Question: Creating Lasting Culture Change

by  Mike Henry  |  Leadership Development

Another Day

You’ve been in meetings all day. Your interruptions have been interrupted. In fact, you’re not even sure which interruption started everything today. The morning, (Did you even eat lunch?) seems like light-years ago. Is it Wednesday already?

For just a minute, you wish for the good-old-days – you know, six months ago, before the staff reduction when you just thought you were busy. “Will this really get better any time soon? Will we settle down in the next month, two months? Six months? Will I even get home before the kids are asleep?”

What if?

This wouldn’t be so hard if your team would step it up, or absorb some slack. It seems like “every man for himself” since the staff reduction. You’re not certain but you suspect some people have moved vacation time up because they’re looking for work. It’s just so frustrating because, especially since the staff reduction, nothing good happens by accident. No one’s work is perfect. No one just takes the initiative to solve a problem and then tell you about it. They all want to tell you about it first. Everyone feels like they have to ask permission for the stuff they should know and the things they don’t ask about get screwed up!

For a moment you daydream about a team where members absorb chaos, take initiative, improvise, adapt, overcome. (Sounds like Heartbreak Ridge.) Back on track, you start to consider how you can get everyone rowing in the same direction. What can you do to we get the team helping one another, taking initiative, and reaching goals. You’ve got to make the change from task orientation to goal orientation. You’ve got to take the lead, but this time, your goal is to create a leadership machine; a culture that builds leaders. You know this is going to take time, but you have to do it. Otherwise soon they’ll find you hunched over your desk mumbling.

So you ignore your email and IM. Check your watch and realize you’ve got about 45 minutes before you need to leave if you’re going to see the kids this evening for any quality time. What can you do in 45 minutes to begin to turn the tide?

So, what would you recommend to this business person?

In 45 minutes can they develop a plan of action that begins tomorrow and eventually creates a leadership culture. Can you help them begin tomorrow to create a shared, repeatable process for identifying, developing, testing, and launching leaders? What’s their first step?

Take a moment and leave a comment or suggestion below. Let us share your thoughts on how to help this leader turn things around.

This was an intro I wrote a few months back for our Lead Change Tulsa breakfast discussion series. If you’d like to know more about starting a leadership group in your community, Contact Us.

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About The Author

Articles By mike-henry
Chief Instigator (Founder) of Lead Change Group and VP of IT for a mid sized technology company. Passionate about character-based leadership and making a positive difference.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Rob Wright  |  29 Sep 2011  |  Reply

If the biggest clues are in the story (things appear worse since the lay-offs) then it’s useless trying to deal with the symptoms without dealing with the cause. When initiative & the passion for the cause wanes, it’s only retrievable when the passion violation has been dealt with.
So, first things first:
• Engage. Let messy be messy. Give staff permission to discuss their feelings. Anger, shock, disappointment, grief; any -ve emotion needs space to be articulated & acknowledged appropriately
• Next, Listen. Actively. The silence is often the killer; where people have to carry on working as if nothing happened because they feel they can’t talk about it. Listening means people are free to express their unease without feeling like a turncoat, insubordinate or cannon fodder
• Recommit. Whether we like it or not, redundancies violate The Contract; ie, “I work for you & you give me ££.” Affirmation & recommissioning can help heal the bruise of “If we keep our side of the bargain & you get rid of us, what does that say about you & me…??”
With all that in place, then you can start to think about re-envisioning & strategising about who best to take the lead with behaviours that inspire culture change, or launch motivations that encourage leadership AND followership.

Mike Henry  |  29 Sep 2011  |  Reply

Rob, thanks for the great suggestions. Engage, Listen and Recommit is a great three-step process to begin turning things around. Great advice. Thanks!

Rob Wright  |  29 Sep 2011  | 

You’re very welcome, Mike! Thanks for the well-framed question!

Jon M  |  29 Sep 2011  |  Reply

Engage, Listen and Recommit – great approach. One thing I would add is to ensure that you are exemplifing the actions you want taken. So, part of the 45 minutes would be to sketch out what you activities, attitudes, and actions you want the team to take, and then identify how you can demonstrate these in your own work (starting the next day). It is not about being obvious about them, just doing them…

Great questions! Thanks!

