Here’s a typical comment I hear from new CEOs:
“I’m trying to effect a culture change around here.”
“How’s it going?” I might ask.
What might never occur to them is that they could be the reason.
Most of the en vogue conversations on culture take the view that culture is everything — that it shapes performance, decision-making, attitudes, the whole rhythm of an organization. We treat culture as the causal agent in how an organization behaves and performs, when in consideration it may merely be the product of all those factors and more — systems, rewards, and leadership style.
By this tenet, you are what you get, not you get what you are.
The larger problem is to believe that somehow you can change the culture itself through some form of benevolent fiat. Curious when we realize how it can be a fool’s errand to think we can change someone’s beliefs and habits in our personal lives and yet set ourselves to that very folly in an organization.
The mistake, I suggest, is that we we focus far to much on “culture” and less on the word “change.”
So, how can a leader actually hamper a culture change?
By speaking to the need for the desired culture instead of personally modeling the harder work of change itself.
We can easily underestimate the enormity of personal change involved with a culture shift, even if the case for that shift is compelling. It is the same reason why survivors of a boating accident cling to some flotsam even though it is taking them farther out to sea, rather than shed its false safety and make a swim to a nearby shore. Too many shark movies, I guess.
The most overlooked factor in effecting change in an organization is the role of the CEO or organizational leader in showing their personal willingness to change. Not exhibit or model the culture, but go through the gut-check, let-go-of-the-flotsam move that they expect everyone else to make.
CEOs have no right to expect their people to make a big change that they have not in some way already made themselves in front of them.
Being willing an as organizational leader to disrupt your status quo and move to a new place in your understanding of leadership and your organization’s purpose sends a powerful signal to your people that they can do the same.