Can You Change Your Corporate Culture?

Mike Harden | | Resolving Employee Problems

There is an old business story in which a new employee asks an older, experienced coworker how to handle a certain situation. The old-timer tells him: “There are three ways to do things around here: the right way, the wrong way, and the company way. We do everything the company way!”

The “company way” is based on the corporate culture

When I ask people what we mean by “culture,” they have a difficult time defining it. So let me help: Culture is simply the shared beliefs, values, expectations, and stories (whether they are true or not) that are transmitted from one generation within the company to another. In a perfect world, the culture reflects the values of the founder, the management team, and the mission of the organization. It defines what we do, who we are, and what we value. It gives the employees a sense of identity, provides stability to the organization, fosters employee commitment to the organization, and shapes employee behavior. And in case there is any doubt, culture should always start from the top. If it starts at the bottom and bubbles up, the culture you may get will most certainly not be the one you want.

Cultures can be strong or weak.

Cultures can be focused on specific areas, such as customer service, research and development, innovation, running things “by the book,” or being frugal, just to name a few. But whatever the culture is, it will have a direct impact on your company’s mission, strategies, and policies. So you had better make sure the culture you foster is managed and reflects where you intend to take the company.

It’s difficult to say that one type of culture is right, and another is wrong, but it is legitimate to ask whether a culture is “optimal” for achieving your corporate objectives. If the culture in your organization is not contributing to the strategy and ultimate success of your company, then it needs to be changed.

Cultures are usually entrenched, and therefore difficult to change or modify without major efforts. To initiate a successful cultural shift, it must start at the top. The CEO needs to set the expectations, as well as set the example.  Over a period of time, the culture can be shifted by implementing new strategies, communicating to the employees through newsletters, meetings, and webinars; hiring new managers, establishing new policies and procedures that support the new culture, providing training, removing employees (hopefully through attrition) that refuse to get on board with the new culture, and creating recognition programs that reward employees that actively support the new culture.

Sometimes the shift needs to take place quickly, perhaps to save the company, or to become more competitive. My experience has shown me that there are a small number of instance in which a culture can be changed in a short period of time. These situations are:

    • When your company is acquired. However, this doesn’t always work in your favor. Often, a phenomenon known as deculturation occurs. This is when the acquiring company imposes its culture on you, destroying your culture and causing a lot of conflict, confusion, and resentment.  Usually, this does not end well for your company. Management bails out, good employees leave, and sometimes, even a little sabotage occurs.

    • When you acquire a company. When you bring on board a new company, with new management, and new employees, as well as its own culture, you have the opportunity to integrate the new culture into your own, picking and choosing elements from each that support the direction you want to take the newly merged companies. The “new blood” helps integrate the cultures and educates the newly merged staffs.

    • When you re-brand. The excitement of a new brand should never be wasted. It gives you the ideal opportunity to shift the culture in support of the new brand. Things are new – new logo, new brand, new website, new product literature, etc. When everything is new, it’s a lot easier to slip a cultural change into the mix as well. Your staff is receptive to the change. You can realign the mission, strategies, and policies to reflect the new brand, and in the process, influence employees’ behavior in a bold way. And it can be done quickly. But make sure you make a BIG DEAL about it. Don’t be subtle.

  • When you relocate. Most CEOs don’t realize that moving to a new location is an ideal opportunity to modify the culture. When you move to new offices, whether across country or across the street, everything is either new or different – new location, new environment, new paint, new carpet, maybe even new office furniture. You have created a new habitat where people are in a state of major change, andembracing that change. This is exactly the time to launch your new and improved culture – as a part of the move. And once again, make a BIG DEAL about it. Since you probably only move offices once every five or seven years (depending on your lease), if you miss taking advantage of this opportunity, you will not see another for many years.

In summary, if shifting the culture is necessary to grow the company (or even to survive in a highly competitive environment), then you can either do it slowly through a series of planned activities and strategies, or you can take advantage of a catalyst such as an acquisition, brand change, or relocation, and do it very quickly.

Mike Harden

Mike Harden has developed exceptional depth and breadth of knowledge over his 40+ year career as an entrepreneur, executive, teacher, mentor, and coach. Today, as one of DC’s premier Executive Coaches, Mike helps good executives become great leaders. Find Mike on Google+

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