Is your culture past its sell-by date?


Published on: November 2022

Written by: Alex Amsden, Mallory Meyer, Andy Atkins

How do you know when your culture is working against you? What if your current culture is no longer serving your business? Culture is your strategy accelerator, so you better know how it’s helping you. Even if you think all is well, you may be missing something that is going to trip your strategy up soon or later. Here’s how to be on the lookout for signs it’s time to check your culture and see if it is still fresh enough to support your strategic vision. 

How to spot the flares 

While leaders know that a strong culture is critical to the success of their organization, it is still not uncommon for them to ignore the warning signs of fires smoldering beneath the surface sounding the alarm that cultural combustion is near. Waiting to address these cultural challenges when everyone is busy and staring down the barrel of change is not optimal and leads to stress and burnout. Leading today means proactively tapping into the tools to nurture and shape culture before it goes bad. Done right, this will allow leaders to feel energized about deploying their culture to accelerate their strategy, not impede it. 

Here are several common events that should prompt leaders to pause and examine whether trouble is brewing.  

1. A change in strategy 

A change in strategy, reorganization, or a shift in the business structure is a strong indicator that means people across the enterprise need to work together differently. The old roles, behaviors, collaborations, and communication may not serve the new direction. Rather than set your teams and your strategy up for failure, incorporate a culture assessment into your strategic plan so you can get in front of what needs to change. 

2. Acquisition/rapid growth  

Acquisitions and/or times of rapid growth force organizations to suddenly need to execute on dramatically more things, while simultaneously wrestling with old ways of working together. Rapid growth can leave employees with whiplash, struggling to keep up with the new world order. Post-merger, it is all too common for silos to form; “Oh, those are the XYZ Company folks.” Years later, acquired talent often still bears an indelible tattoo on their forehead marking cultural otherness. To nip those cultural blazes in the bud, leaders must inventory the readiness of the organization to go through the change and convey and anticipate the implications of the change. (Click here for more on culture and successful M&A.) 

3. DEI initiatives 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are high stakes and high visibility, particularly in the current climate. They often require behavior change that is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Company history and the culture born of that history are both the reason why the initiatives are necessary and can be the inhibitor to change.  Before jumping in, it’s critical to take a culture pulse to understand what will block and accelerate a new culture of belonging. Often, leaders find they need to course-correct or restart when DEI initiatives fall flat. Taking the time to get real up front about how to nurture and support a culture of belonging is what differentiates successful initiatives from those that are puzzlingly ineffective. 

4. Marketplace disruption 

External changes are also a forcing factor for culture change. When the market changes, the company needs to pivot, and this can result in a need to change go-to-market strategies, business models, and even the core of what the company does. Leaders are forced to peek under the hood to see if the company is ready culturally to take on the challenge. Take our large financial institution client who is an industry giant. They were profitable and effective, but their culture was complacent. Leaders felt satisfied about the need not to do anything different. This reluctance to be introspective about the health of their culture was costly. An unexpected economic downturn finally forced the organization to pause and take notice as they lost market position. They had an uphill battle creating the significant culture change required to pivot the company and are still feeling the ramifications years later.  

Keep your culture fresh 

Here are three things to consider when making sure your culture is on the right track no matter what your organization is facing. 

  1. Honor the past. Your culture probably came to be for very deliberate business reasons once upon a time. As the context changes, it is important to acknowledge the roots and create a link to the future. Culture change can feel shocking. Making good use of storytelling skills might generate more awareness and help your team connect with the shift better. 
  2. Don’t let success blind you. It’s easy to ignore a festering cultural problem when times are good. Focusing solely on financial performance may cause leaders to ignore early warning signs and biases about the less desirable cultural trends that are happening.  
  3. Understand the enterprise-view. When we work with our clients on culture change, often we ask them to consider what beliefs, daily structures, and ways of working they want to hold. While it is inevitable for an organization to have sub-cultures across business units or functions, such sub-cultures should not be disconnected or in opposition of the organization’s collective cultural aspirations. While each practice area or function might have its own flavor, the pillars of culture should be aligned directionally across the organization and modeled with intentionality.  

Culture isn’t homogenous. It is a fluid component of your organization that must morph alongside change, disruption, and growth. While it is experienced differently at different levels, it also beckons for unity through that diversity. Leaders can honor the one enterprise culture they are striving towards through clear guidelines that bring to life a shared vision, shared set of values, operating principles, and mindsets. Read here for more on how to make sure your culture drives your strategy, not tanks it.

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