Culture change: A roadmap for cultural change

Glassdoor, the online career community which lets users anonymously rate and review their employers, publishes an annual list of the 50 best companies to work for. But the importance of being a great employer goes far beyond being able to attract top talent. According to Russell Investment Group, who created a hypothetical portfolio of these 50 best companies, there are also significant financial reasons to be an employer of choice. In fact between 1998 and 2009, the stocks of these 50 firms would have increased by over 224 per cent, compared to 42 per cent for the S&P 500 as a whole.

What’s their secret? Taking a closer look at the 50 companies, you’ll find Twitter, Eastman Chemical, John Deere and Hyatt Hotels, companies that seem to have little in common. But reading through the comments given by some of the half-million employees that provided their feedback, you find comments that say things like: “Awesome people and work culture / environment”, “a company that truly cares about its employees”, “you are surrounded by smart, hard-working people”. Their common denominator? They all seem to have a great organizational culture.

If you want to improve your organizational culture for better results, here’s a simple three-step approach to cultural change.

1) Have clear values in place, aligned with your company’s strategy
While companies have distinct organizational cultures, not all employees and executives have a common understanding on what this means or what need to be changed to get there. Getting this alignment in your company is the first major step.

Do you want to be a global company, or a US-based multinational? Do you need to focus on innovation, or do your employees need to focus following strict procedures? Is individualism and performance a key attribute or do you want to promote team collaboration and flat hierarchies? But of course, some of these aspects are not mutually exclusive.

It is important to understand that there are always two sides to every value. ‘Collaboration’, for example, can lead to a lack of ownership, where people simply assume that others will do what needs to be done. Or if you focus too much on strict procedures, you will produce employees that don’t learn to think out of the box and that don’t know how to react when an unexpected situation arises.

This alignment process is exciting as people can share their vision and love the idea of actively influencing the future of their company. But sadly most companies follow a top-down approach to achieve this, with executives defining how they envision the future of the organization. Not only does this represent a missed opportunity to get a different perspective, but it can often lead to the perpetuation of a local, white and male culture, a culture that doesn’t reflect the diversity of the company’s staff or its customers.

2) Share these values with your employees around the world
Once a common understanding has been identified, it needs to be shared with the rest of the company: from the personal assistant to the warehouse manager everybody needs to hear about the change that is about to happen. Very often a program is being created and big posters are being distributed throughout the company to let people know about the vision. But a few words on a piece of paper are not enough to get the message across that something new is coming and that it will improve the way everyone is going to work and behave.

What you should be looking for is a compelling story: a story that appeals to the heart as well as to the brain, a story that uses different communication media to help employees start visualizing the new work ways. Videos, video conferences or shop floor presentations are a good way to convey the message with your personal words. What you want to avoid is using jargon and empty buzz-words that could apply to any company. Of course we all want to ‘work together’, be ‘customer-centric’, ‘provide high-quality products and services’ and ‘be the leader in our industry’. But what your people will be looking for is how this affects them personally – how it will relate to their work and how it will impact their daily routines.

When distributing the new cultural story, make it personal and specific. Make sure to link it to strong emotional messages that inspire and motivate people to eagerly look for the new culture.

3) Deliver the values through concrete examples
But as you will know, telling people about how you want them to behave doesn’t make them automatically change their attitude. Delivering new values and a new work culture will take time and needs to be implemented through a set of actions.

You will need role models, people that your employees can look up to and whose behavior they can copy. The simplest approach is to use your managers and to coach them on how to walk the talk. But also consider people at different levels of the organizations: your informal influencers, the cultural ambassadors that you would have involved from the start, or top performers as representatives from different parts of the business.

Translate the corporate culture into concrete actions. With the help of short videos you can make the topic of corporate culture more transparent and more meaningful for your employees. It can be on how you expect your customers to be treated, on how employees interact respectfully or how leaders and peers would give each other feedback in line with the new corporate culture. The more concrete, the easier it is for your people to implement this in their daily life.

But the biggest impact can be achieved by aligning your processes and organizational structure to defined values. If you want to improve collaboration around the world, make sure to provide the technical tools for this, to implement team performance KPIs as well as bonuses and teach individuals the how to’s and the don’ts of international team work. Be patient but consistent in rewarding the correct behavior and acting upon “misbehaviors”.

If you follow this approach, you could start seeing a change in your organizational culture within a couple of years. Your company will become a place where everyone is able to make an impact and will love what they do because they have the same attitude regarding work and they share the same values. Sounds too good to be true? But what do you have to lose if you start to make an impact?

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