Can You Change the Culture with the Same People in Place?

A guest blog from Brian Bedford, co-owner of MillerBedford Executive Solutions.

Much of our work as international consultants concerns business culture. Sometimes we’re asked by companies to establish and align a new culture to support the strategic direction of the business; and sometimes we’re asked to help change the culture of a business, because the CEO and the leadership team believe that the existing culture is hindering progress.

Culture change is significantly more challenging than creating a culture from the outset of an organization. It takes years to establish a particular culture, so it’s unrealistic to expect change overnight. It takes focus, commitment, clear expectations, consistent application, and regular feedback.

But the most important thing we’ve learned about culture change is that you can’t expect it to happen if all the same people remain in place. Relationships build up over the years, as do loyalties, old grudges, and resistance to change. As the old saying goes, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”; similarly, you can’t change the culture of an organization by simply making statements, and leaving all the old guard in place. The old culture will win every time, and spit out those who desire change with the greatest of ease. Culture is built on behaviors; unless clear expectations are set as to how behaviors are required to change, and unless people are held accountable for getting in line with the changes, nothing will happen.

Take a look at a couple of examples to see what we mean. The first is General Motors. GM appointed Mary Barra as the new CEO, and there’s been a lot of talk about the need for culture change. However, Ms. Barra is a 30+ year veteran of GM. We don’t doubt her good intentions for one moment, but she’s a long-term part of the culture, and she doubtless has a lot of the loyalties we talk about above. So take a look at the structure of GM; how many senior executives have gone? When the recent troubles over ignition switches took place, exposing a culture of cover-up and negligence, how many senior heads rolled? A few middle level people, perhaps, but no-one at senior executive level. “The lawyers didn’t do their job”, we heard. Who do the lawyers report to, pray tell? Yes, you can give Ms. Barra credit for defending her people, but to do so at the same time brings into question how serious GM is about culture change, or whether it’s simply PR. Unless there are major changes at senior level, and clear expectations are set for behavior change, the existing culture will always win, and all the old behaviors will remain the same.

Now, compare that to Charlie Strong, the new football coach at the University of Texas. We’re not naïve enough to compare the challenges of running a football program to the challenges of running one of the world’s biggest companies, but the differences in approach are instructive. First, Mr. Strong cleared out all the old coaching staff, and brought in new people on whom he could rely to make the culture and behavior changes he was looking for. Second, he defined the new culture clearly; “Honesty; no stealing, drugs or guns; treat women with respect”, and added his 4 T’s-“toughness, trust, togetherness, teamwork”. To prove his point, seven players have been kicked off the team to date, and a further three suspended. This man is serious about culture change, and about the accountability that goes with it.

Back to where we started. Culture change requires clear expectations of behavior change, and personal accountability for those changes. Any guesses as to which organization will be more successful? UT or GM?

You can learn more about accountability-based culture at Brian Bedford & Julie Miller’s course Installing an Accountability-Based Culture for Success.

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