How 3 Top Executives Successfully Implemented Organizational Culture Change


Five organizational culture management strategies from three C-suite leaders who led their companies through a major culture shift.

Article | Accountability Insights by Anique Mautner | Mar 27, 2018

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There’s no use sugarcoating it: organizational culture management is hard, and it only becomes harder as companies scale and grow. It’s a process that requires visionary leaders who can inspire every member of the organization to commit for the long haul.

Here at Partners in Leadership, we’ve helped dozens of executives foster a Culture of Accountability within their organizations through our organizational culture consulting work. We asked three of them to share advice for those who are just beginning the process of culture change: Susan T. Carroll, the Chief Regional Executive Officer at Inova Health System; Joanne McInnerney, VP of Human Resources at Novelis; and Dave Schlotterbeck, the retired chairman and CEO of CareFusion.

While they all come from different fields and backgrounds, these execs shared similar experiences and strategies when it came to successfully managing workplace culture. Here’s what each of them had to say about the challenges involved, and how they overcame them.

1) Make Change a Personal Priority, and Lead by Example

Culture change is an organization-wide process, but it has to start at the top. Every member of the C-suite needs to actively pursue the same goals, or the initiative won’t take hold. McInnerney, for example, recalls that several prior cultural initiatives at Novelis failed due to a reluctant CEO, and it was only when that CEO was replaced by a more committed executive that they began to see real results.

Schlotterbeck notes that it is very easy to spot executives who don’t practice what they preach. “Culture changes one person at a time, and that includes the CEO,” he says. “If you aren’t leading by example, you can’t expect everyone else to do the work.”

2) Keep Organizational Culture Management Simple

When you’re measuring your progress towards cultural transformation, it can be easy to find yourself bogged down in a sea of data. But it’s important to keep things as simple as possible by focusing on the measurements that matter — that is, the ones that are most clearly connected to your organization’s Key Results. As McInnerney states, “it’s not about being perfect; it’s about being perfectly aligned to the outcomes.”

In healthcare, for example, practitioners have a vast amount of data available that can be used to improve health outcomes, but working to improve results in every measurable arena simply isn’t productive. To narrow the field down, Carroll centered her culture management strategy around the core duty of healthcare: do no harm. By creating an understandable, measurable goal that every employee could rally around, she enabled widespread change across the organization.

3) Organizational Culture Becomes Strategy Through Execution

Execution is how you harness the power of an organization to actually deliver on that strategy. The more aligned a culture is, the easier a strategy transitions from plan to action. As Carroll notes, “most senior leaders truly believe that it is culture that drives outcomes.”

For McInnerney, this was the central takeaway from the cultural initiative at Novelis. The company already had some innovative strategies in place, including a plan to become a first mover in automobiles, but struggled to actualize the potential returns. The company hit its Key Results once they focused on shaping a culture to match its strategic objectives.

4) Engage Every Employee

As you execute a cultural shift, engage with every member of the organization. As Carroll states, “one of the first lessons I learned was that everyone was involved in culture, including me.” Since culture is built on the actions and attitude of everyone who participates in it, the whole company must actively work together to change it.

Schlotterbeck noticed that when you start focusing on culture, you realize that the people at the bottom of the organization — who have the least influence over the direction of the shift — tend to be the most receptive. By contrast, resistance tends to manifest among the ranks of the middle managers.

Resistance to culture change can manifest across an organization, which is why it’s vital to engage and empower managers in the organization from the very beginning. Managers’ actions often drive the beliefs of the employees they manage. Once they buy into the culture you are trying to shape, the speed of progress usually grows exponentially due to positive peer-to-peer momentum.

As all these executives learned, it takes great leaders to change culture; and great leaders embody patience and empathy to earn the buy-in and support of everyone in the organization. To truly take hold, companywide alignment is a must.