Six Steps to Get Your Culture – “Back in Whack” By Scott Mabry
First up in our #bealeader guest writer series “Real Leaders, Real Issues” is Scott Mabry. Scott has been an educator and served in various leadership roles for over 20 years. Currently he serves as Chief Operations Officer for a large organization. Scott is writing today on the complicated issues around culture.
Six Steps to Get Your Culture – “Back in Whack”
Think your organization’s culture might be out of whack? Here are a few ideas to help you get it “back in whack” and keep it there. (If this were a live presentation I might fire up a little AC/DC only with the words “back in whack” instead of “back in black”).
Now with that tune stuck in your head, let’s talk first about some of the ways a once healthy culture can get out of whack:
- Silos – Do your teams compete for internal power or cooperate for the bigger external mission? Your organization most likely has a chart that defines who leads what and who works where. There’s nothing wrong with this old standard for the division of labor but if the boxes on the chart have become invisible barriers to cooperation and creativity you have a serious problem.
- Gaps – Is there a disconnect between your stated values and the way people are allowed to behave in your organization? Is there one mission and strategy on paper but a very different agenda going on in reality? If so your culture may be rife with cynicism and complacency.
- Stories – What are the stories that won’t die in your organization? Are people holding on to past hurts and disappointments? Are conflicts buried publicly and then acted out privately in passive aggressive behaviors? When stories are allowed to linger and never brought into the light for resolution your culture may be filled with distrust and gamesmanship.
- Blocks – Is your organization filled with policies and procedures that no longer serve any real purpose but continue to be enforced? Is micro managing and adherence to rules rewarded rather than doing the right thing even if it means drawing outside of the lines? If so your culture may be suffering from a serious case of frustration and resentment.
Clearly some of these “culture-busters” overlap or may exist in various forms at different times. This is also not by any means an exhaustive list of the factors that can make a culture become unhealthy, but if your culture is out of whack, there’s a good chance that at least one of these factors is present, and probably in a big way.
Getting your culture back in whack is no easy task. It can take a lot of effort over a long period of time and it is a delicate process. That’s why organizations sometimes choose to start over somewhere else rather than fix the issues where they are. The difficulty lies in the reality that habits can be hard to break, especially when they have social reinforcement.
An entire book could be written on this subject so consider these ideas a starting point for turning your culture around. They come from first hand experience as well as stories shared by leaders who have taken on the challenge.
- Believe - Before you begin, be clear on why you think the culture must change (not may need or might need to change). Make sure that point is crystal clear in your mind and that you can communicate it with conviction as many times as it takes. If you aren’t 100% on the need for change then don’t bother with the remaining steps.
- Imagine - Do you have a detailed picture in mind of what the desired culture should look like? How are people acting in your vision? What are they saying? What does it feel like in the new culture? Ground yourself in the vision and be prepared to share it with passion and emotion.
- Invite – Begin reaching out to a few key influencers who you suspect are frustrated with the status quo or who have demonstrated the kind of behaviors you are going for in the new culture. Share your “must-change” commitment with them and then ask them to participate in the imagination exercise with you. See if you can build a common vision for the new culture out of your individual pictures. Make it as detailed as possible.
- Engage – If you are not the senior leader or owner of your organization you may have some work to do to convince the people in power that culture change should be a priority. If they don’t buy into your plan you are going to find it almost impossible to achieve the change you desire. It may be important to present your case in terms of business benefits and outcomes that are important to them rather than your own lofty ideals. This will take some courage but it can be done. One aspiring culture evangelist I know gave the owners of his company the “Zappos-Delivering Happiness” book by Tony Hsieh to read. They were impressed enough by the business results achieved at Zappos to open up to the idea that a high performing culture could be a strategic advantage.
- Act –Once you have a strong guiding coalition in place and support at the top of the organization, you can begin taking your story to the streets. This is both an exciting and daunting time. You may deliver your best “I have a dream” speech and still find that people are yawning and rolling their eyes. You have to be in this for the long haul. One approach for kick-starting your culture change is the “shock and awe” strategy. Change as many things as you can in a short period of time:
- Change the furniture layout and move teams around
- Change titles and team names
- Put up visual reminders, posters, etc.
- Paint the walls a new color
- Give out a lot of T-shirts with culture messages on them
- Set up a social forum online around the new culture and engage people in conversation about the experience
- Change the recognition system to reward the new desired behaviors
- Be willing to quickly let people go who are negatively impacting sincere efforts to support the culture change
- Start hiring and recruiting based on the new cultural vision
- Meet with employees in small groups to talk about the change
- Engage employees in developing new core values and a new vision statement that fits the culture if the old one doesn’t
- Adapt the performance management system to support the new cultural norms
- Make someone with influence and enthusiasm the “company culture evangelist”
Notice that the goal is to make it very clear in as many ways as possible that things are changing in a big way. Make sure you don’t rely on any one method of communicating the story. Change the environment, the language, the org chart… everything. Make it is so there is no going back.
- Celebrate – As you see people beginning to adapt the cultural ideals make sure to call it out. Make part of your leadership meetings a storytelling event. Put stories of living the new culture into the newsletter, on the intranet and into your conversations when you are having lunch or walking the halls.
An important point to remember is that while these steps are presented as a list they may actually be occurring simultaneously rather than sequentially. Different groups will move through the process of change at a different pace. In addition, to keep the culture alive and evolving in the right direction you will need to go through these steps again and again for as long as the organization exists. If you stop working on culture you can count on a slow and steady drift back into the old behaviors. It’s like walking up the down escalator; if you don’t keep moving you’ll start going backwards.
So there you have it. A road map for moving your organizational culture from “out of whack” to fully aligned, healthy and “back in whack”! Good luck with your journey. If you’ve been down this road before please feel free to add your ideas, opinions and stories to the mix and if your are thinking about tackling a cultural “whack attack” and have questions or comments to make we’d love to hear those too.
I began my career, as a junior high science teacher and then a few years later found myself working as a supervisor in what was the largest bank in the United States at the time. Knowing very little about business, and thinking I needed to build my skills for leadership, I began reading voraciously on these subjects. I combined what I learned with what I knew about successfully working with students and somehow it worked. Over the next 22 years I’ve progressed through various leadership roles in organizations large and small, currently working as a Chief Operations. I’m still a teacher at heart with a passion for leadership, culture, learning and community. My mission is to create amazing communities that also produce amazing results. I share my ideas on this subject on my blog at elumn8 . You can also find me on Twitter at @scott_elumn8