Contrary to Conventional Wisdom, Cultures Can Be Transformed

Today’s companies have no choice but to change.

The world is moving and shifting fast, and executives know it.

Organizations seeking to adapt during turbulent times — like now — cannot force change through purely technical approaches such as restructuring and reengineering. They need a new kind of leadership capability to reframe dilemmas, reinterpret options, and reform operations — and to do so continuously.

But organizational culture change is not for the faint of heart or the quick-change artist. The history of change management teaches us that a simple recipe does not work. Change remains very difficult, and serious change demands serious people. 

Our experience with clients has helped us identify themes and patterns, tools and models that help leaders and organizations to change their culture. But the fact remains: anyone touting a quick-fix transformation formula doesn’t know what he’s up against.

Organizational Change Leadership Isn’t Simple

It isn’t easy to lead organizational change because:

  1. Bigger minds are needed to keep pace with rapidly changing reality. Reality is leaping ahead of our collective development. We need new thinking and new ways of working together in order to keep up. Most organizations are behind in developing what they need to move up the hierarchy of culture. It takes an even greater stretch to thrive in the face of change.
  2. Change requires new mindsets, not just new skills. Organizations have become savvy developers of individual leader competencies. In doing so, they have over-relied on the human resource function to manage change through individual skill development. Executives have not considered the need to advance both individual and collective leadership mindsets.
  3. Hidden assumptions and beliefs must be unearthed. Unexamined beliefs control an organization and prevent any meaningful change. Years of valuing hierarchy, status, authority and control — even if unstated — can lead to assumptions and behaviors that are out of date, unnecessary, unhelpful, and at odds with stated goals and strategic direction.
  4. Organizational change requires leaders to change. To change the culture, change yourself. That’s the new reality. Senior executives who move the needle toward organizational transformation also experience significant personal transformation. That commitment to personal change is a fundamental part of their readiness to take on the leadership and management challenges of change for a sustainable future.
  5. It takes a new kind of hard work. Stop calling them “soft” skills. Developing new beliefs and mindsets is hard, and the leadership practices they generate will permanently alter the way leadership is experienced and accomplished. Developing a new mindset is much harder than managing spreadsheets and the next restructuring. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Senior leadership teams can and do evolve new mindsets. Individuals, teams, and entire organizations adapt, grow, and prepare for future challenges. They learn to change what they do and how they do it. As a result, they have grown “bigger minds for solving bigger problems.”

Choosing the right leadership culture is the difference between success and failure.

As companies face change, they need to invest intentionally in a leadership culture that will match the unfolding challenge. The beliefs that drive leadership behaviors need to align with the operational business strategy.

The goal of culture-change work is to purposefully and actively build capability for new ways of working.

Do you have the leadership capacity and culture needed to succeed? Where are the individual and collective gaps?

Whatever you do, don’t pawn the culture work on someone else. Don’t give it to HR. No one else can create change for the executive team. No proxy can carry the senior team’s responsibility.

Rather than dismissing culture work as “soft stuff,” many executives now view it as the high-priority, hard stuff — changing whole beliefs systems so that organizations can survive. Are you ready for the new hard work?

Emerging Leadership Trends Report

Additional Contributing Author:
Gary B. Rhodes
In addition to working as a consultant for Leading Edge Solutions, Inc., Gary is a Senior Fellow Emeritus and adjunct faculty member with the Center for Creative Leadership. In his continuing work with CCL, he is concentrating on action research focused on leading change and leadership culture transformation. Gary has worked with hundreds of leaders and organizations around the world in a wide variety of sectors. He was also a tenured professor of social administration and public policy at the University of Louisville. Rhodes holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from UCLA and an interdisciplinary master of philosophy in social science and social policy from the University of Michigan. He is co-author of Transforming Your Leadership Culture and Competent Supervision: Making Imaginative Judgments.

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