Culture change: an easy fix for achieving competitive advantage?

Take a deep breath
Aug 23, 2010 11:06 AM ET

The Acacia Group Socially Responsible Leadership

Culture 101

I have recently been following a Globe and Mail series entitled, “Preparing for a cultural sea change? Take a deep breath”. (August 17, 2010).   It is the story of a young corporate president, Will Andrew, from Trimark Sportswear Group who believes that, “Our culture could, in fact, be a competitive advantage in our industry.” Mr. Andrew is partnering with the Globe and Mail as Trimark sets out on the path of cultural change...Andrew to blog his successes and failures, the Globe to cover it for all of Canada’s benefit.  His beginning activities have been to institute a company newsletter and to redesign the office space to be more inclusive. As I read the first instalment and watched the video I could see the enthusiasm, the can do attitude, the belief in leadership, and frankly, I wondered if that will be enough.   My more than two decades in the business of changing culture tells me that there is more to it than simple structural fixes. Viewing culture as a means to an end, in this case to greater economic viability, often leads to a premature analysis of this deeply complex phenomenon, and most frequently, to the conclusion that culture is good or bad.  When, in fact, it just is. Organizational culture is comprised of deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour, attitudes, experiences, beliefs and values and has elements that can be deemed both good and bad. It all depends on your perspective and what you’re trying to change.    Mr Andrew believes that cultural change begins at the top...“I believe that culture starts at the top, and therefore I need to communicate as much as possible about what I am doing, thinking and implementing – and why. Culture change moves slowly, but I think we can make notable improvements by early in 2011.”   Implicit in this statement is the notion that organizational culture is something that can be created in a planning retreat and “rolled out” to an organization. There is a significant difference between organizational vision and culture although a deep connection exists between them.  To be truly integrated an organization’s vision must be assimilated into the culture. This typically doesn’t happen by “driving organizational change” from the top or by quarterly reviewing key result areas. Most frequently it happens when executives speak and model aspirations that have meaning for the people of the organization. Understanding an organization’s culture is important, even critical to business success, but what is more important is what an organization stands for and believes in.   An organizational vision that exists solely to improve the bottom line and shareholder profit is unlikely to rouse great passion in the hearts of most employees.    A more profitable initiative might be to ask, why do we exist as a business? What is the greater good that is achieved by our work? How do we serve the communities in which we live and work?  The answer to such questions provides the greater context for employees.  It is the overarching meta narrative that people care about. So what’s your business’ story? Who do you serve? What gets you up and out to work every morning? I’m willing to bet it’s not the pay cheque...that’s not enough. It’s much more likely to be the story that you tell yourself about why your work has meaning.   Culture change rarely occurs close to the immutable law in organizations is that the further you move up the food chain the less likely it is that you’ll hear truth.   If you are a leader in your organizations - try three simple questions. What do you want me to keep doing? What do you want me to start doing? What do you want me to stop doing? A leader who is truly interested in culture and people, a leader who has inspired enough trust to get truth, will hear everything they need to know about their culture in the answers.  Culture changes when leaders show up, ask questions and make meaningful change based on the responses they hear. Changing culture is not to be tampered with lightly, it is wide and deep. It is as unique as the human personality and is as fundamentally unknowable.  It is not a “tool” to “drive” business.   It is, as Aristotle eloquently suggests, much greater than the sum of its parts.     The Acacia Group’s mission is to offer transformative and unique leadership development for organizations and individuals seeking to live out their global citizenship. To do this we blend knowledge from Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Leadership Development and Learning to emerge new opportunities for excellence for our clients.