Who’s the fairest of them all?


A good friend writes to lament that changing the culture of an organisation is like changing the course of a supertanker at full speed. Less than six months into a C-suite role with a respected hospital he is leaving to go and do something better with his time.

When things are not going quite right, we often see new senior level executives brought in as fresh blood with the mandate to implement culture change. If they are lucky, an external consultant or an executive coach will have defined where the concerns are, and even if not, the first round of impressions and one-on-ones will likely highlight the issues.

And so the enthusiastic executive goes to work on the organisational culture with all the passion and gusto of a new join who’s read Watkins’ First 90 Days. The first few setbacks are ridden out – I’ll tackle that one later, I’ll change tack, I’ll communicate more, I’ll get more buy-in from the team, I’ll… – but then the hurdles get higher and higher until finally the proverbial brick wall is reached. This is the moment of epiphany when the chastened executive can no longer pretend to anyone, least of all themselves, that they’re going to get their way.

What’s gone wrong? Usually it will be the identified targets of change. The executive has misread the signs and gone to tackle the superficial symbols of the organisation’s culture without addressing the fundamental beliefs and values that drive these outward and visible expressions of behaviour and practice. By ignoring this inner core of attitudes, the executive will have failed to overcome the common resistance and frequent fear of change that workforces exhibit.

Sometimes it can be more sinister. Other executives in the organisation with their own Machiavellian agendas will have been working covertly or even overtly to disrupt and derail initiatives that threaten their own goals and ambitions.

However, all too often, the problem lies further up the food chain. At the very top in fact. Whatever they might have said, whatever they might have believed they were doing, the leader has doomed the change project from the start because they themselves were not truly on board. Even in organisational cultures which are achievement oriented and low on hierarchy, employees look to their leaders for affirmation and clues as to what they really think. It cannot be emphasised enough the extent to which leaders role model behaviour which is then imitated down the line.

And so leaders, before embarking on any culture change project, must look in the mirror with the coldest and most objective of self-critical eyes, and truthfully answer ten questions:

1. Why am I calling for organisational culture change?

2. What will my new organisation look like after the culture change?

3. How do I feel about this vision?

4. Am I doing this just to keep the Board / the shareholders / the market / my executive coach / etc happy?

5. Am I truly 100% supportive of this project and resolved to go wherever this journey will lead?

6. Is there a disconnect in the values, behaviours and actions I espouse and the ones I exhibit?

7. How am I perpetuating the behaviours I am seeking to change in the organisation?

8. How can I foster culture change myself?

9. What can I do to show my employees my full and authentic commitment?

10. How do I do this right here right now?

Great leadership demands great self-awareness – however harsh the reflection in the mirror might be. If you’re fooling yourself, you’re fooling no one else.

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.