Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company

Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company

by Kevin Oakes

Culture Renovation explains why efforts to transform corporate culture nearly always fail and identifies 18 proven leadership actions for turning any culture into a driver for long-term success. It emphasizes the effectiveness of renovating an existing culture over attempting to create a new one from the ground up. The book encourages business leaders to keep what works, change what needs to be changed, and ensure proper care and maintenance are given to the modified culture. It also recommends promoting the proponents of culture change within the organization while ferreting out the skeptics and non-believers.

Summary Notes

Complacency Breeds Failure

“The hallmarks of agile organizations are being externally oriented and outcome-driven.”

Every successful organization needs to prioritize the ability to spot trends that will change the marketplace and disrupt the way it operates.

Truly agile organizations can identify the opportunities that’ll arise from new technologies, regulatory changes, shifts in customer demographics, and other market developments. And they use those opportunities to innovate in anticipation of future market opportunities.

Being agile is heavily dependent on how an organization perceives change. If its employees describe change as overwhelming or destabilizing, it’s most likely a low-performance organization.

High-performance organizations are more likely to think of change as normal and part of their business model. They typically view it as an opportunity to “shake things up” positively on a regular basis. And their employees feel that regular change actually boosts their productivity.

Actions to take

Keeping What Works

“57% of organizations that were highly successful in renovating their cultures were very intentional in ensuring that the best of the company’s existing norms were preserved, and fundamental values and history were woven into the new culture.”

The biggest part of renovating anything —whether it’s a room, a building, or an entire organization —is understanding what stays and what goes. That’s why gathering input from multiple voices is an important first step.

Two-thirds of organizations that successfully changed their culture reported that they first gathered sentiment and related data from the workforce to understand how employees viewed the existing culture and ascertain what they’d like the new culture to be.

Too often, the senior team assumes it knows what the culture represents and goes on to make changes that throw the entire organization off. Listening to the workforce can help to avoid this mistake. It uncovers attitudes and issues bubbling under the surface and can provide early warning signals to executives, letting them know exactly what to change before they become explosive and drastically affect shareholder value.

Actions to take

An Enduring Purpose

“While today many organizations have vision/mission/values statements, the concept of “purpose” has usurped those traditional statements.”

When embarking on a culture renovation, one of the hardest decisions is what path to set for the company's direction. Ideally, this decision will serve as the North Star, guiding the company’s path for decades to come.

The new direction should acknowledge and embrace past successes but also set the organization up to forge new ground into an unknown future. The senior team would ideally collectively agree on it and then craft it into a concise, pithy statement that’s easy to remember. This will provide inspiration and direction to their employees for generations.

Combining a defined sense of personal and work role purpose with a higher sense of organizational purpose that goes beyond profit results in a much more engaged and productive workforce.

Actions to take

Hidden Influencers and Energizers

“When the workflow is truly studied, it typically reveals patterns of communication and influence that are very different from the formal hierarchical structures that the company has painstakingly created.”

Every organization has its “go-to” people whom others in the workforce turn to for answers, comfort, opinions, and guidance. Most executives would agree that these people are the lifeblood of the organization. However, they often don’t know who they are. These people are usually buried in the hierarchy and are often introverts who try hard to stay out of the limelight.

When renovating a culture, it’s important to identify these influencers and ensure they’re enlisted as proponents of the change. This is because these hidden stars will likely have an undue impact on a significant proportion of the workforce.

In fact, 90% of change initiatives can be achieved in shorter timescales and at lower costs if the right influencers are identified and fully involved in all aspects of the change process, as they provide informal leadership, span organizational boundaries, and unleash the latent passion in the workforce.

Actions to take

Change is Coming!

“But it’s clear that when it comes to communication about culture change, the message needs to come consistently and frequently from the top.”

Launching a culture renovation can be a bit unnerving. While it’s important to establish the foundation and have the various elements of the planning phase complete and secure, the initial communication to the workforce is critical and needs a clear message.

Despite all the thoughtful research and careful planning, there’s no getting around the messaging. The organization needs to be clear on what the new culture initiative looks like, why the culture change is so vital to the business's success, and why they should care.

To be effective, the message should come from the CEO, who must first recognize what made the company great in the first place, honor past innovations, and then focus on the future. Attempting to change the organization without clear messages and reasoning behind it will likely result in confusion and chaos.

Actions to take

Skeptics and Non-Believers

“To be successful, make sure naysayers, skeptics, blockers, nonbelievers, doubters, and pessimists are out of the way. Make way for the proponents, advocates, supporters, executors, achievers —that’s how a culture change will get done.”

In any company, there are people who may appear to be the right people, but they secretly thwart the best-laid plans. There are many reasons for their behavior. Often, they feel threatened. Their power base is being eroded, their authority usurped, and their scope diminished. Sometimes, it’s purely ego-driven; maybe the idea wasn’t theirs, and they need it to be. Other times, they just intellectually disagree with the new direction and may or may not be candid about it.

This personality type exists at various levels in most organizations, and successful CEOs are capable of moving such people away from their ability to do damage as quickly as possible. This often means removing them completely from the organization.

While the right leadership is critical to culture renovation, and blockers at the leadership level are important to remove, it’s not uncommon to have certain departments, acquired companies, or even geographies as opponents to culture change. It’s important to deal with this reality also, as it can sometimes stop change efforts in their tracks.

Actions to take

Relationships Versus Red Tape

“But the most overlooked aspect of onboarding has proved to be the most critical: helping the new hire establish a network of trusted subject-matter experts who will contribute to that person’s career success.”

Conducting a culture renovation within an organization is hard work, but maintaining the new culture is even harder. A great first step is to improve the onboarding process for new employees. Most companies’ onboarding programs begin the day the employee starts, but that’s already too late. If there is no communication and outreach between the time the candidate accepted the offer and the start date, there is a significant opportunity for second-guessing. In some cases, they may not show up at all.

An onboarding process that starts before day one can help ease concerns that candidates may have. Getting some paperwork out of the way and getting them established technologically can be a big part of this. This helps new hires hit the ground running when they start instead of being bogged down for their first few days filling out benefit forms or waiting to get set up on the network. Another option is to start connecting them with key people in the company instead of waiting until the official start date.

Research has repeatedly shown that relationships greatly determine whether a new hire will thrive or flame out quickly. Through the right relationships, new hires often get the information, advice, and support they need to speed up their assimilation into the organization and its culture. This improves their productivity and early successes, leading to more visible assignments and lengthier tenure.

Actions to take

The Value of External Sentiment

“While it’s clear that many job seekers conduct research on employer rating sites as part of their job-hunting process, companies can utilize external feedback to monitor the progress of efforts to renovate culture.”

The concept of “employer brand” has become especially important in recent years. The term describes an employer’s reputation as a place to work, as opposed to the more general corporate or consumer brand.

To really gauge whether culture renovation is being maintained, companies need to be aware of what’s being said about their employer brand externally. The external sentiment should be improving and moving in the direction the senior team envisioned when it originally embarked on the renovation.

While crises often spotlight organizational culture, how employees talk about the organization is the biggest indicator of “employer brand” externally.

High-performance organizations actively measure their employer brand. They track the ability of their employees to communicate the brand to others and are very good at getting their top talent to refer friends to work at their organization. They understand that referrals have always been a good recruitment strategy and a good indicator of the value of their external brand.

Actions to take

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