After 30 years of working in global corporate organizations as an organization development professional, there is not much I have not come across. I retired from my corporate roles a couple of years ago and now work as an independent consultant. I have learned a lot from my experiences and would like to share one of my most valuable learnings.
Over the years, I have been asked to help many leaders make changes in the cultures of their workplaces. I’ve participated in everything from small cultural changes in departments and divisions with a few dozen people to large-scale efforts that were corporation-wide and involved a few thousand employees. One thing I found was that Human Synergistics’ Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) was extremely useful in helping leaders see, through the use of data, the gap between the current culture that existed and the ideal culture they wanted to create.1 Additionally, I learned a few other valuable lessons that I’d like to share with you to save you some future headaches.
Who Owns the Culture Change Project?
My first rule is that HR cannot own the culture change. Cultural change belongs to leadership, period. In several culture change efforts where leadership did not take ownership of the project, I found that the project was abandoned because there was “real work” to do. I won’t even entertain a culture change effort unless the CEO/President is fully behind it and willing to hold his/her senior leaders accountable if they try to dissuade others or delegate the culture change efforts to HR.
Setting Up a Governance Structure
Immediately after the idea for making a culture change is given the “go ahead” by leadership, it is imperative that some form of a governance structure is set up. The structure does not have to be complicated; a governance structure similar to any used for undertaking a project will work. Personally, I found setting up the type of governance structure typically used for large-scale projects very effective.
The CEO/President should be the “champion.” His or her responsibilities are to provide broad communications, have the final approval on major recommendations, and provide coaching and encouragement to the leadership team.
I then ask for a couple of culture co-leads—vice presidents or directors—to head up the project. I try to identify co-leads who have some passion for culture change and see the benefit of such work, and they can usually be found. It’s much easier to take someone who wants to do this than to have a “prisoner” on hand and try to persuade him to lead the change project. The co-leads’ responsibilities are to provide ongoing communications to the workforce, encourage and support other leaders, get involved and study the survey results, make recommendations for changing the culture, plus lead and monitor actions and develop a sustainability plan.
The co-leads work with the culture change team, which can be made up of people in the organization representing a good sample of the workforce. Oftentimes, I will specifically ask for department managers and staff members who have an interest in the culture change effort. I also look for people who may be “informal leaders” in the organization who can use their influence to help others adjust to change efforts.
Of course, HR and OD are in this group. I look upon HR and OD as the subject matter experts and change agents. Their responsibilities include setting up the logistics for the OCI and its complementary climate survey, the Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI), providing coaching and education on cultural change for all members, and helping the culture change team with project design and change management.2
The culture change team is responsible for deep dives into the survey results: creating change plans for action items and overall implementation of the action items and sustainability plan. Keeping everyone with a managerial role informed and involved in the culture change effort is vital to effecting change, since they ultimately will be responsible for implementation and the overall success of the project.
Improving your Success
I have found that culture change has a better chance with a governance structure, but real change still hinges on the passion and involvement of the senior leadership team, including the CEO/President. Without their deep involvement, culture change can become the “flavor of the month.” Additionally, a culture survey can play a key role in an organization’s change process and leaders should consider only valid and reliable assessments to generate valuable information for managing improvement strategies.
Changing an organization’s culture is not easy but a governance structure at the outset can be immensely helpful. Done well, the change process can be transformational. My best wishes to you in your culture change journey.
1.Cooke, R. A. & Lafferty J. C. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics International.
2.Cooke, R. A. (1995). Organizational Effectiveness Inventory. Arlington Heights, IL: Human Synergistics/Center for Applied Research.