My client who was a newly appointed vice president was given the mandate to “change the culture of the organization.”  This organization experienced frequent leadership changes at the senior levels.  The members from different groups often struggled to work together.  The organization had some dedicated individuals who made extraordinary contributions but, overall, the organization was known for missed deadlines and a lack of innovation.  This client wanted to create a unified, high performing team.  The desire for culture change like this is not unique and achieving it is not easy.

Culture describes an assortment of unique qualities in a group that passes from one generation to the next (Kotter & Heskett, 1992).  We see culture in the way a group dresses, speaks, celebrates, and interacts with each other and with outsiders.  As new members enter the group, the group shares its culture through formal training, and rewarding or discouraging behaviors according to the group norms. You can see various cultures in groups of pilots, accountants, military, and construction trades.  Culture helps a group hold its identity.

Culture goes beyond these visible aspects and exists at a deeper level within a group’s traditions, values, and beliefs. Values give a leader the greatest opportunity to influence an organization’s culture.  Values assist us in decision-making by establishing the rules and priorities we use to guide our choices.  A technology company may value innovation and being the first to market new technologies.  To be first, the organization may be willing to go to market before the product is perfect.  These values may be fine for a gaming company, but they are not acceptable for an aviation manufacturer.

I worked with a large warehouse retailer that emphasizes safety as one of their core values, not simply something they practice.  For example, every associate, no matter the position, is trained to speak up when they see a safety concern and to present process improvement ideas to the organization.

Richard Daft (2002) tells us that in organizations with a strong leader, culture is most often the reflection of the values a leader demonstrates most clearly.  Those values serve to shape the culture as the group members align their values with the organization’s values.  Shared values increase the group member’s motivation and sense of effectiveness within the group.  When you think of some of the greatest sports teams, who consistently excelled year after year, it was because the coach held the players to a set of values. John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach, led his teams to ten national championships, seven of them in a row.  Those victories were the product of a deliberate culture that the coach passed on to many of his players and coaching staff (The Pyramid of Success, 2023).

When leaders don’t take care of the organization’s culture, the culture becomes weak.  Weak cultures have unclear norms and behaviors are confusing. Weak cultures are often difficult places to work because the inconsistencies lead to unclear expectations and poor alignment between individuals’ values and the organizational culture (Warrick, 2017).  Over time, group performance declines as group members begin to work to their own standards.  As standards break down, motivation and commitment also follow suit.  Weak cultures also create opportunities for sub-cultures to emerge.  Sub-cultures often prove counterproductive as groups compete for resources.

Back to the VP.  He knew that since an undesired culture had established itself, changing it would be a challenge. We worked together on a plan that would begin to change the corporate culture. First, the leadership team had to create a new vision for the organization that focused on what is most important to the organization, their values.  Then specific strategies for achieving that vision, including changing the culture, were created.  The change in culture had to start at the top of the organization and work its way down into the workforce.  Since most people resist change, the leadership needed to make a compelling case for change and create a sense of immediacy.  The leadership team gathered key influencers from the workforce to help evangelize the change process.  Employees were rewarded for behavior that positively contributed to the organization’s culture and performance.  The vice president has since moved to another organization and the change process is still underway.  If you are interested in addressing culture in your organization, I would love to work with you to facilitate that change.

Lou Kelley is a Leadership Coach, and owner of THE HONING STONE, LLC who resides in the Fredericksburg, VA area.  He is a retired Marine and civil servant, a graduate of Regent University with a Master’s in Organizational Leadership.  He and his wife have been married for over 26 years and they the proud parents of three amazing young adults.