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Ready to Change Your Company Culture? It Starts at the Top

Joseph Spiezio
Joseph Spiezio

Getting employees to lead the charge

Defining a company's culture can be a difficult task. Although it is a fuzzy concept, it is also very real. Your organization's work culture dictates how your employees think, the manner in which they will respond to a customer, and even whether they will continue in their jobs or leave to join another firm.

In fact, your company’s culture will determine how successful it is in the market and its ability to compete effectively with other organizations that operate in the same field.

Many firms, especially those that have flat or declining revenues and income, have an entrenched inward focus. Their culture rewards employees who are good at building strong relationships within the organization. Innovation and attention to customers usually get low priority.

A new technology or a competitor with a lower cost base may threaten such a company. In a situation like this, there would be a need to transform the culture from being inwardly focused to one that looks outward and addresses real business issues.

But a company needs not wait for a crisis to realize that it needs to change its culture. It should begin work to tackle those areas in which it is lacking when its operations are running smoothly and its top management has the time to give this issue adequate attention.

Understanding the existing culture

It is quite common for top management to be unaware of what really makes their company tick. Which areas do employees prioritize, and which do they consider unimportant?

Consider a situation where a relatively junior member of the sales team is having a discussion with a prospective customer at your company's office. The HR manager or some other senior manager wants to talk to the junior salesperson about an important matter. Will the sales meeting be interrupted so that the internal issue can be resolved? Or does your organizational culture dictate that customer meetings get precedence?

It is incidents like this that tell you what your company's culture is really like.

Successful firms have evolved a culture that contributes to business growth and profitability. But there are many organizations where the culture is unhealthy and dragging the company down.

Another area that reveals a company's culture is the manner in which senior or middle management treats employees who are lower in the hierarchy. If the atmosphere at company meetings is tense and junior employees speak only when they are asked a question, you can be sure that new ideas are not welcome and that only those who toe the management's line are promoted or rewarded. I remind myself of this before every difficult conversation.

When a company realizes that it needs to change certain aspects of its culture, how can it begin the process?

Overcoming resistance to change

Bringing about a change in your organizational culture can be problematic. It's not an exaggeration to say that it is one of the most difficult tasks senior management can undertake. Employees are used to a certain style of functioning. The practices they follow have been in place for years, even decades.  

Even if you are the owner, asking people to change is not simply a matter of sending a memo. It is important to explain why the change is needed. If employees are convinced that there is a genuine need to change and they see that it is in their interests, you have a chance of being successful.

It is important to remember that every company will have certain people who exercise a great degree of influence over their peers. These employees could be people who have been with the organization for many years, or they could simply be individuals whose colleagues hold them in high regard. Leverage that by using these influencers to vocally support the change in culture that senior management wants to implement.

One of the most effective methods to get employees on board is for senior management to lead by example and adopt the changes they are advocating. If poor customer service is pulling a company's image down, senior managers could be asked to interact directly with unhappy clients and address their complaints.

Codify new procedures

If you want to implement a change in the way certain processes are carried out, you must put down in writing the steps that you expect employees to follow. Don't just tell them what to do. You must also explain the rationale for implementing the revised procedure.

Providing an explanation will serve two purposes. It will help to convince employees that there is a valid reason for the new way of functioning. Secondly, if employees understand the reasoning behind the change, they will also know when it is acceptable to use a nonstandard method to accomplish the same task.

Make sure the change aligns with the employees' goals, especially where it relates to compensation reviews. If you want salespeople to have more contact with clients, for example, then make sure that activity or a proxy like customer satisfaction plays a role in bonuses. If the change is not worth you putting your money on the line, then people will assume you are not really commited to it.  

What not to do

All organizations have certain practices that have served them well over the years. It is critical that you examine your existing method of functioning, identify the practices that are working well, and ensure that you don't change these.

A company could decide to fast-forward the change process by recruiting a senior manager to implement the planned changes. While this approach could prove beneficial, it is usually a mistake to allow the top-level recruit to bring in a new set of people to help in bringing about a change in the organizational culture. This could prove to be highly disruptive and result in a great deal of confusion during the time that the new team learns how the company functions.

Change starts at the top, but . . .

Although it is true that changing a company's culture needs the backing of the top management, it is even more important to get a buy-in from your middle managers. Regular review meetings should start with a discussion about the progress that has been made in modifying the company's culture. This will demonstrate the leadership's continued focus on the issue.

How long does it take to change a company's culture? Obviously, you can't just switch off the old culture and switch on the revised version. It is a gradual process, and you should monitor your progress by periodically reviewing the metrics that you have established for this purpose.

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Joseph Spiezio
Joseph Spiezio Member
I have been a part of several mixed-use real estate including a large project to redevelop the Yonkers, NY waterfront area. I also am CEO of several companies including several waste management and recycling companies in the US. I have a JD but do not practice law however I am involved in local political issues. I am the former vice president of the Downtown Yonkers Business Improvement District. through my Spiezio Family Foundation, I am also an advocate and supporter of pediatric cancer hospitals and A Wish Come True, a charity providing support and 'wishes' to children suffering from cancer and their families.