You could almost taste the hostility in the room. Finally someone spoke. “Let me tell you what happened last year. One of our developers’ wives was scheduled for a cesarean section. His manager insisted that he attend a client meeting in the morning because the operation wasn’t scheduled until the afternoon.”
This story was almost identical to other stories we had been hearing for over two months. A telecommunications client asked us to identify the current company culture, help change it to one that would help improve employee retention, and create a place where people would want to work. Identifying the current culture was pretty easy because we heard stories such as this one in just about every meeting and individual conversation. Changing it, on the other hand, was a little more difficult.
Poisonous cultures such as these will affect everything from your company’s performance (how well do you think the employee who attended the client meeting represented the company that day or days that followed?) to the way your brand is perceived, such as the tell-all op-ed pieces of Goldman Sachs’s Greg Smith.
Changing the culture is not an impossible task—hard—but not impossible. Cultures are identified by the way people treat one another and the stories that circulate throughout the company. The job of the company’s leadership is to change the stories that are being told, replacing the old ones with ones that reflect what you want it to feel like to work at the company.
I will share what we did with the telecommunications client that changed the stories employees told one another and the stories they shared with others outside the company. (How many people do you think the employee and his colleagues told about the cesarean section?) The following are the seven steps we followed, although some were done consecutively with others.
Step 1: Leadership Team Buy In
The first thing we did was ensure that the leadership team was aware of the need for the change. We did this by presenting turnover rates and sharing some of the stories we heard during the cultural assessment interviews. Finally, we asked a simple question: “Is this a place that you would want to work?” Responses from the leaders varied from shock to embarrassment.
During these touchy conversations, we dispelled defensiveness and assured ownership of the results by the leadership team by making sure that no specific division or leader was singled out. We met with the CEO and senior vice president (SVP) of human resources privately before the larger debrief with the senior team to discuss areas of concern, ensure that there were no surprises for them, and gauge their support of the findings and suggestions.
Step 2: Mirror, Mirror
Because company culture is defined by its leadership, the leadership team was open to seeing what their role in the culture was. We conducted customized 360 reviews for the leadership team that focused on the behaviors we wanted to change, as well as those that we wanted to incorporate throughout the organization, such as honest, respectful communication. Only the individuals received their results; we did not share the 360s with the larger group, or even with the CEO. However, we did create an analysis and recommendations based on previous employee discussions and the 360s. Similar to the results of the cultural assessment we discussed in Step 1, we met with the CEO and SVP of human resources ahead of time to discuss areas of concern, ensure that there were no surprises for them, and gauge their support of the findings and suggestions.
The results were full of impact and immediate, with noticeable behavior changes by the leadership team. This step is critical because executives must lead the change by transforming their own behavior.
Step 3: Values and Vision
In conjunction with the 360 reviews, we took a hard look at the stated values and vision of the organization. Not surprisingly, the values and vision were aligned with the old culture of revenue at all costs. We created new values with specific behaviors. For example, the value of profitability changed to customer focus, and we pushed even further and created specific behaviors to support a customer-focused environment. These facilitated team sessions were then conducted throughout the rest of the organization. During this process, the operations team created the following action for a customer-focused company by saying, “We are customer focused by listening intently to our internal and external customers.” (We will create formalized organizational competencies in 2013 that align with the values.)
Within two weeks of the 360 debriefs and leadership team value session, the CEO and all members of the leadership team conducted employee road shows to discuss the results. Senior leaders looking employees in the eye and being accountable for the findings was a powerful experience for both the leaders and employees, and one that immediately changed the vibe of the organization.
Step 4: Policies
Collaborating with the human resources lead, we examined policies that related to employee selection, retention, pay practices, and talent management. We were able to identify areas that conflicted with the new culture, and modified the policies and procedures to ensure that they met both business needs and the new culture.
Step 5: Redesign Rewards, Recognition, and Work Systems
The rewards and recognition programs were examined and refined to encourage the behaviors vital to the desired organizational culture. We took a close look at all programs to ensure that teamwork as well as individual work was rewarded. We changed executive compensation so that bonuses were dependent upon how the executive worked with teammates, not just the accomplishment of their department’s goals. We also changed a key metric for the call centers from average handle time to one-call resolution and development flexibility for incentives, with the employees determining how they would be rewarded when possible (i.e., monetary, time off, etc.).
Step 6: Training and Development
Culture change depends on behavior change. Therefore, all employees must clearly understand what is expected of them, and they must know how to perform the new behaviors. Training can be very useful in both communicating expectations and teaching new behaviors.
Previously, the organization’s training focus had been on technical areas, with professional and leadership development being offered to only a few senior leaders. We developed a five-year training plan that included a supervisor and manager leadership program; an executive coaching program; an emerging leader program for high-potential senior managers and directors; formalized job shadowing; general business acumen training; the Jump Start Program—a new leader assimilation program; and team effectiveness sessions to build trust, starting with the leadership team.
Step 7: Overcommunicate
The communications plan we developed ensured that employees were constantly kept informed of the culture change process, its goals, and actions, and was an imperative step to changing the stories in the company.
Even though changing company culture is surely a journey, it can be done successfully. Some may buy in and some may not, but if you allow for various opportunities for everyone to participate, the results are oftentimes more meaningful.
Anna Conrad, JD, is an expert in organizational effectiveness and leadership development and is president of Impact Leadership Solutions. She has more than a decade of experience in executive and leadership coaching, group facilitation, leadership development and training. Conrad has been a trusted confidante to leaders in numerous Fortune 500 companies, including the financial, telecommunications, legal and health care sectors, as well as in academia, government and nonprofits. To learn more, visit www.impactleadershipsolutions.com.