144 — Can You Change Your Company’s Culture Yourself?

 

You know you need to change your company culture. You know some ways you could begin, e.g. choosing one or two items from the list of 25 Actions, beginning the Interviews or diving off the deep end by starting down the full culture change path. But you’ve never done anything like this before — you’re walking in the dark. Can you do it yourself or should you bring in skilled professional assistance?

Easy or Hard?

With your last acquisition and merger you brought in a Wall Street banker. Surely culture change is a lot easier? It isn’t. Changing a culture is the hardest thing a leader can ever undertake. Nothing else gets close.

In some ways leading culture change change is a little bit like being a family therapist, but on a vast scale. Just as a skilled therapist can help a family change its ways, a skilled experienced business leader who is familiar with changing a company culture can do it. However a business unit manager who has not gone through the trying experience of changing a culture will probably fail when confronted by the brilliantly skillful ways all cultures have to keep things just the way they are.

It’s not as if the culture doesn’t want to change. They do. Everybody wants to enjoy work, feel productive, be appreciated for their contribution, and go home knowing they have had a good day and will have another good day tomorrow. That’s not the problem. The leadership problem in culture change is getting to know the culture as if it were that ambivalent person and gently nudging it, by working closely together, to the better place — of greater maturity, openness and trust — while the culture tries too stay just where it is. Doing that is a learned skill. It doesn’t come naturally.

Not an Analytic Problem

Leading and changing a company culture is not an abstract academic skill you pick up in business school. It is very much like “emotional intelligence”, something you learn by living. A company is the collective mind of hundreds, perhaps tens of thousands of people. It has a powerful memory and enormous inertia. It is very comfortable doing things in familiar ways and is very skilled at resisting efforts to change it (unless of course it is involved in and feels the necessity for the change. Then it can change rapidly.)

The Odds of Success

You may have come across the statistics on the success of “Change Management” efforts. They are dismal. Most start with good intentions, few succeed.

There are very few specialists with the necessary skills to assist leaders in culture change. Most consultants are trained in analysis and project management. They approach culture change as if it were a project. It’s not. When it comes to culture, analysis and reports can actually make things worse. A company’s culture is its personality — the way it is in the world. You don’t understand a person or a culture with analysis and reports. You get to know a culture, and how to influence it, just like you get to know a person — by doing things together, by watching how it reacts in different situations, by seeing how it responds to your requests, your attention, your needs, your urgings. Learning to do that takes years of specialized experience.

If You Have Not Done It Before, Get Help

To summarize; if you’re the business unit leader and have not been coached or mentored through a full culture change experience, don’t try it by yourself. It’s just too strange, too unfamiliar, too difficult. In addition, the first time around you probably want to be part of the team, not standing out in front where you’ll definitely take some arrows in your back. It’s just not worth it. The odds of do-it-yourself success are slim, while the potential payoff of successful culture change is enormous.

cc 144 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.

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Posted in: About Company Culture — Why is Culture Important?

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