and clarity of measurements;
  • Physical and emotional environment – how it feels to work in your place of work; and
  • Rewards and sanctions – the degree to which you incentivise the behaviour and results you seek.

Which lever needs tuning in your organisation is a matter of discussion and agreement across the leadership cadre however resist the temptation to change too many too soon, as this will cause confusion and dissipate energy and effort and the prevailing culture will simply remain in place.

Experience has taught me there is a short window of opportunity after a strategy process is complete, when leaders are open to the challenge of change. So in my view strategy comes first then the challenge of tuning culture comes a close second. Crafting a new strategy can be done relatively quickly, changing a culture however requires both determination and persistence.

If you would like to understand more about both challenges then please contact me and we can discuss this further.