Mike Henry  |  03 Oct 2011  |  Reply

Jon, great response too! Writing out what actions you’d want them to take and then making sure that you demonstrate those behaviors is an excellent first step. We must be the change we want to see. In fact, I’d also examine how my actions have contributed to the drama I am experiencing. Great suggestion! Thanks. Mike…

Dana Theus  |  30 Sep 2011  |  Reply

1. Take out a blank sheet of paper and draw a line about 1/4 down the page horizontally.

2. Above the line write a short list of the fewest things that will move the ball forward for your business.

3. Below the line write everything else that “has to get done”

4. Leave it on your desk and the next morning call the team meeting and share the list with them. Let them know that you expect 100% effort on the top items, and their best effort on the rest. Let them know you expect each one of them to have a 25%/75% list on their desk at all times too.

This is what I call an “ugly but useful” technique. Leadership isn’t always about thinking like a leader – it’s more about doing like a leader. Focus on doing what matters in integrity and most of the other stuff will come along.

Mike Henry  |  03 Oct 2011  |  Reply

Dana, great comment about “doing like a leader.” Helping each member remember to keep the main thing the main thing. That’s a great suggestion for helping everyone focus. Thanks. Mike…

David  |  01 Oct 2011  |  Reply

With 45 minutes available, my advice to this leader would be:

1) Look in the mirror (3-5 minutes) The symptoms described did not happen in a vacuum. The team’s culture exists because the leader has allowed it (or even contributed to it). The good news, and reason for the long stare in the mirror, is that this leader can also take responsibility for, and influence, the change he/she wants to see.

2) Articulate dreaming. (15-20 minutes) Close your eyes and envision what the team would look like when it’s working well. Dream in specific. Avoid critical or sarcastic descriptions. Force yourself to articulate two or three main ideas and really see them in your mind. Next, write down the behaviors that you “see”.

3) Gap analysis. (10 minutes) What do team members need in the way of skill or motivation to begin implementing those behaviors. Write down this list.

4) Personal responsibility. (10 minutes) What specific actions can the leader take tomorrow to begin contributing to the outcome they hope to see? If the outcome is clear, but the leader does not know what they can do to positively influence it, then the personal responsibility action step is to learn how – use the web, a coach, a mentor, a colleague…someone who has demonstrated the ability you are looking for. Write a big note and tape it to your desk with one and only one specific behavior to undertake tomorrow.

5) Go home and rest, knowing that tomorrow will bring a permanent change.

In the situation described, the leader could choose from one of these two action step:

1) in the morning, speak with the team, assume responsibility for allowing things to be where they are and make a public commitment to work on changing. You expect progress (not perfection) from yourself and the team. Ask for their support and to identify when you act inconsistently with the values you espouse.

2) Encourage and affirm people’s ability to problem solve. When problems are brought to you, validate their ability to take care of it and ask them to do so and report the results to you (so that you can celebrate with them later).

3) Work with project leaders to ensure that project success criteria are clear. If projects where you are not consulted are failing, it is likely because the teams either are not aware of what constitutes a successful solution or lack motivation to ensure the solution is successful. Start with clarity. Then assess for motivation.

4) Find five specific things to encourage and appreciate in your team either individually or corporately, every day.

That’s a start. My final suggestion would be patience. Changing culture doesn’t happen overnight. But one behavior repeated daily can make an amazing difference!

Take care,

David M. Dye

Mike Henry  |  03 Oct 2011  |  Reply

David, very comprehensive list. I got one idea when reading it too. It happens to also line up with some other books I’ve read. And that would be to ask your people to dream a bit about what they’d like their future to look like. I’ve found that when a leader can honestly connect present performance to the strategic dreams and visions of indivudal members of the team, each member becomes more engaged, energized and creative. But the key is honesty. If the leader tries to make themselves or others believe the job will get them where they want to go, eventually they’ll figure that out and feel betrayed.

Your list and tactics are a great start. I also agree that patience is key. Thanks for the great comment!

David  |  04 Oct 2011  | 


I agree with regard to asking people to dream with you – it’s got to be authentic and sincere or it’s better not to do it. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!


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