Corporate culture is like a house: It was designed by an architect, constructed by a developer – but may have been remodelled by its residents.  Still, it is you, the leader, who is ultimately responsible for successful culture change.

Culture is how we do things here

Unless you have an improbable luxury of building up your organization from scratch, hand-picking one person at a time, the culture is already in place when you join the company. If the question of organizational culture is on your agenda, you have to agree on the definition first. The informal definition “This is how we do things here,” short and simple as it sounds, reflects the organizational culture’s nature and maybe a good start.

Another definition that you must agree upon is that of the Purpose, and how it relates to the Mission and Vision of the company. In fact, it may require a separate article or a book to explain just that, but here is the TL;DR version to get you started on the path to a thriving corporate culture:

Mission – is what you plan to do and for whom;
Vision – is what things will look like when you’ve succeeded with your Mission.
Purpose – is the reason why you exist, why you are doing what you are doing; it is the Why of your organization.

Purpose is the “Why” of your team

It is the Purpose of the organization that you and your team care about a lot (or not at all if the team is difunctional and the team members are disengaged). Hence, the first challenge for the change leader is to determine what is the Purpose of the organization.  Consider whether that Purpose is bound to change, and make sure there is a common understanding of the aspired Purpose within the leadership team.

Every person in your company is a vector

Although this first step may already be a serious hurdle for an established organization, the strategy is to replicate the top-level alignment exercise in the downstream teams. (E.g.: CEO aligns VPs; VPs align their Directors; Directors align managers reporting to them, etc.)

Quoting Elon Musk, “Every person in your company is a vector. Your progress is determined by the sum of all vectors. … Pulling hard is worthless if you’re not pulling in the same direction.”

Having worked with numerous organizations in a range of industries on three continents, I came to the conclusion that those – almost always overlooked – vectors are basic human values. Values drive people’s behaviour and performance, which, in turn, shape the company’s culture.

Align values with purpose

Thus, every leader has to make sure that the values, like vectors, are aligned within the teams, and all the team vectors point towards the Purpose of the organization. Of course, this is easier said than done. That’s why most culture change efforts fail: the organizations do not know what vectors are driving their people, while the true personal values of the leaders do not align with the declared purpose.

However, if the alignment has been achieved, the change becomes natural to the management and staff, and therefore it feels less disruptive (if at all), considerably reducing organizational resistance. This is particularly important for small and medium-sized businesses because in a smaller team the influence each individual member has on successful culture change is more significant.

Start with an assessment for successful culture change

Building or changing your corporate culture may be a long journey but it begins with one step: you need to acknowledge the need and commit to change. Next, you must ensure unconditional support from your immediate “lieutenants.” As you are starting the cultural change with a team already in place, your first recommended step is a cultural Assessment.

During the Assessment, the leadership of the company must determine and agree on the Purpose of the organization, identify the values that will drive the necessary behaviours towards this Purpose, and highlight the gaps in the corporate culture that need to be closed.

The Assessment phase of your culture change project is extremely important.  Plan and conduct it meticulously, and your effort will payback: “front-loaded” projects always have a better success rate.

Culture compass

To assess the team members’ values and their alignment, we use our Q7 Culture Compass tool. It is based on the Theory of Basic Human Values developed by Dr. Shalom Schwarz. Like the theory it is based upon, the tool is a bit out of the way – but way out of the ordinary. The tool indicates who on the team is aligned, who are the probable champions, and who may be in the opposition camp.

You may decide to use some other tool for your team assessment, and it is quite possible that the initial results will differ – but that is not important. What is key to the successful culture change effort is the discussion you will have initiated with the team. Extensive open communication creates trust, which is the cornerstone of organizational culture sustainability.

With the aligned Purpose and Values, and open communication, building a sustained and thriving corporate culture becomes achievable and indeed unstoppable.

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

I am a business management professional, MBA, MSc(Eng.), PMP, Lean, SixSigma, etc., etc., a trained executive coach and facilitator, with decades working in management across three continents and eight industries, including Fortune-500 multinationals and start-ups, now running my private performance improvement consulting practice Collectiver Inc. I focus on the “soft side” of the business performance: values, processes, culture, and employee engagement.