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Culture Change: It Starts At The Top

(Below is an excerpt of a article on the critical challenge of culture change)

…They send a small subset of employees on a two-day off-site retreat. The employees brainstorm the ideal new culture by writing words on sticky notes, which the facilitator posts on a white board. They discuss the various concepts, then narrow the options by voting on the ones they consider most appropriate: "nimble," perhaps, or "agile," "purpose-driven," "balanced," "entrepreneurial," "team-oriented," "inclusive," "innovative," "focused." Then they go home, energized and maybe even excited, mission accomplished.

Senior management makes the final selection, announcing the new mantra with posters, wallet cards, and an internal email letter from the CEO to all “Team Members,” since "team-oriented" was one of the buzzwords chosen to describe the desirable new culture.

And then you know what happens next: not much. Weeks and months go by and little if anything changes. Some are still talking the talk but virtually nobody’s walking the walk.

We all know in our guts, from experience, and from the dizzying array of articles, surveys and studies on the subject—a recent Google search of the words “corporate culture” produced 675 million results (that’s correct, 675,000,000)—that an organization’s culture is critical to its success.

There are certainly a number of steps you can take to prompt needed changes, as Todd Alexander discusses in this Leadership Research Institute publication.

But it won’t happen without strong leadership. As Alexander notes, “Words don’t change a culture.

Displaying … company values in impressive lobby displays, or imprinting mugs, mouse pads, note pads, or key chains with the [company’s] values might be nice reinforcement, but these things do not define or change a culture.”

Culture change comes from concrete and noticeable changes in leadership behavior: what they do; who they hire; who they ask to move on; who they listen to and emulate; where they spend their time; what they talk about in meetings; what they measure; how they invest the firm’s money.

Grant Freeland is a Boston-based senior partner and managing director at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

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