The Americas Region of Kao Embarks on Journey to Build Vibrant, People-Centered Culture

Kao logo
CLIENT:Kao Corporation, Americas Region, a provider of leading health and beauty products to the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand 
LOCATION:Headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio
SIZE:1,200 employees

Client Challenge

The Americas region at Kao prides itself on a culture that puts people first — not only in the products it delivers that make the world a better place, but the culture that allows employees to thrive within its own organization.

It’s known as the Kao Way.

So when leaders at Kao set out to build a long-term strategy to drive business growth in the Americas region — and to meet the rapidly evolving needs of the marketplace with efficiency and innovation — they began by looking inward. The underlying belief: Culture drives everything.

“Our superpower is our people,” which is a sentiment Kao USA President Karen Frank often shares. “Our leaders at Kao have always recognized the power of our people and wanted to unlock the potential,” says Carolyn Calkins, Senior Manager, Business Transformation at Kao. 

image of young employees representing Kao Americas culture change work with CCL

Solution

Having worked with CCL previously to boundary-spanning capabilities across the organization, Kao Americas decided to work hand-in-hand with CCL again to undertake a customized, multi-phase, highly immersive effort to define the organization’s strategic priorities and align its culture for success.

The work began with identifying the goals and the required cultural attributes to support those goals by engaging its senior leadership team and 50 additional strategic leaders from every sector, function, and level of the business. The leaders examined the current values, practices, and behaviors within the organization and then defined what a healthy culture should look like to drive its strategy forward.

“It’s essential that we started there, capturing the voices and perspectives of stakeholders and getting them involved in the process in a way that would immediately begin to shift the culture,” says Mike Smith, Strategic Business Partner at CCL. 

This foundational work would prove critical as Kao ran headlong into an unprecedented roadblock: the COVID-19 pandemic. Work as the organization knew it ground to a halt, just as it had begun to pilot the first conversations around cultural attributes with in-person workshops. 

Realizing this format would no longer work, the newly formed Culture Champions Team tapped to spearhead the rollout plan regrouped and shifted to virtual “Culture Circle Conversations” with pared-down content designed to produce engaging discussions. The result: free-flowing conversations across functions and employee levels that facilitated the understanding of cultural attributes needed to further enhance the organization and build momentum for the transformation.

“The work we did in the first phase actually positioned us well to respond to the pandemic. Pivot was our word of the year in 2020,” Carolyn recalls. “We had to be resilient as a change team. We were adapting and learning and supporting each other through extremely difficult challenges — exhibiting the behavior that we wanted to see across our organization.”

With strong support from senior leadership, the culture change was brought to life in 2021 through high-impact experiences that introduced new content, tools, and resources to the entire organization.

Attributes such as learning agility, emotional intelligence, psychological safety, and a growth mindset were honed in on, to strengthen collective behaviors and instill new culture practices to the day-to-day work at Kao.

Soon, new leadership practices that supported the desired people-centered culture began taking hold in their everyday work.

Kao’s 6 Key Attributes for Culture Change

  • Engage in Change
  • Informed Risk-Taking
  • Building Trust Through Communication
  • Collaboration & Teamwork
  • Empowerment
  • Optimism & Passion

Results

Today, Kao leaders see a fundamental shift in the way people interact and work together across the organization — and a largely shared identity that helps leverage the collective talents of everyone in the region. 

Results of the Denison Organizational Culture Surveys completed by Kao employees show the greatest growth in the areas of Mission (vision, strategic direction, intent), Adaptability (creating change, organizational learning), and Consistency (coordination, integration).

These results logged progress in nearly every category measured, evidence that Kao’s investment in its people served as a catalyst for sustained perseverance and performance in the face of the pandemic.

The organizational culture transformation in the Americas Region at Kao is, at its core, a story of resilience, learning, and growth. It’s the story of an organization that successfully confronted the most difficult challenge yet of the 21st century, while countless others in the business world struggled to simply stay afloat.

And it’s a story that continues to evolve today.

“This isn’t a one-and-done, we fix it and move on. We’re looping back constantly, evaluating constantly,” Carolyn says. “It’s a work in progress. You literally never stop.”

Kao Brilliance in Beauty Award for Executional Excellence

The Culture Champions Team received Kao’s prestigious award, which lauded the collective leadership demonstrated by the team’s 19 members, their willingness to step up for the good of the organization, and their passion in doing so.

“In the Americas region at Kao, we’ve taken a thoughtful, purposeful, and deliberate approach to strengthen our culture over the last 3 years. The results have been exceptional as we’ve been able to engage not only our leaders but our employees as culture champions across the organization to work together to make a profound and lasting impact on our culture. It takes all of us working together collectively and collaboratively to create a culture that we are all proud to be a part of!”

— Jill Adler
Vice President, Human Capital Development, Americas

“CCL provided their expertise and guidance on how to navigate such a large improvement to the way we work together and helped to set us up for success. Their knowledge, skills, and experience in this area were invaluable to us as we navigated this culture change and were with us each step of the way.”

— Christine Sarosy
Sr. Manager, R&D Strategic Operations & Transformation, and Culture Champion

“The focus to provide tools to bridge communication gaps, empower without fear, and positively promote taking action have all been key components to the positive growth performance individually and collectively within the organization.”

— Trish Trujillo
Salon Field Education Manager, US, and Culture Champion

Partner With Us

Build a people-centered culture at your organization that helps to makes the strategy happen with our Organizational Leadership Culture Change service. 

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