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Changing your culture to transform your company

Strong, positive corporate culture is one of the holy grails of today’s businesses. However, culture often becomes jumbled with other business jargon like mission, vision, values, and competitive advantage, and people lose sight of its real meaning. It becomes further diluted when companies link cultural values to characteristics like integrity, respect, empathy, teamwork, fun - or any other “big” word without elaborating what they mean. While trying to convey so much, they actually communicate almost nothing.

We see examples of that everyday, like when a company accepts several subcultures, with each department or region behaving in its unique ways. Or worse, when regional leaders take it upon themselves to define their team’s cultural values despite what their company is trying to stand for.

Most leaders and employees have no idea of what the company’s culture really is. And they are not the ones to blame.

What is culture?

My favorite definition is that “the culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” While this may sound overly perverse, it is completely true. Everyone pays attention to what people do instead of to what they say.

A leader may sing praises about an employee’s invaluable contributions, but reward them with an average merit increase. They may also claim that people are their most important asset, but pursue layoffs as a regular cost cutting measure. A leader might encourage employees to trust management, but then micromanage their every step. Or they may say that everyone’s opinions are important, but shut down people who ask tough questions.

This problem is further compounded by the fact that every leader in the company is making decisions about what they are willing to tolerate, often sending contradictory signals to the organization. Unless you have a crystal clear understanding of the kind of culture you want to create, consistently demonstrate it, and demand that your leaders do the same, your company’s situation won’t change.

Why does this matter for a transformation?

Transformations are about collaborating with your workforce to change the way the company operates. Your ideas and plans can look great on paper, but they don’t mean anything until they are fully implemented and operational.

The work is already complex enough in places with a positive culture, but it becomes almost impossible in places where everyone is fending for themselves. It is hard to find common ground to move forward when people operate in a state of fear, defensiveness, complacency, reactiveness, or defeatism.

Does that mean that you should not transform if your company’s culture is not great?

Absolutely not. Embrace the transformation with all the intensity you can muster and make revamping your culture one of the cornerstones of the change. But follow this path only if you mean it; employees will quickly see through empty promises.

Revising a company’s set of cultural values and behaviors can be one of the most satisfying exercises you will do with your team. Involve as many of your employees as possible, at all different levels, and articulate with specificity the behaviors the company will accept. This can be the springboard for a new wave of professional development for the entire team about the new way to work. It is also a great opportunity to tie your new vision to expected behaviors in a way that makes sense for people.

What kind of culture do you need for transformations to work?

While you have a lot of latitude on the articulation of your new cultural behaviors, there are three foundational tenets that have consistently worked for me and will increase your chances of success if you choose to transform: accountability/ownership, trust/transparency, and open mindedness/curiosity.


This is probably the number one on my personal list. This value revolves around employees having an owner mindset, proactivity, resourcefulness, and stamina. You need people who understand that they are on the hook to deliver, and who will do whatever it takes to get there (within reason, of course). They can and should ask for help, but they need to push the options being considered as far as they can before engaging others because they understand that asking for help is different from outsourcing the thinking process.

Once employees claim ownership of the success of their initiatives, they will also speak up. This opens the door for you to instill in your company two of my favorite values: “obligation to dissent” and “disagree and commit”.

Without accountability and ownership, workstreams will stall and lose momentum. People will fail to deliver on agreed upon milestones and will feel disempowered. Trying to deliver on your plan will become an uphill battle, and oftentimes you will feel like you are alone trying to make your transformation successful.


You can’t expect people to trust you if you don’t trust them. Be a person of your word, saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Follow through with your commitments - and expect your team to do the same. You need to share information with them, including your struggles as a leader and your concerns about the business and the market. When you open up, you give them the space to do the same - and they will gladly come to your aid. You need to also stop micromanaging employees.

You and your team need a safe space to raise and address existing issues, and that can’t be achieved without trust or transparency. Also, without those tenets, you won’t be able to keep employees engaged enough to care about the transformation’s success or failure.

Open mindness/curiosity

Alas, this should be obvious: you can’t change your organization if your team doesn’t have an open mind and a bit of curiosity. They need to be willing to try different approaches or solutions to everyday problems. They need to understand that they don’t know everything, even (and especially) if they have been working the same way for years. There are always new ideas that can improve the way your company operates.

Without open mindedness and curiosity, employees won’t want to take risks or try new things, and they will take new ideas as criticism to the way they currently work. You will spend most of your time trying to convince them to “give it a try” and, even when they consent, they will do so begrudgingly. And they will be constantly looking for reasons to justify going back to the old ways.


Setting up a positive working culture is mandatory, not just for transformations, but for high performance in general. Use your transformation as an opportunity to redefine and improve your culture and energize your company about your vision and expected behaviors. Give them a reason to care about the company by showing that you care about them.


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