June 2015

Leaders, Culture and Change

By Ed Ruggero and Marcia Noa

A half-dozen iron workers jam themselves into the passenger elevator on the side of a skeletal high-rise. Four of the men wear their safety harnesses, which they'll anchor to the building before they start work on the 61st floor. The other two aren't wearing the harnesses, even though the general contractor routinely hands out thousand dollar fines to subcontractors who don't comply with the rules. Even if these two draw a fine, experience shows that by next week some other worker will be walking around unbelted seven hundred feet above the sidewalk. Meanwhile the site manager scratches his head and wonders how he can get the men to think differently about their own safety. Why are safety harnesses the norm on one team while another group thinks of them as something for newbies? It comes down to culture.

Any discussion of change in an organization inevitably gets around to culture, what it is and what it needs to become. Here's a definition I've found handy:

Culture is the sum total of everything we've learned, everything we've been told, absorbed or observed that tells us how we are supposed to act.

What inputs create culture?

Rules tend to be a favorite vehicle for changing culture; leaders adjust policies and procedures to force action. Another common move is to concentrate on formal communication, directives from higher up. Some organizations go further, rewarding and publicly celebrating the right behaviors—turning those behaviors into stories to influence culture. One large east coast bank, for example, makes a point of sharing with the entire workforce the best stories of employees helping customers. Some of these stories have even been made into television commercials starring the real life employee.

Culture change is difficult and smart leaders use all the inputs to gain the greatest leverage. But even leaders who cover all the bases will struggle if they fail to recognize one thing:

Culture is a local phenomenon.

Entities with more than a few dozen people have multiple cultures, and the most powerful influences are those closest to the individual.

Culture change starts when top leaders recognize the importance of all the inputs: when they create a rewards system for the right behaviors, when they set the example themselves, when they celebrate the stories that make heroes of people who have bought into the culture. But top leaders must also enlist leaders at every level—in all those local circles—in the effort to change. This team of local leaders has to share a vision of the desired culture and work together to create and carry out the plans for change.

Applying these principles to the jobsite I mentioned, this means the general contractor, the site manager and the sub contractor must all stress safety and recognize the right behaviors; their messages must be consistent and aligned. But it's only when those top people get the front line "local" leaders caring about and checking safety harnesses that the change will stick.

Ed Ruggero runs The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, in which executives visit the Civil War battlefield to learn leadership lessons that apply today. Ed also leads experiential learning visits to Normandy, Lexington & Concord and to Valley Forge.