Are you a leader determined to change some elements of the culture of your business or team?
Or an HR professional who has been given the job of 'making culture happen'?
Or a consultant wanting to give good advice to your client on getting traction on culture?
Here are some tips on how to get people's attention and cut through any potential cynicism
1. Change a specific feature of your own behavior. Let others know that you want to make this change, and ask fo their help by giving you feedback when they see you reverting to old habits. In describing why you intend to change that behavior, explain how the new behavior will help the business achieve its strategic intent. For example: “I want to become better at asking others for their opinion. I think this is important for our business because people who report to me are closer to the customer than I am, and therefore their views will help us become more customer centric. If you see me slipping back to old habits of telling people the answers, please point this out to me”
2. Change the way meetings are run. Meetings take up such a large part of corporate life, so a change here is highly visible. Meetings are a microcosm of the whole.
- Starting and ending meetings on time sends strong messages about accountability and discipline
- Changing the agenda sends messages about a change in values hierarchy. For example, talking about safety before presenting financial performance numbers says safety is the most important agenda item
- Having a stated objective for each agenda item sends messages about efficiency
- Introducing a rule that all email devices are turned off sends a message about team respect
3. Make a significant change to your team. Bring in someone new whose approach would be seen to represent the aspired culture. For example, if you want to become more innovative, bring in a team member who previously worked at Apple. Or ask a team member to leave whose behaviour has continually undermined the desired culture. Any change in personnel is seen as highly symbolic by others.
These three steps are not expensive, send strong messages about change, and go way beyond words. Remember culture is changed by walking your talk. These three are ways that you can change the 'walk' fast and gain credibility that you intend to lead change.
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When searching for a name for my book, my editor at Random House told me the name should describe the essence of the book”s content. Hmmm, a good challenge for someone who has just written 100,000 words on the topic of corporate culture. What was the essence of leading culture successfully? Of course, it was to walk your talk.
Culture is built and maintained because people pick up messages about how they need to behave in order to fit into the community of which they are a member. They adapt their behavior accordingly, and so the perpetuation of culture continues. (As an adviser who visits the offices of many organizations, my whole luggage packing strategy can a complex operation to combine in one trip a Silicon Valley look, a New York banking look and a factory floor manufacturing look. Oh, the trials of consulting!)
Companies use their brand advertising to communicate what they stand for. Leaders want to communicate the culture they expect, and most use road shows, slide packs, videos and meetings to do this. But it is not what they say that people pick up on, it is what they do. “What you do speaks so loud”, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “that I cannot hear what you say”. Whilst communicating intention is an important part of building the brand and the culture, it also turns up the “talk” dial, shining the spotlight even more on the “walk”.
How does the “walk” show up? In three ways:
Direct behaviors. What people observe in meetings, in emails, in one to one conversations. The ratio between inquiring, listening and presenting. The way mistakes are handled. The resolution of conflicts. Setting tasks and holding to account. The topics of conversation. How customers are treated.
Symbols or choices. Decisions made. Choices which demonstrate the organization”s (and the leader”s hierarchy of value. How precious time is spent, how resources allocated, who gets the promotion.
Business management systems. Goal setting, planning, reporting, rewarding, developing. Product design, service processes. How the organization organizes itself and its people to service its customers.
When the “walk” and the “talk” are aligned, the output is trust. From customers, community and employees. People follow leaders and brands that walk their talk. From a brand perspective, this results in high customer loyalty. Internally, people align their own behavior when they see congruence between walk and talk, and the desired culture is created.
On the other hand, when an organization does not walk its talk, the result is mistrust and cynicism.
It”s a worthy goal, to learn to walk your talk.