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Consultants Cite Best Practices for Culture Change

Wednesday, February 1, 2012
The Society for the Advancement of Consulting® has asked its global members to highlight the best practices for changing corporate culture. "We, as consultants, are often given that assignment," says SAC® CEO Alan Weiss, PhD. "but 'culture' means different things to different people."

"Don't even think about trying to change the corporate culture if senior management can't initiate, recognize, and retell stories that exemplify the desired behaviors," says Ann Latham, president of Uncommon Clarity, Inc. (, a consulting firm in Massachusetts. "Employees are shaped by the examples set around them, the stories they hear repeated, the behaviors they see gaining attention, the praise they get or don't get, and the way people are treated when expectations aren't met."

According to Latham, you must know what you want to become as an organization, model and encourage those behaviors from the top down, and constantly repeat the evidence that demonstrates you are already what you want to be. Do that and your employees will gradually embrace the new identity and the accompanying attitudes and behaviors. "Don't forget to examine the ways in which you are unintentionally encouraging the wrong things," adds Latham. "For example, if you want employees to step up and take more responsibility, don't put the kibosh on their ideas or ‘help' them with your better ideas every inch of the way."

Two of the most important things to know about changing corporate culture are that (a) it is a process, not an event, and (b) employees must buy into the change. According to Dr. Pat Lynch, President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc. (, a management consulting firm in Long Beach, CA, "Whatever is driving the need for such a change, management's priority must be getting employees on board with change – and then keeping them committed to seeing it through."

Lynch advises her clients to use a variety of approaches to ensure a successful change in the organization's culture. Here are six key points that management often overlooks:

  1. Be very clear about why the change is necessary.

  2. Communicate a clear picture of the desired culture. Be specific about the required behaviors and outcomes.

  3. Identify, for each employee, why it's in his or her personal interest to support the desired changes. In essence, management should paint employees into th3 picture of the new culture.

  4. Identify what's working well, and the ways in which the current culture is supportive of the organization's goals. Making those characteristics, systems, processes, and successes the foundation of the new culture reduces employees' anxiety about facing an unknown future.

  5. Ensure that the infrastructure supports the desired culture (e.g., performance management system, rewards system).

  6. Operationalize the organization's values. Change is not just about attaining the desired results; it's about the way in which those ourcomes are achieved.

"How many managers does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change." So it goes with corporate culture, says John Carroll, growth consultant and president of Unlimited Performance, Inc. "Culture is the set of values that define the boundaries of what is and isn't tolerated, accepted, promoted and celebrated. Changing the culture involves changing the decisions, behaviors and actions where those values manifest. Values don't change themselves. Stakeholders, who are the keepers of the culture, must have a strong willingness backed by persistence to effect the change.

"Changing the way a company behaves, the way its people act, require an intentional departure from past habits with the leader drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘Up to now, this is who we were and how we did things. Now, starting today, this is who we are and what we value and how we conduct ourselves.' Think of the battlefield scene in the movie Braveheart in which William Wallace convinces his countrymen to drop their former behavior of safely wishing for freedom and instead risk their lives to secure it.

"Make no mistake; this is heavy lifting and comprehensive culture change won't happen overnight," Carroll says. "Effective leaders will do three things. First, they'll watch for the slightest slip back into old habits and correct it instantly, such as witnessing an associate treating a supplier disrespectfully and taking steps to prevent the recurrence of unacceptable behavior. Second, they will give others permission to remind them when they forget or automatically revert to a former and now unacceptable approach. Third, they will recognize and celebrate behaviors consistent with newly-adopted values."

"There are ten critical steps that my best clients, and their clients have taken to develop and implement a successful culture change, culture," said Simma Lieberman, president of Simma Lieberman Associates, a consulting firm that helps leaders create inclusive work cultures.

  1. Leadership must define objectives and create a written, graphic vision of their desired culture.

  2. Enlist your whole leadership team, and identify your fellow champions, by the passion they display either in words or actions. Allow them to add to the vision.

  3. Conduct an organizational assessment. Compare your executive team responses to the assessment data, and measure their understanding of the needs and perspectives of their managers and hourly employees.

  4. Create an implementation plan that involves employees at every level. Market the culture change process, so it permeates the organization.

  5. Identify one or two key issues that were raised in the assessment process and begin action.

  6. Develop a communication process to make employees aware that you have listened to their feedback, and keep them apprised of progress.

  7. Consistently make the relationship between those key issues, your actions, and developing and implementing an inclusive work culture.

  8. Create an accountability system, and hold managers accountable for their employees' ability to articulate their organizational culture, and practice behavior consistent with the new, or improved culture.

  9. Demonstrate how implementing, and contributing to the culture change will benefit employees at every level as individuals, and as part of the whole organization.

Everyone in your organization will be more motivated, if they have the answer to the question, What's in it for me?

"And finally," Simma says, "be willing to release employees at any level who refuse to progress, and hold you back. They'll be happier somewhere else."

Roberta Matuson, President of Massachusetts based Human Resource Solutions ( and author of Suddenly in Charge advises companies on this very issue. "In order to change culture, you have to change behavior. Here's what I mean by this. It seems like every business wants to be the next Apple, yet few organizations have the discipline or maybe it's the guts to make this so. They say they want to be innovative and deliver high levels of customer service, yet their actions say something different. Have you ever seen a manager in an Apple store give an employee the evil eye for spending too much time with a customer? Yet in most organizations, the metrics used in evaluating customer service include how quickly an employee can get a customer off the phone.

Changing corporate culture requires the willingness to let go of some of the traditions that may have made the company successful in the past. Scary—yes. But sometimes you have to let go in order to soar. My clients who have been most successful in changing their corporate cultures are those who are willing to start with a blank slate. They consider all ideas before dismissing them. They remove sacred cows who aren't interested in coming along on this new journey."

Dr. Maynard Brusman is a San Francisco Bay Area consulting psychologist and executive coach and member of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. He is the president of Working Resources, a boutique strategic talent management consulting firm. He offers a few insights:

"If your people continue to think and act as they do now, can you expect to achieve the results you need? If your answer is no, then changing your organizational culture is not an option—it's an imperative. Research shows that the right culture champions high levels of performance and ethical behavior. Employee accountability and engagement are the driving forces behind achieving great results. When organizations design and support a culture that encourages outstanding individual and team contribution, they achieve amazing bottom-line results."

Dr. Brusman further notes, "Change begins with desired results. To accelerate a change in the culture, start by defining the new results you wish to achieve. Everyone in the organization needs to be focused on and aligned with the desired new outcomes. Culture changes one person at a time. Your people must believe that these new results are obtainable. Only then can they change their thinking and actions — something that usually happens when they can verbalize their job descriptions in terms of how they contribute to successful outcomes. When everyone buys into creating new results, you are accelerating the necessary cultural transition. It doesn't happen easily. It requires dialogue, engagement, debate and leadership. Your culture produces your results. If you need a change in results, then you need a change in culture. Your culture is always working, either for you or against you."

"As a global business consultant and former VP of Operations of a mid-market manufacturer, I've found that although few companies are successful with corporate culture change initiatives, the few who do it right have the opportunity to leapfrog their competition," points out Lisa Anderson of LMA Consulting Group, Inc. in Claremont, CA. ( "A few strategies to ensure success include:

  1. First, you must start with exceptional leadership.
  2. Communicate where the company is headed.
  3. Explain the whys.
  4. Integrate the culture changes with tangible, visible differences combined with new metrics."
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