Culture – What if yours stinks and needs a change?


Corporate culture is all over the news at the moment and it’s something that fascinates, confuses and mystifies in equal measure. Most organisations are fascinated with one thing – how do we change the culture?

Edgar Schein – one of the pioneers of the concept of corporate culture – defined culture as ‘the way we do things around here’. Peter Drucker is commonly credited with the phrase ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ – it’s a well-known phrase and bandied about quite a bit but, in my experience, most people will at least grudgingly agree with it.

Lots of definitions exist but culture is ethereal – its hard to touch and ‘put your finger on’ but its there and it permeates every pore of an organisation. If its poor, and you have a sense for when it is, then denial on the part of the senior team or CEO tends to make things worse not better. The old joke of ‘beatings will continue until morale improves’ springs to mind.

I’ve often heard peers talk about CEO’s telling HR about the terrible culture and how HR needs to ‘do something about this’ – this is nonsense – Culture starts and finishes at the top. If you’re working in an organisation where you’re responsible for change and the CEO doesn’t think its their job – then you need to figure out a way of having a ‘robust conversation’ with your CEO. Change starts at the top, the phrase ‘do as I say, not as I do’ – is something we should continually hold up to our senior managers. If they are saying all the right things and then doing the opposite, it is our job to tell them so.

Part of the challenge of change is that there are three big pieces in it:

  1. You need to realise there’s a problem (i.e. you need to change)
  2. You need to acknowledge, investigate & understand the problem – what needs to change
  3. You need to be genuinely committed to doing something about it.

If you work in an organisation where things need to change (this applies to any change initiative – not just culture) – where do you start?

Firstly, get a handle on the internal dynamics, particularly the power and decision making networks. How do decisions get made – is it highly organised or does your organisation work on its ‘gut’ and make significant decisions at the coffee machine?

Secondly, make sure the CEO’s on board. Don’t even attempt to start without this nailed down and not just passive support, the CEO needs to be four square behind any change initiative or else it will really struggle.

Thirdly, figure out what your middle management group thinks. You might have to do this almost in secret and you might be very surprised. In many organisations, middle managers can have very different views to their senior counterparts. If middle managers don’t understand and support a change initiative then it’s almost certainly doomed to failure.

Lastly,plan plan plan!  Preparation is key for managing any change so generate a strong project plan. Generate a strong supporting communications and engagement strategy and be prepared to be flexible.

Managing large scale and transformational change in an organisation is one of the most difficult things an organisation can do and it almost always involves changing the culture or a large part of it but don’t despair! It’s hard work but it’s possible and the rewards are spectacular!

Reposted from IMI Blog with permission.


Edwin O'Hora holds over 12 years’ top level experience in senior HR management and executive HR leadership roles and is the Programme Director for the new IMI Diploma in Organisational Development and Transformation. He works with a range of clients in different sectors in the areas of growing organisations and making them scalable and developing and sustaining high performance. For details of the IMI Diploma programmes available through ManagementWorks, visit our IMI Diploma Programme page.