The Brilliant Basics of Culture Transformation

basics of culture transformation

By Mark Tomaszewicz

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu

Transforming your culture is about changing individuals first and the organization next. Change is a result. That’s right, organizational change is a result of an individual change.

There are many definitions of culture. The one that I like the best is “what a group of people choose to believe and consistently do”. Changing your company culture means you are:

a) Changing what you believe,

b) Changing what you do, or

c) Finding a way to do more consistently

Changing What You Believe

Blasphemy! We can’t change what we believe as a company, people won’t respect us. Oh wait, what do we believe again?

Let’s be real, not every business was started for the noblest of reasons, not every founding story is a fairytale and often people are working too damn hard to achieve sustainability to seriously consider “what we believe”. The important thing is that you have a stake in the ground you actually care about. It’s not about when you put it in. The proof will be how you act, but more on that later.

Changing what you believe can mean simply codifying what has been undefined or coming to the mature realization that your work, and how you do it, means more.

Either way, your company beliefs – purpose and values – need to be defined. Go through the five whys to figure out why you exist. Write down the table stakes values of making ethical decisions, working with integrity and being authentic in words that make sense to you. Then, identify the unique values that make you who you are as a company, supplier, and workplace? If you like them, keep them. If a couple are aspirational or not how you currently work, that’s fine. Just be prepared for the long haul to make them the way in your organization.

Note: The ever-present challenge with the “stake in the ground” is what to do with the employees who don’t really believe. The common guidance is to get rid of them. The uncommon guidance is to believe that they can believe and help them because you must have seen something when they were hired. But, put an expiration date on the process.

Change What You Do

If your company has a noble cause and people are excited to bring it to life, you’re in good shape. And let’s say your purpose is coupled with some pithy values on your company website under a page titled “what’s important to us”.

If those are in place but your culture – i.e. daily life at your organization – doesn’t reflect an inspired and productive workforce living your values, then it’s time to change what you do. And, I’m not talking about the royal you, at least not yet. I’m talking about you as a leader – titled or not.

First, consider what specific things you need to stop doing, start doing and do more of to live your values. Then, it’s time to get real and share with people what living your purpose and values really means as a person, an employee and a leader. Everyone will then make a choice whether they want to do differently.

Note: changing the do is much harder than changing the belief.

Finding a Way to Do More Consistently

No organization is perfect because, after all, organizations are made of humans who are imperfect by nature. However, if only a few people are doing your culture or worse are only living the values when it’s easy or serves them, then you are in danger of achieving a [buzzword alert] “toxic culture” status.

Doing consistently on an individual level is about courage and discipline. Courage to be self-reflective and accept criticism, and the discipline to make the right choice no matter how much you don’t want to.

Organization-wide, consistency is bred through reminders, repetition and being real. How do we keep the purpose and values front of mind? Are we consistent with our language and practices to set a good example for others to follow? And, do we show appreciation to those doing well and get good at being compassionately candid to those with a doing deficit?

Note: Doing purpose and values consistently relies on how much you truly care. And remember, the words of the revered Gandhi, “Actions express priority.”

The brilliant basics of culture change are simple, but not easy. They require an unwavering commitment to a daily practice of doing what you believe, and, in the process motivating others around you – formally and informally – to do the same. While no culture will ever be perfect, a culture you can be proud of can drive a group of people and a business to do some pretty special things.

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