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Transforming culture

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How do you foster a healthy corporate culture? CEO Skip Prichard offers six keys for creating a people-centered culture that drives success.


This story appears in the January 2016 digital edition of SmartReport on Leadership. Click here to access this free magazine.


It was going to be a great event. We went all out, hiring a band, setting out a lavish buffet and transforming the room into a bright, festive oasis of color. We were ready.

There was only one problem: No one came.

Here I was the new CEO of the company, excited to build on the organization’s powerful history. What better way to recognize that history and give a nod to the future than by holding an event to signal a positive change?

After a few minutes and some quick consultations, I was back at my desk, dashing off an e-mail to the employees asking them to attend. Minutes later, the room was full and the event was an incredible success.

Why didn’t anyone respond to the original invitation? Many employees told me later that they believed if they attended, it would send a message that they were not busy. That meant fear was the main driver. My e-mail asking them to attend reduced the fear and put us on a collective journey of change.

That party was like a thermometer of the company’s culture, and the patient wasn’t registering “normal.” It showed we had work to do.

A leader must evaluate an organization’s culture today with an eye toward molding it into the culture of tomorrow. Whether new or not, your ability to transform company culture will likely have a great, if not the greatest, effect on the long-term success of the enterprise.

What’s the best way to assess an organization’s culture and move it forward? Here are six keys to remember.

Evaluate the culture before the cash

When I first became a corporate leader, I did what most leaders do: I started by evaluating financials, strategic plans and organizational charts. What I didn’t think about was evaluating the culture. Now, having run organizations with sales ranging from the millions to the billions and from private to public, I have learned the hard way that culture is perhaps the most important driver of corporate success. No matter how grand the strategy is, if the people don’t buy in, it’s worthless. Your EBITDA today may be eye-popping, but if the culture isn’t right, you can watch those numbers disappear.

Match the pace

My sense of urgency is high. Most type-A leaders share that characteristic. We want results, and we want them yesterday.

Culture change does not respond to a quick program. You don’t put a foosball table and some beanbag chairs in place and expect the culture to attract the next generation. They’ll see through the tactic. It doesn’t work.

If you see people running and want to run with them, you need to first come alongside them. If they are walking, walk. Then, pick up the pace and jog and watch how they adjust to stay with you. But if you start to sprint, don’t be surprised when people roll their eyes as you fly by.

It’s the same in an organization. Immediately launching into a seven-point cultural-change plan that worked at the last company is not a recipe for success. Leaders who assess the current culture and understand it will have the knowledge and the credibility to change it. How much change a company can sustain at one time is also a crucial component. Doing too much, too soon, with too many competing priorities is a recipe for failure.

Look for the bright spots

Many of us are wired to spot what’s wrong, what’s not working, what needs to change. And that’s critical. Taking an inventory of the current problems is important to build a new direction. But the real magic happens when we find the people, the programs and the processes that are already working.

When we do, we should make sure we publicize them, especially as new leaders. The entire organization is watching you closely, gauging what success looks like. Your own behavior models the way, but it’s just as important to point out what you like and why. When you do, watch how fast others will emulate that behavior.

On the other hand, you will likely run into those who block, criticize or openly oppose change. I have personally won over some of these people and was proud when they supported change. If that doesn’t work, or if the person is not ideal for your future culture, you need to make a change. Sometimes addition happens through subtraction. Just be sure that it is done with respect and care.

Balancing action with talk

Modeling what you want is crucial. If you want an organization that cares about customers, you need to spend time with customers. We’ve all heard the saying “all talk, no action,” and that’s why your actions matter. What I’ve learned is that it’s just as important to talk as it is to act. I’ve learned that the why is more important than the what. Especially when you are new, people are looking to understand your motivations, so you need to explain yourself. I’ve found that when I come right out and say, “Let’s create a culture where …” it is a powerful opportunity to come together and create something great.

Be real

Culture ultimately reflects the leadership. If the senior leadership team hides mistakes, the culture will follow. I once joined a company, and my first outside hire was a disaster. I took action and admitted my mistake but thought it would take years to recover my reputation with the employees. Instead, I was surprised to find that my candor and quick action had an immediate effect on the culture. If I was able to admit my own mistake and talk about it, then they could do the same.

Leaders who are approachable and genuine are the ones we admire and emulate. To this day, I recall the leaders in my own career who were transparent with mistakes and weaknesses.

Remember what’s most important: people

It seems as if everything today is changing. Just yesterday, before I left home, I took a video call with a colleague in Europe; on my way to the office, while sitting in traffic, I took another conference call; and after I parked, I quickly tapped out a few text messages. As I got out of my car, I thought about how much technology has changed work.

A few years ago, I would have been just starting my day. Now, I was already well into my day but was still in the parking lot. Our devices keep us connected 24/7, bombarding us with urgent messages. More people are telecommuting. Our customers take to social media faster than ever. Let’s face it: The way we work and manage others in this decade is completely different from how it was a decade ago.

Only one thing remains the same: people. And culture is all about people. Whether in a corporate office or a network of telecommuters, building a culture requires the same care and planning as creating a corporate strategy. Our employees want to make a difference and want to be empowered. Nothing demoralizes people faster than giving them responsibility without authority. When you empower and encourage, you build confidence.

Changing an organizational culture is challenging but incredibly rewarding. Take the time to assess your culture, match the current pace, set the sail, and recognize people. And if you throw a party that bombs, don’t sweat it. You may find it’s the beginning of an incredible time together.

Skip Prichard is an accomplished CEO, growth-oriented business leader and keynote speaker. He has a record of successfully repositioning companies and dramatically improving results while improving the corporate culture.