As a recruiter, I’ve seen it happen endless times.
A struggling company, desperate to turn around it’s fortunes, makes the decision to hire a new CEO (or other senior like executive). With a full mandate to make whatever changes he or she feels necessary. With the backing – no, scrap that, blessing of the shareholders to do whatever it takes.
Anything goes. As long as things finally start to turnaround and get better.
But more often than not, things don’t go as planned.
Even with drastic changes at the top, things don’t always get better. In fact, sometimes they might even get worse. You see, success doesn’t depend on simply changing the people at the top – I’ve seen companies struggle whether the incoming leader fires the existing management team, and other instances where they’ve decided to keep the existing team and still failed to turn things around.
No, inevitably when I’ve worked with with CEO’s who have failed to drive big change, the hardest thing most of them have struggled to change isn’t the strategy, people or marketing message.
It’s something that’s much harder to define and even harder to change.
And that’s the company culture.
A companies culture is analogous to the culture and traditions of a country. It’s not something that’s immediately obvious or something you can necessarily “see” like it’s product suite or marketing campaign. It’s something much more deeper – it’s beliefs, it’s values, it’s behaviour – things that are usually created and re-inforced over many years. But that still drives and permeates everything that it does.
That’s why changing it can be so difficult. But that’s exactly what great leaders do.
Here are some ways how great leaders are able to change company culture.
They know when to listen
The big misconception with change is that most people think, getting much better results means you have to make much bigger changes.
As any scientist, engineer or entrepreneur will tell you, sometimes just the slightest amendment or tweak can be the big difference between success and failure. A single screw, a slightly different chemical or just adding one extra piece of functionality to an existing product can create something that solves a multi-million dollar problem.
It’s no different in business. It’s naive to think that businesses that have been going for many years – where people have been working their hardest and trying their best – are failing because everything is being done totally wrong.
Great leaders understand that before trying to determine what needs to change, it’s usually better to understand what is being done well. To listen, analyse and protect the strong points of the organisation. Doing so builds a platform of reliability and builds trust with the people that matter. Only when this is done can an effective leader look for high impact changes – that could be big or small amendments – that can drive change for the better.
Rather than continuously tearing things down and building from scratch every time, great leaders find solid foundations that they can rely on every single time.
Great leaders use strong foundations.
They know when not to listen
At the same time, change – big or small – can still be difficult to accept.
Especially if someone else is asking us to make that change. And even more so if that change makes us feel uncomfortable or unsure. Or brings into question something we’ve being doing for some time.
So we tend to rationalise. Make excuses. Give a good explanation as to why we believe we’re doing the right thing.
It’s why we blame the weather for not being able to go for a run. Or try to explain why our traditional way of going about our daily work is the best one. And why we prioritise our “urgent” emails over training and progress updates that we feel are unnecessary.
So although they realise the importance of listening and getting a full understanding of the situation in hand, great leaders also know when it’s the right time to not be swayed by excuses or distraction. The understand the human tendency to try and justify the things that make us feel comfortable and safe. So when the excuses start coming, they switch off and make sure they stick to the necessary game plan.
Ensuring that others know what is expected of them.
Great leaders have clear expectations.
But being aware of the importance of the right culture, and having the right tools and strategies to change it are not enough.
In order to make it’s impact lasting and meaningful, it also important to measure it.
It’s the only way to see if things are moving forward, going back or staying the same.
Great leaders understand that people will only change if they see measurable benefits in doing so. As hugely rational creatures, all of us need to have a clear indication of the results of our actions – to justify all the hard work, sacrifices and heartache that might be necessary.
How culture effecting behaviour is measured can vary depending on each situation. For example, increasing customer focus could be measured by how often we visit clients. A desire to become more collaborative could be driven by encouraging more inter-department projects. Trying to become more of an innovative or disruptive organisation could be measured by the number of new product initiatives that are presented in quarterly management meetings.
However it is done, great leaders understand that one of the main skills of an effective leader is the ability to break behavioural and attitude type subjects down into measurable actions. Culture can’t simply be something that is talked about. It has to be something that is actually physically insisted upon and done.
Only by measuring performance and seeing the benefits will changes be accepted willingly and permanently.
Great leaders measure performance.
Company culture can take years to create.
That’s why changing it can be such a difficult challenge.
Great leaders understand that importance of a balanced approach when trying to make lasting change and the importance of being both open-minded and insistent when necessary.
It’s a skill that’s often underrated but that can be extremely powerful.
Could your company culture do with a change?
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