Charles Pfeffer

Executive Coaching & Leadership Consulting

Changing culture when business is good

A good friend of mine who recently joined a division of a well-known Fortune 100 company wrote me with this question.

“What I am struggling with is how to change culture in an environment that is financial sound. By this I mean profits are great but money covers many ills. How do I get the “veterans” to understand that past performance is no indicator of future success?”

Global competition and global partnerships, the impact of the internet on any communication business, and the fact that very few view leadership as a topic of study and discussion all concern me.

Being new to a company carries with it the blessings and the curses of having an outsider’s eyes. On the one hand, you can see what has long ago become transparent to the long tenured managers: values, attitudes and assumptions about the business. In other words, the culture. On the other hand, being a newbie also means that the culture is learning you while you are learning it. Cultures function to maintain a certain level of consistency in behavior. So how does someone new share the unique insights about the business environment that come from not having grown up in one particular company without sounding arrogant or paranoid.

Here are a some ideas:

One of the concepts often used in culture change discussions is the “burning platform”. This metaphor came from an actual incident when a North Sea oil rig caught fire. One worker found himself caught between a certain death by burning and a probable death by jumping the 100 feet into the cold North Sea. What would get someone to jump 100 feet off a tower? The fact that the tower is burning. In this case, the worker lived, saving his own life and giving us the metaphor!

So what about when the tower is not burning? There is nothing compelling to move away from. So you need something even more attractive to move toward and you need ways of moving that way that are easy for people to adopt. I don’t recommend starting a fire.

Another approach is to make the invisible visible. In a successful business, there are many things working. It may be apparent to people what’s working well and why, or it may be completely transparent to them. A simple question, “what explains our success?” can get an inquiry going on the assumptions people in the business hold about success. Is it our technology? Is it the lack of competition? Is it our customer service? How do we know? An advantage of this approach is that it appreciates the success rather than focusing on the negative.

Another approach is to create even bigger goals. Given the success we are having, what would it take to break through to a whole new level? The task here could be to point out that the success we are having is noticeable to our current competitors and to potential new entrants. If new players wanted to come into the market, what would we do to make that harder for them?

Another idea is to create some small groups of up and coming players who want an interesting challenge for their own career development. Give these younger leaders a chance to go after an opportunity that the company has not pursued successfully. Whatever results they create, mine the learning. These younger leaders can be the “Lewis and Clarks” of your company.

I’ll be interested to hear other ideas you might have.

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