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Executives: Can You Change Culture?

Written by Terri Wallin

Leaders impact their organizational culture just by showing up and behaving however they behave. Hire an autocrat and watch the reign of terror begin. Employees hunker down; some of the more obsequious begin aggressive boot-licking campaigns while others begin guerilla warfare to depose the tyrant leader. Trust goes into exile and résumés are retooled for maximal bait effectiveness. The culture is changed. It happens spontaneously and it happens fast. Fear is a great motivator for change.

So now is the time for two soul-searching questions:

  1. What’s your organizational culture like?
  2. What’s your leadership style?

See the point?

CultureWith the exceptions of leaders who birth their own enterprise and imprint it from the start, most executives have to adopt an organizational culture gestated by someone else and influenced by numerous factors through the years. The question is what to do with your adopted culture when you get it; put up with its idiosyncrasies or remake the culture in your own image. Effective leaders choose the latter. But, like correcting the behavior of a wayward child, transforming organizational cultures can be long, taxing, and a vexing proposition. Like altering an errant child’s behavior, it is better done sooner than later.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  1. Characterize the current culture of your organization. Is it a workaholic/sweatshop culture? Is the culture passive aggressive – where people say one thing and do another i.e.; smiling while they figuratively thrust the knife in your back? Is it a trusting transparent culture or something out of Stalin’s Russia?
  2. Define your ideal culture,
  3. Assess your leadership style and those of your management team to see if it mirrors that ideal culture,
  4. If you and your management team’s leadership style does not mirror the ideal culture develop a game plan to make sure that it does,
  5. Outline your expectations of the management team – individually and collectively,
  6. Adopt zero tolerance for leadership behaviors contrary to the ideal culture and help intransigent employees with an exit strategy,
  7. Hire purposefully and not desperately – every hire – for employees to fit the new cultural paradigm,
  8. Give your cultural transformation time to germinate and take root,
  9. Pull out the noxious weeds of pessimism and cynicism and all the other isms that may prompt you to bail on your cultural transformation,
  10. Be observant. Make sure your management team exemplifies the new normal,
  11. Revisit mission and vision statements and see if they reflect the new norm,
  12. If you don’t have one, create a list of organizational values. Refrain from having an exhaustive list of values. Instead select the top three to five. Make sure your employees know what they are,
  13. Develop behavioral standards for each value and embed it into every job description and evaluation tool,
  14. Hold everyone accountable to the behavioral standards,
  15. Have a strong succession plan in place to ensure the culture continues to maturate over time – with and without you.

An organization is capable of having as many cultures as there are leaders, divisions, locations and departments. It can be confusing. Employees with unemployment line aversion will adapt to the particular idiosyncrasies of their department head.

Many organizations come up with a set of values. All too-often they are bound in a policy and procedure manual and studiously ignored. Actually hauling them out and living them takes focus and work. To embed values in an organizational culture, to ensure that every employee lives them, requires a purposeful plan or the employees will assume that living the values applies to someone else.

Executives own their culture and it is absolutely possible to change it. Organizational culture impacts retention and recruitment of employees and ultimately the customer, the most important asset of any enterprise.

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