Changing Culture; Step by Step - What Comes Next?

Note: Last week I walked you through the systematic approach to culture change; the "Why" and "What" of the discourse. This week we get to the "How" of culture change. Enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at

Where to Start?

I believe that, just like eating an elephant, culture change starts with one bite at a time and it starts at the top. It also needs to be evolutionary, not revolutionary, especially if you want to sustain it for the long term and keep what's valuable about what you already have in place, such as your most valuable resource - people! Since culture is the people that create it, and culture binds organizations together, it should be as unique as each person on the team.

As such, it all begins with the Board or governing body of the business, organization, institution, etc. Why? Culture in your organization is a direct reflection of the example established by leadership. Alignment and clarity are the two words that best describe what it takes to make sure that the leadership is committed to the culture you want to create. From there, I think it needs to permeate the organization, from top to bottom, through a series of large and small workgroups collaborating to sort out and prioritize what needs to take place at all levels of the organization.

What Does Culture Look Like?

Your culture is formed when these attributes are aligned and practiced consistently by leaders and teams:

  • Passion drives excitement, enthusiasm, and achievement.
  • Empathy is the ability to understand and share the view points of another through emotional intelligence. Empathy is critical to effective collaboration and enhanced productivity.
  • Curiosity prompts your team to discover the contributions others bring to the table.

Action Steps

  1. Establish vision, purpose, and mission.
  2. Define shared attitudes, values, and goals
  3. Specify expected behaviors within the team. Teamwork is not an option, it is expected.
  4. Practice passion, empathy, and curiosity.

A. Empowerment!

Empowering others does not relinquish the responsibility of leaders to lead a team. In fact, it will enhance leadership skills and team achievement. Empowerment stretches abilities, encourages creativity, drives self-motivation, increases loyalty, improves productivity, and directly impacts customer service. Each person in the organization must be aware of their unique role and impact to company success. Entrust employees to make independent decisions to enhance and "WOW" customers throughout the customer service process. These decisions are often left to upper management resulting in excessive red-tape, discouraging innovation, autonomy, and minimal progress. The best example I know of that absolutely defines the concept of employee empowerment is on the back of a card that all Nordstrom staff carry, "Use your best judgment."

B. Performance

Culture plays a critical role in team performance. Teamwork and delivering excellent customer service must be in the forefront for the goals within your company culture. The two are often overlooked because they are expected functions. Equip your team with specific customer service procedures for a compelling strategy and a cohesive team. It is up to management to establish a means to measure customer service quality. Provide a channel for clients to furnish feedback as part of the customer experience and pay attention to the results. Share results with team members, review areas where improvement is warranted, and reward customer service excellence. The service you provide contributes to the type of customers you attract.

Action Steps

  1. Empower employees with tools, training, and autonomy
  2. Identify what your firm does to simplify life for clients, how you accomplish it, and why it is important.
  3. Create clear, specific, and expected customer service behavior. Our clients come first!

C. Creating Culture Must be Intentional

Culture has a significant impact on the ability to achieve company goals. When culture is cultivated intentionally, it will improve over time and enhance your ability to strategize, execute, and succeed. Again, leaders must understand culture, communicate culture, and model the ideal. They must incorporate company culture with the hiring and on-boarding process to educate new hires and define the basis for your business. Research led by the Harvard Business Review suggests incorporating the following characteristics into a carefully crafted company culture:

a.  Integrity: Team members are truthful and candid in all interactions.

b.  Performance-focused: Benefits, development,and talent management systems are aligned with performance drivers.

c.  Accountability: Responsibilities are clearly defined and ownership of individual results are understood.

d. Collaboration: A team is mindful that best ideas come from the exchange of ideas between each other.

e.  Adaptable: Flexibility and resiliency are necessary to acclimate to external environment events.

f.   Innovative: No stone is left unturned when brainstorming new strategies and tactics to reach specific goals.

g.  Winning: Teams are focused on measures of success.

D. Core characteristics

These provide guidance to accomplish mutual goals. High-performing teams generally exhibit a minimum of three or four that are critical to firm success. Edward de Bono, author and inventor, explains the importance of core characteristics and values: “Effectiveness without values is a tool without a purpose.”

Action Steps

  1. Establish cultural training as part of the hiring and on-boarding process.
  2. Incorporate characteristics most critical to success.
  3. Respect diverse perspectives, regardless of hierarchy position.
  4. Display excitement toward goal achievement.

Organizational Development

In case you haven't guessed it already, all of the above is usually woven into an Organizational Development System. In larger companies, HR or Talent Management and Review, will usually place this task under their umbrella, but, it doesn't need to be so; a smaller company can easily pull together staff, led by the HR professional or a facilitator, to accomplish the same thing. In any event, the longest journey begins with the first step, so what are you waiting for?

Next week: How do you convince leadership that culture change is necessary?