Tuesday, October 6, 2015

3 Things CEOs Should Know Before Changing Corporate Culture

There is a common belief amongst most corporate executives: “changing corporate culture is one of the most difficult things to do.” Perhaps it’s so difficult because it involves human beings. People are not as simple as changing the oil in your car or the software in your computer. While transforming culture may appear analogous to changing computer software, there are complexities that make them enormously different. With that said, here are 3 aspects that outline some of those differences. Every CEO should consider them before initiating change initiatives.

People come with baggage: Unlike software in a computer, people have been
conditioned to believe life and business occur a certain way. In fact, based on each individual’s experience and environmental upbringing, they have proof their point of view is correct. Computer software, on the other hand, is designed for frequent updates. People often become stuck with their beliefs and never update them. For example, many women and minorities believe they have to work twice as hard to move up the corporate ladder. Furthermore, they anticipate a certain amount of discrimination. As a result, some will predetermine that no matter how hard they work opportunities at the top will never be made available to them. This predetermination can cause many built in defenses. The person could give up and never engage in the kind of training that will prepare them for top management. If they take that path and an opportunity does open up, they will not be prepared. If it doesn’t, they will have additional proof that there is discrimination. In other cases, a woman or minority could have animosity towards others. That animosity may make them less suitable for leadership positions. However, from their point of view, it will appear to be discrimination. If this mindset is not addressed, it could create a culture of victims who complain. While the workplace is not responsible for playing therapist to employees, people need tools to see how their belief systems can sabotage opportunities. Therefore, it would be wise for the CEO to provide training that helps people and groups let go of unproductive beliefs.   

People seek guidance: In most cases, CEOs are ambitious people who understand the need to take initiative, even when there is no road map to get the job done. Not everyone has that drive. To transform corporate culture, it is imperative that people understand the new direction, what’s needed from them and how it will benefit everyone involved. In some cases, it will require retraining. The CEO’s job is to create an environment that empowers people to drive transformation. If not, people will develop their own ideas about the way things should happen. That could become directionless because there are too many directions. People need to know the path of the company. Without it, some may hesitate to take action for fear of being on the wrong path.

Culture will not transform until the CEO transforms: In a conversation with a CEO of a Fortune 500, he spoke in detail about how hard he worked to transform corporate culture. He said on a number of occasions he struggled with change initiatives. However, once he learned to transform himself first, it became significantly easier to transform the rest of the organization. He spoke about how, at first, he believed it was others who needed to change. He believed he was a smart, capable guy. From his perspective, transformation was for the rest of the company. In other words, he was the impediment. There are many companies that have gone through transformation. Except, the CEO did not participate in the training. As a result, the CEO was not part of the new language and mindset that was developed. When staff and management created innovative strategies, the CEO would work against them and undo everything because he had difficulty understanding the new way of thinking.

In most cases, to transform corporate culture, one must let go of old ways of thinking. In the words of Yoda: “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” By letting go, you can begin opening doors to possibilities you didn’t know you didn’t know.

What do you think? I would love to hear your feedback. And I’m open to ideas. Or if you want to write me about a specific topic, let me know.


  1. Brilliant... Simply brilliant thinking... This is exactly what happens in the work place and also what happens in our personal life. The fact that people sabotage themselves without even knowing is probably the most rampant thing in the workplace. Letting go is probably the hardest thing to do in the movement of change. How do you get someone to let go when this is all they have always known? More importantly, how do they recognize that this is what they need to do in order to break through, or create effective change? Keep the movement going Ted Santos. You are making a difference in people lives everyday. Looking forward to future discussions.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Mike. What you have stated is very accurate. The roadblocks, barriers or blind spots people have in their personal lives will always follow them to their professional lives. As you say, they will ultimately sabotage themselves.

      To get people out of their own way is a process. While it rarely happens overnight, with tools and a strong commitment, individuals and organizations can experience breakthroughs in performance as well as in the way they think and function.

  2. I agree, cultural changes do not occur overnight, particularly in our current corporate environments. When we consider that this is the largest generational diversity shift in the history of our industrial work force, we have to consider how to change mistaken beliefs in each work group. Within my Fortune 500 organization, we have the following workforce breakdown:
    1.) Builders (Historical creators of industry frameworks) = 1%,
    2.) Baby Boomers (Benefactors of the industrial revolution, current power brokers) = 51%,
    3.) Generation X (Inspired by Process driven (Deming) work paradigms) = 41%,
    4.) Millennials (Work product and culture dependent on technology) = 7%.

    Cultural change is indeed all about people. This is why programs which help to train and re-train the thinking of people are so important. The concept of Transformational Leadership is based upon a bottom up approach, where the leader’s primary concern is for the individual. Among other factors, the successful execution of the 4 I’s is what will change corporate or even societal culture:
    •Idealized Influence (II)
    •Inspirational Motivation (IM)
    •Individualized Consideration (IC)
    •Intellectual Stimulation (IS)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Charmaine. You bring up a number of points that add to the complexity of transforming culture.

      Social anthropologists say a culture is a network of conversations. They say that goes for the culture of a nation, corporation or family. In other words, culture is not an object that needs to be changed.

      The network of conversations are not simply what people say to one another. It includes the unspoken conversations. Or the things people believe they cannot discuss.

      When you look closer, you see the network of conversations people have with themselves and others are pervasive, regardless of age. Some how we were all taught the same thing about what it means to be human.

      One of the conversations is my generation is different. Yet, history continues to repeat itself.

      When people realize they are all speaking the same language about success and failure, it becomes easier to embrace the various perspectives and have open conversations. Ultimately, I am saying people share more common ground than they realize. Except, we are taught to focus more on differences. That is part of the culture of being human.

      Changing culture is more about transforming the network of conversations. And being responsible for the conversations that derail change and success.

  3. If you get a chance, check out the movie "The Intern". While it's comedic entertainment, it also speaks to the workplace cultural shift that we have been discussing, as well as the value of veteran executive interns. I think you will enjoy it.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I will check it out.