The right way to change a culture

One of the most rewarding areas of coaching is coaching a client about changing the culture. Following is a brief guide to a successful process.

First, it is important to point out that many leaders seeking to change their culture make some critical mistakes. These include:

1. Creating lots of fanfare about the culture change, as if it were a marketing project. Instead, we suggest that you don't create fanfare until the senior leadership team has committed to the change and made their own changes to model the new culture.

2. Going on a retreat to discuss the change and coming back "enlightened" — and then expecting employees to be equally inspired.

3. Forcing employees to go first, without making sacrifices or modeling the new culture at the top beforehand.

Also, please note that culture change is hard. One now-defunct  firm known for specializing in culture change was fired half the time, usually because the C-level executives were not willing to be vulnerable and do the hard, authentic work really required to make change happen.

With that in mind, here are the steps that work best:

1. Change the word "culture" to "performance." Culture is too fluffy and vague for most employees. While senior leaders can discuss the culture they want to see in broad terms, the organization needs to focus on key performance metrics and key behaviors that they want to be habitual. For instance, we worked with an executive who wanted his culture to be more entrepreneurial. When we surveyed managers, they reported that they had no idea about what the executive meant by being entrepreneurial in their organization. Eventually, the leader clarified his expectations in terms of specific behaviors and performance goals. That moved everyone forward — although new roles, training, communication, and support was still needed.

2. Start at the top. Culture change is like the chocolate fountains you see at some weddings. The chocolate starts at the top and flows down each tier, until it reaches the bottom. At many organizations, something that looks like chocolate but doesn't smell nearly as good is what is really flowing down from different levels. Culture change is about having pure chocolate flow from the top, to the next level, to the next level, all the way down. Therefore, we start at the top. The most senior leaders must evaluate how they are modeling the new culture, and what they are tolerating that preserves the negative parts of the old. They need to do the work first, usually quietly until people take notice. Behavioral coaching helps to accelerate the process.

3. Communicate expectations to the next level. Once the top level has made progress, it is time to notify the next level of management about what is expected. Usually there will be no surprises, because the next level has already seen some changes. When appropriate, senior leadership communicates to the next level — as a group and individually — about the way things were and why that didn't work, why change is needed, the way things need to be, and expectations. Leadership should also take responsibility for the old culture, and ask for input and advice. The coach works with leadership to make sure the messages are clear and authentic.

4. The next level models the behaviors required to achieve the new performance and discipline.  Group and individual coaching supports this work.

5. Repeat steps two through four. Each level of the organization needs time to process the change and make new behaviors habitual. As the shampoo label says, "Lather, rinse, repeat."

The above process works — if senior leadership has the courage to stay the course. Coaches reinforce the process by serving as objective outsiders who can let leadership know when they are being inauthentic, tolerating old behaviors, or failing to go first and model the desired new culture.

If you are thinking about getting into coaching, there is no better way to have huge impact. The Center for Executive Coaching offers a toolkit for this process, as well as specific forms of leading change.

If you are a leader, please keep in mind that missteps or shortcuts during this process will only create a cynical, disengaged workforce. Please consider working with a coach and organizational development expert to avoid mistakes that so many others have made.

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