Why Business Leaders Should Not Support/Sponsor Their Organization’s Culture Change Effort…
I would NOT expect most business leaders to support the organizational change efforts that “HR” typically implements… neither should you. Most culture change strategies are like “hollow chocolate bunnies” not solid ones.
CHROs/CPOs don’t like hearing that. At the end of this article I will suggest that there is a more effective solid “chocolate bunny” emerging trend — 5 predictions that CHRO/CPOs love, because it makes culture change a whole lot easier and more rewarding.
At the same time, I tell the CHRO/CPO themselves to be careful… “whatever you do, do NOT accept personal responsibility for those so-called enterprise-wide, optimistic transformation outcomes that are listed in that multi-year charter being used to justify the org transformation funding; it is a CHRO/CPO trap.”
CHROs/CPOs also don’t like hearing their fellow business leaders say:
“This culture change stuff is too soft — it’s too touchy feely — we don’t have time for this.”
The Exec/BU leader is usually right though (usually but not always)— most culture change efforts are outdated and approach it like an engagement task force, a “happiness committee” and/or like a typical change management + internal communications project. I’m not against those things per se — but they are not effective when it comes to strategic culture change. I’m not suggesting that the other business leaders know what to do about it either — but they sure do know a distraction when they see one AND they’ve tasted the emptiness and disappointment of the hollow “chocolate bunny” culture change plan enough times to know better than try it again.
Of course they/we all have good intentions, but don’t waste your time, money and attention on most of today’s culture initiatives. You or I might argue… “but at least they are trying something — it is better than nothing — they are doing their best.” No. These outdated/less effective culture change approaches create backfire effects and perpetuate the BS and the culture change myths that inculcate the status quo. Myths like “culture change is hard”; “people resist change”; “it takes 3–5 years to change culture”; “the CEO needs to be onboard first”; all tired rationale and examples of culture incompetency. This is not what it sounds like when people are trying to do their best — that’s what it sounds like when we’ve given up trying and expect it to fail.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK? WHAT DOES WORK?
Most corporations current culture change efforts don’t work because they are:
- Focused on general “culture teams and plans” (culture means “everything”)
- Trying to change the entire culture all at once (“BIG BANG” approach)
- Detached from business activities & business results (workshop & comms oriented)
The efforts that do work are:
- Focused directly on supporting top strategic priorities, problems or goals
- Connecting goals and disciplined learning with results
- Based on expectations that improved results precede the culture changing
WHY AREN’T THERE MORE SOLID CHOCOLATE BUNNIES?
- Because many execs are lost in the sea of culture change confusion created by the BIG HR firms selling their culture proxies and custom tools that have little to do with the essential culture norms, system leverage and social intelligence at scale
- Because many execs have bought into the generic “BIG Bang” fallacy (the influence model) promoted by the BIG consulting firms; even though it’s too bloated & too heavy — it never gets off the ground… but everybody looks busy, pats themselves on the back for trying and then confirms why it’s actually ok to stick to the old way of working
- Because semi-powerful/know-it-all execs actually believe that they know how culture works and aren’t the least bit curious to learn what they don’t know — despite zero technical expertise of what it is, what it isn’t, how it works, how it affects rapid adaptation (AQ=adaptability quotient) and org performance
I blame the corp culture itself for the low CQ (cultural intelligence) not the leaders — the execs understandably have succumbed to the learned helplessness of the system, they protect themselves by pretending to know things they don’t and HR buys/implements whatever they can safely get sign off for, to at least help execs look like they are trying to change culture. That’s the dance that most have been practicing for decades. That’s why I don’t blame the leaders themselves for not cheerleading/sponsoring a misguided plan. It is a vicious circle; but it doesn’t have to be.
GOOD NEWS & THE END OF CULTURE CHANGE CONFUSION
Many execs are actually very skilled sociologists; they are phenomenal with people; otherwise they would not have risen to the rank of senior executive. AND they still need a more expert/technical understanding of the culture domain. No more hollow “chocolate bunnies” and no “big bang”.
They don’t need a shortcut, they need a “short hand” — a practical, yet expert, data-driven bias for action and experimentation that reduces friction and accelerates learning.
Culture change is EASIER when the business leader/CXO themselves (e.g., CMO, CSO, CCO, CDO, COO, CInO, BU Lead) runs the culture change initiative. Not the CHRO — that rarely works. Even when/if the HR exec is a powerful leader in an organization, they still own very little. But the business leader is THE ONE with the closest connection to the customer, she is responsible for the end delivery of all customer needs, communication, CX, sales, etc., this is where the heart and soul of the business goes out into the world — this is who has the responsibility for being most in touch with the people who are receiving whatever you’re people are offering.
The business leader (not the CHRO) is most likely to understand when it’s not working and they will be the most motivated to be curious about structural, procedural and cultural changes to make in the operating model. If what we’re doing as a company isn’t working, and if it has anything to do with how we’re working together, then the feedback loop with the customer + the business results are going to motivate you to change faster. No one sees this as clearly as the business leader themselves.
The interaction between people IS the business.
When the business leader leads transformation, culture change is an exercise in org effectiveness not just org happiness. For the org change to take hold, it will actually happen more quickly and deeply if the business leader owns it….it won’t work if leaders follow an HR process. It MUST be coupled with business ownership and therefore the culture-related solutions are actually business prototypes. We design the performance improvements as test & learn experiments — practical, agile, bias-for-action experiments (prototypes) in the context of the business — not in a workshop.
If your company is performing great, fast to market with new strategies, delivering on all customer demands, increasing market share, fast to adapt to internal/external forces, easily engaging and retaining the highest quality talent then don’t change anything. But… if you your company is struggling with those business challenges and you think it might have something to do with culture then you have a reason to strengthen your culture competency and get a hold of the CQ “short hand.”
The world of business is increasingly faster, more complex and more digital. It is harder and harder to get congruent with all facets of CX. Becoming who our customers need us to be, is harder and harder when we can’t connect internally in a consistently constructive & high-performance way.
Culture change is EASIER when business leaders are not just modeling good behaviors and being vulnerable… but when they also are supported with the emerging best practices around culture. Strengthening CQ = understanding better how to more effectively think/talk/take action re: the technical aspects of their own courageous culture platform necessary for rapid adaptation.
No more dabbling. No more hacking. Pursue culture competency. Click here to take the 20 “Culture Caveman” CQ questions to see where you & your SLT might be lacking important clarity, alignment and precision…
“hollow chocolate bunny” lesson learned from my MD friends (AS)