Culture Change Requires Visionary Leadership

Herb Kelleher Southwest Airlines

A quote from a Harvard Business Review article caught my attention recently. The author said that changing an organisation’s culture requires “a movement, not a mandate”. 

I thought the quote really drills down the essence of how to change the culture of a company. You cannot order culture change to happen. A movement happens through a shared vision that inspires people to make the change. And this is the same with culture change in an organisation.

In my last column, I defined work culture as a pattern of basic assumptions that a group has invented, discovered, or developed to cope with challenges, both internal and external.

So, it makes sense that an organisation’s culture should have a vision, a purpose, and commonly shared values to help it achieve its goals.

In truth, this alignment can be difficult.

One of our clients faced this problem. The organisation was in the healthcare sector in the United States and had a lot of supply chain issues. The board had a sense that the issue lay with the processes within the supply chain as there was little visibility and they were getting limited insights from performance data. We were tasked to look into it.

We discovered that whilst the processes were certainly not optimised, the bigger culprit was the culture of negativity and blame that existed.

Employees expected things to go wrong. When they did, issues were blamed on others, and departments continued to work in the silos they had developed as a shield to the failures. Because no one took accountability, the problems were ignored.  

Demonstrating change

Changing an organisation’s culture is difficult. Culture can be frustratingly ephemeral and difficult to define because it lives in the habits and mindsets of individuals. But changing it is one of the most important things to be done to ensure that an organisation keeps up with the times.

To transform the culture in your organisation, engage your people.

When we run transformation programmes in any company, we always remember the following:

  • Employees want to be empowered, engaged and valued.
  • We should involve employees in the change process because they are the ones who will execute the change.

In the case of the healthcare company, we worked with the client to get ideas and feedback from its employees on how to improve things. Management had to learn to trust and welcome new ideas from their employees, no matter where they were in the company’s hierarchy.

Rather than trickle-down ideas from the few at the top, we sought insights from those who used the system daily. 

That’s why change cannot just be “top-down” or come from the people at the top – they are not fully aware of everything that happens at ground level where the action happens. Change insights must also come from the bottom up.

That said, it’s very important before even an email is sent to know where your organisation is right now and where you want to go. Meaning, what’s the current culture like? What kind of culture would you like to have instead?

Performing a situational analysis is vital so that we know what we need to do to bridge the gap between the current reality to the vision we aspire to. 

But one thing is clear. Leadership must lead the charge. Sure, we can build up employees to become change champions so that they can spread the wave of positivity and can-do spirit to their social networks. However, nothing dampens change more than a leader who isn’t committed to the vision.

Without 100% commitment from leadership, change will not be successful. And even if, by some miracle, a new culture takes root, it may just die before it blooms.

In the case of the healthcare organisation, by using this intensive and participative approach, we managed to fast-track a culture change geared toward a “business-like mindset”.

Throughout the programme, leadership had to constantly communicate key messages, their vision for change and give the teams executing the change the necessary support, whether it be through resources or by opening doors. It wasn’t easy. The messages had to be strong enough to incite action and inspire emotions.

The results?

Savings of US$4 mil over a 40-week period. Most of all, they gained a culture where problems are addressed, not ignored.

In my experience, no clearer and stronger message exist than a leader who personifies the culture of the organisation.

I am reminded of Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines’ co-founder, who once said, “I’d rather have a company bound by love than a company bound by fear.”

Herb was so loved by his employees that 16,000 employees once bought a full-page ad in USA Today to express their affection.

Once, when on board a Southwest flight, he tried to hang his coat in the flight attendants’ closet. A flight attendant, unaware that she was talking to the company’s chairman, told him to remove it.

Herb tried to explain that it was okay and that he was Southwest’s chairman. The flight attendant didn’t believe him and demanded that he remove his coat.

Herb didn’t kick up a fuss. He promptly removed his coat and placed it in the appropriate spot as he was told.

I’m curious what the flight attendant thought when she found out who he really was!

Herb demonstrated Southwest’s egalitarian work culture daily; he never exempted himself from it.

It’s tempting for leaders to accelerate culture change by mandating it. Change may happen that way, it may even be easier to execute than my company’s participative and intensive approach. But mandated culture tends not to win the hearts and minds of employees.

To make the vision for culture change to come alive; demonstrate it and live it daily.

Krishna Paupamah has worked with companies globally to transform their business for over 35 years. He is the Founder and Group CEO of Renoir Consulting.

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