To Effect Lasting Culture Change, Get to the Verb: Behavior

To Effect Lasting Culture Change, Get to the Verb: Behavior

By Jane Edison Stevenson, Vice Chairman, Board & CEO Services

Culture and culture change are hot topics these days, whether related to countries or corporations. We need look no further than the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, or corporate difficulties at Wells Fargo and Uber for examples of what dysfunctional cultures look like, but how is culture created? It’s certainly not by accident. Whether the culture is one that yields positive or negative results, it is but the manifestation of the values and behaviors that have created it over time with consistent reinforcement.

If we really aspire to create a national culture in which respect can thrive and diversity is valued and celebrated, we need to take a step back and seriously consider what patterns of behavior will make this a reality. The same is true for any company culture, and is exactly why the saying “culture eats strategy for lunch,” is so important and apt.

This topic has been very much on our minds of late because of current events, and it was powerfully underscored in a recent meeting with a client. During the meeting with the CEO and key members of the executive team, we were led through the company’s strategy and key strategic imperatives. One of the key pillars of the future strategy was “cultural transformation.” As we discussed precisely what they meant by “cultural transformation,” one of the executives made a comment, simple yet profound, that I kept thinking about long after the meeting ended.

“I’m puzzled,” he said, “when cultural transformation is discussed as a strategic objective. Culture is an outcome, not a strategy” He continued by observing, “behaviors are more accurately the drivers or strategic priorities. Culture reflects the outcome of those behaviors.” While this executive’s comments may seem obvious, the way in which culture is created isn’t always apparent, and an understanding of it is crucially important for effective culture change. Culture may be the desired end state, but we must recognize it is the specific, desired behaviors that the culture comprises that will drive the desired end results. This executive was rightly suggesting that the area of strategic focus should not be on the surface effect, but on the levers required for cultural transformation. Thus, the place to start is by elucidating the behaviors that will define your organization (or country), and then planning methodically to ensure that they are nurtured to attain the desired cultural outcome.

Because an effective culture – the basis for great leadership, innovation, and other key, positive attributes – forms the essential foundation for any successful organization, it’s worth thinking about how those desired behaviors can be pinpointed and shaped. Every day we work with clients to identify the behaviors and characteristics – some hard-wired and some malleable – that will be required for future leaders to successfully achieve strategic objectives. Increasingly we are finding that many of the essential attributes that correlate with success for a particular company need to be identified and nurtured, even used to rule out future leaders who are determined not to have the “right stuff.”

All of this innovative research and work with promising talent is for naught, however, if top leaders themselves don’t exemplify and model the positive behaviors that will constitute the building blocks for a desired culture. We see evidence all around us that “do as I say, not as I do” is not a formula for success as a corporate leader.

“Cultural transformation,” is a crucial, stated objective for many companies and their boards now as they recognize the competitive edge an effective culture can make in the marketplace and competing for talent. Leaders committed to cultural transformation must make a conscious effort to steer things in the right direction. That means speaking up loudly and clearly to share their core values, and making sure they not only live those values, but drive awareness of the rewards and penalties attached to how well or not well others adhere to them. Messages, direct and indirect, about desired culture have to be unequivocal and sincere, because people will ultimately sniff out the truth, separating fact from fiction and distinguishing mere lip service and what is actually tolerated from what should be emulated. For their part, boards need to ask CEOs and their teams what behaviors are helping to drive the strategy and how those are being reinforced if they hope to execute on strategic objectives.

The sum of all these messages, patterns, and behaviors is the resulting culture, and, for better or worse, nations and organizations ultimately get the cultures they reward and deserve. But given an understanding of cultural transformation, and the necessary steps to make it happen, any organization should be able to identify the behaviors that will create the culture to best serve its strategy. Because when it comes right down to it, culture eats strategy for lunch every time.