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HomeArticle: Transforming Culture

 Corporate Culture

Transforming Your Enterprise Culture 

John Sheptor 
President & CEO
Imperial Sugar Company

All enterprises must transform their culture from time to time to sustain their competitive advantage. Whether the motivation is externally or internally initiated, the consequence for not changing is predictably negative. Emerging technologies, economic trends, new competitors, changing consumer interests, legislation, personnel losses, financial constraints and countless other stimulants demand a response. Acting quickly and decisively often makes the difference between sustained success and demise.


Culture, however, is not where the enterprise should begin its make-over. Change should always be driven by strategy. Thus, new direction must be defined by strategic analysis. The in-depth assessment of competitive alternatives will lead to fine tuning of the existing strategy or a radical rewrite. Once the strategy has been vetted and confirmed with key stakeholders, leadership must put in place an operational or execution plan to enable the enterprise to successfully create value in this new chapter of its journey.



 "Transforming culture should always be driven by strategy."


A key component of the execution plan is molding a culture that enables optimal results. Often this shifting of norms is received with opposition within and outside of the organization. This must be measured and countered as part of the go-forward plan. All elements of the culture must be tested against the requirements of the new strategy and reformed, replaced or sustained based upon the future needs of the enterprise.

Culture is a byproduct of how employees interact with each other and how they work independently. This is strongly influenced by business processes, reward systems and communication mechanisms. Equally as important are previous employee experiences and the origin and length of life of the status quo. Often a few key employees anchor the current culture and thus impede or accelerate change.

Transforming a culture is a demanding and time-consuming responsibility of leadership. It requires regular presence, frequent dialogue with work teams and sustained resolve. The time required to reach the new culture state will almost always be correlated with the quality of the planning and how the plan is initiated with the organization more so than the depth of change. Poor execution will alienate employees from their leaders and fracture the most important organization dynamic during a period of change – trust. Regaining momentum can be exhausting once lost and derail the entire pursuit of new strategy.
Culture transformation begins with leadership defining the requirements to achieve success in the new strategy and benefits from that success that can be shared. Those requirements will in turn be used to define the personnel talents and experiences that must be present to succeed and how those individuals or groups must interact with each other and external stakeholders to be effective and efficient. Defining shared benefits will give rise to the critically important answer to the question, “why should I change?”

Leadership must assess its talent pool and experience base against these requirements and develop a recruiting plan to ensure the organization is prepared to be successful. New members of the team should if at all possible come from the culture that leadership aspires to create and have benefited previously from succeeding in it. This will become particularly important as the plan is executed.

The culture execution plan will consist of a timeline including milestones, recruiting plan, communication plan, organization structure changes, implementation of new delegations of authority and responsibilities, decision making mechanisms, policy and procedure changes, training plans and implementation of new rewards systems. Enterprise priorities, values and norms will be clearly articulated and illustrated in the plan. The change road map must be universally embraced by leadership prior to taking the first step. A united front is essential to achieve a successful culture transformation.

The change process must begin with the principle leader declaring to the organization that change is required for the enterprise to succeed. This communication must be in person to as many employees as possible simultaneously and clearly define the new vision and strategy for the enterprise. Consequences for not heeding this call to action must be illustrated but shadowed in comparison with the benefits for achieving this transformation. Employees must be congratulated for their previous success and invited to join the principle leader in embracing this new journey.

New employees will have already entered the organization prior to this declaration, prepped for this change process and grounded with their new teams. Their preparation is critical to successful execution as they will become the principle spokespersons in favor of change from within the organization as they will credibly be able to share their previous experiences. Equally as important, key employees who are the “keepers of the status quo” must be approached early on by leadership to invite them to be part of the change process or to enable their departure with dignity.

The energy required to successfully transform a culture comes from individual employee choice to join the new journey. They cannot be forced to change because doing so extinguishes their creativity and innovation; both essential to execution of novel strategy leading to competitive advantage. Thus, leadership must “invite” and not push. The quality of the articulation of the vision and strategy and trust in the leader must inspire this individual choice. When change from the status quo is declared as being required, the initial response of the majority of employees will be to seek security. They will look to those who they trust and follow their lead.

Early adopters will join not even knowing or understanding the details or requirements of such a decision. They form an early cheering squad but rarely represent sufficient numbers to move the organization. The same is true for those who will never let go of the status quo. They will passionately oppose the change and make their own declarations for why change will bring peril and why staying the course will continue to result in repeated success. These employees can only be disempowered by the mass themselves by choosing to not listen to them. If leadership openly opposes them it will only give them more credibility.

Leadership must be ever-present during this period of choosing if they wish to be trusted. A choice to follow will only be made if leaders are seen to have already chosen to go forward, new employees are embellishing the positive attributes of the new culture and the perceived individual benefits outweigh the risk of trying something new. The new vision and strategy must be reinforced by all layers of management and supported with communication materials and visuals. Leadership actions must be persistently consistent with the vision, strategy and new culture norms and values. Deviations will be rewarded with hesitance by the mass and with attention given to those reinforcing the status quo.

Early change must be celebrated and recognized to catalyze organization confidence. Milestones must be frequent at first with lower horizons to facilitate change process success and strengthened with time as momentum builds. New behaviors must be practiced in exaggerated regularity for them to be adopted as new norms and heritage approaches must be saluted and laid to rest in honor.

Change will crescendo throughout the organization building to a majority of converts. Along this path choosing will empower ownership by the employees and leadership must relinquish its control of the change process and assume their higher role of oversight. Not doing so will slow the pace of change and potentially stop it completely. Directing must become coaching for complete transformation to be culminated. The new culture will only be sustainable, cohesive and optimized if it belongs to the employees as their new chosen “status quo”.

The importance of an aligned culture to the success of new strategy must not be underestimated. Attempting to launch the go-to-market enhancements ahead of the readiness and commitment of the organization can be disastrous even if the strategy is perfectly envisioned. The ultimate success of the enterprise will rise and fall based upon the choices of the employees to follow its leadership and to work together in the manner required. Culture is always authored by its members.