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Changing corporate culture is one of the toughest and most complex tasks to accomplish

Lars Leetaru

A Gartner research study recently presented in the Harvard Business Review underlines that shaping corporate culture is a complex endeavour. Besides, when trying to transform corporate culture, companies too often take the wrong path and commit mistakes that are avoidable. 

I have reflected on three core elements the article mentions and relate these with the experience I have made with corporate culture and its transformation in projects I have participated in as a Management Consultant.

  • Say/Do Gap: Starting off, I have worked in environments where the corporate values, often a list of exchangeable terms, e.g. respect, were too far away from reality. It simply did not fit. Respect was not part of the corporate DNA. When I think back of that famous picture frame holding some of these terms (yes, that frame exists indeed in the meeting room), I often refer to the „rusty nail“ it must have hung on. I am sure the frame fell down in the end.

  • Data drawn from employee surveys: Data alone cannot tell you the whole story.  I prefer using quantitative data in combination with qualitative feedback, which tends to be more honest, unfiltered and at times brutal about the way employees see their culture. Qualitative data can be the real eye-opener. And: Using quantitative data only (i.e. quantitative interview feedback) in an international context will not suffice, since from my experience, you cannot compare French vs. German vs. English data (starting already at how the grading system in schools / universities differs from one country to another). This is where international experience and intercultural sensitivity will help you to truly understand the situation on a local and regional level.

  • Environment and alignment: Create an environment that encourages values to be truly lived on a day-to-day basis. Fill that environment with life, align meaningful action and the right messages with the values you deeply care about.  Within any level of the company.

Surprise, surprise: As stated in the study, 69% of employees don’t believe in the cultural goals of their leaders. Might the reason be that the degree of involvement in transforming corporate culture is not high enough? 

From my experience, it is all about this: Walk the talk. Above all, you have to create an environment where change is encouraged and top management is fully on board to live this cultural change. All too often, employees and executives are hindered to fully live the (corporate) values that they deem important due to encrusted corporate structures that do not allow for „new“ values to evolve. As an example, an overly hierarchical structure often leads to a certain absence of support or even fear among employees to try out a culture of change and innovation, as I have seen it.

You want a positive example? I believe Daimler (under the reign of Dr. Z(etsche)) has done an impressive job to turn the company into a more innovative, agile and self-organized organization: Flatter hierarchical structure, the motivation to truly live innovation and customer satisfaction through new forms of work, e.g. Design Thinking and Scrum, all in combination with a very clear vision and the creation of a culture where everyone is implicated in the challenges and fierce competition Daimler faces. And yes, the “We do epic shit” t-shirt of Dr. Z looks a little bit different from the outfit I had to wear when I worked for Daimler just coming out of university (where are my old ties anyways?).

Going forward, driving corporate culture remains a highly complex task. First it requires a precise objective of what you want to truly achieve and what you can achieve in a corporate environment with its own respective traditions and business models. As I said above: just declaring “empty” general terms like fairness or respect as your special corporate values will not be enough. Instead, the corporate culture should be something everyone within a company can share. To achieve this, a strategy on how employees will be an integral part of further defining and developing common corporate values is a must – not only within HR, but especially at the very top of the corporate ladder.

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