The challenge of changing company culture

Feels like over the last year I’ve put an extreme amount of effort in to change the company’s culture. Things are getting better, but there’s still a lot more to go. Still have people here who aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid. Suggestions?

Thoughts of the day: Getting buy-in to change can be challenging. Expose everyone to your message. Walk it, talk it, wear it — you’re the leader. Figure out where the lack of buy-in is coming from. Give people a reason to want to change.

Make sure you do a good job communicating where you’re going, what that means for the culture you’re working to build — not just in your head, but also on paper where everyone can see it. Use tools to reinforce your message. We’ve had clients print wallet cards with the company’s mission on one side and the top reasons for being with the company on the other. Some companies print their mission statement on the back of business cards. Some post it over the front door or on the door opposite the front door, so everyone sees it as they walk in.

Wherever you decide to post your most important message, make sure it’s a clear, distinctive, understandable statement of what the company stands for. Draw a picture in graphic terms. Ask employees who have bought in to read what you’ve written and give you feedback. Include thoughts on how that culture pays off for everyone involved.

Often new hires get the most exposure; they hear about what the future looks like in job interviews. They’re also the most likely to buy in, since, when it comes to your company, they have no baggage to hang on to. For most job candidates, either they like what they hear in the interview and they grab on, or they go look elsewhere for a job.

Be as thorough explaining your culture to everyone else in the company. Hold meetings to discuss it. Ask people to sit one-on-one to chat about it. Be willing to hash through questions and examine what that means to everyone. The more airtime you give your message, the better the chance that people will hear you and follow along.

As the head of the company, people look up to you and watch what you do. Make sure you’re a living, breathing, actual example of what it is you want the company to stand for. If the company stands for truth, make sure you tell no lies. If the company stands for service, make sure you also serve your people. Talk with people about how you expect the company’s values to impact your life, your employees’ lives, your customers’ lives and your vendors’ lives. Think it through and come up with specific examples that people can relate to.

Do a check-in on those who are slow to follow your lead. Are they trying to sabotage you or is it that they just don’t understand. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Try persuasion first, but don’t be afraid to draw a line, if necessary. Make it clear that you are the boss, and that this culture is going to stick with or without the support of the people who are slow to grab on. If necessary, take objectors aside and ask them to think hard about whether this company is still going to be a fit for them or do they need to move on. Don’t let one or two objectors disrupt what you’re trying to build as they can eat away at everything good that you’re trying to build.

Change can be hard for everyone. Be clear that what’s on the other side of the change will be better. Ask people to get on board. Give them time to show support. And be OK with moving on if necessary.

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The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations” by John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen.

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