Changing the corporate culture


SOCIOLOGISTS define culture as the way a society “lives its life.” It’s a set of shared values, norms, and beliefs. Does this definition also apply to corporate culture? Do executives, clerks, and blue-collar workers in an organization share values (serving the customer well), norms (staying until the job is done) and belief system (promotions are merit-based).

The first move of a newly appointed CEO to signal a new era and leave his footprints in the sand (or on the heads of subordinates) is to “change the corporate culture.” How does one go about this transformation of attitudes and beliefs in an organization?

Here are the usual steps.

Get consultants. Outsiders are supposed to be free of any vested interest in any changes in the organization (or reorganization). They’re just interested in collecting their fees. And they report to the new chief who hired them. How does one know if they’re any good? Well, they’re expensive, so they must know what they’re doing. They also have a list of other companies they handled. No details are given on how these turned out.

Meet with “stakeholders.” This group represents different segments of the organization that have “skin in the game.” Yes, even the one who serves coffee at meetings represents the serving class. Are stockholders also included? Their views are reflected by executives who have some shares in the company. These meetings help define the “scope of work” (SOW) required.

Conduct a survey. This is one way to capture the opinions of different segments in the organization to be converted to charts and statistics. Do the lower levels feel they can influence decisions at the top? The survey provides what consultants call a “base line,” or the present situation, preferably dire and in need of intervention. This is like a medical diagnosis of a very sick patient. Why else does one need a cure, or a doctor for that matter? The survey is the starting point for the transformation.

Form a committee. This group of senior leaders, ideally not more than three (excluding the minute-takers) will nod their heads at the survey results and the need for major surgery and knee replacement (for kicking ass). Bold headlines on the situation make change inevitable — there is no consultation with the coffee servers on the types of cups to use for meetings.

Set up milestone activities and a communication plan. Team-building sessions are laid out — in-person and out of town. Slogans and posters are necessary. And the change program needs a catchy tag name like “Project Nautilus” — we’re all underwater and swimming for our lives. (Okay, that’s too negative.) Maybe, something more uplifting — we ride the waves of change.

Of course, the process of changing the culture does not mean abandoning other critical activities like selling products, attending to customers, reducing headcount, and taking care of the bottom line. These are ongoing, even with the many meetings the transformation process will entail. Is the process of changing the corporate culture disruptive? Do earthquakes cause buildings to shake?

One challenge in change management is getting everybody on board. Even at the top, there are skeptics who think the whole process is a waste of time.

Questions are asked of the proponents. What financial benefits does culture change bring to the organization in terms of earnings per share? Like the cosmetic surgeon working on a face, the consultants are asked — does the patient know how she will look after the scars heal?

It is important for all to agree what “metrics” (or hard numbers) have been set for the program. Numbers are different from “optics” which deal with perceptions and anecdotes. People seem to be happier. They’re always taking coffee in groups.

Because it’s hard to measure the effect of culture change, the simple matter of added value is hard to address — was it worth it? It’s a management axiom that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. Such is the problem of “soft” tools that are more qualitative in nature. (It’s not the body but the soul.)

Anyway, corporate culture will be affected by any kind of change management. A few may even be whistling while they work, like the seven dwarves of Snow White. Still, you can’t please everybody. There are those who worry about the revenue numbers going down… even when presented by a few smiling faces.

Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda