What is Culture and How do You Change It?

This statement “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” is provocative. It stems from the idea that corporate strategies cannot be met or achieved if the culture isn’t there to support it. Some would say culture is soft and in reality often put on the back burner to satisfy strategy first.

It’s easy to define ‘strategy’: it’s a design, a game plan, the means to help achieve something. But how do you define culture within a business setting? It can be hazy and perhaps a trendy thing to talk about right now.

Acceptable Definitions?

  • A blend of values, beliefs, social norms, symbols, traditions and myths that develop within companies over time.
  • How we talk, behave and do things as a corporate entity.
  • A shared set of beliefs and values that is embraced by everyone in the company.

How is culture created?

For some companies it stems from the story of how the company was created. Many would say it’s a direct reflection of and driven by the founder – a reflection of their values and how they want to live and work. Some say because these two means of creating culture, it’s inherent and very difficult to change.

How would you change culture?

A colleague told me a story about realizing he had created a culture of hourly billing and tracking to such a nit-picky level that they weren’t serving their clients as well as they could. It was so ingrained in his employees to watch every minute spent with an emphasis on staying in budget that it took a major effort to change that culture to achieve the strategy of becoming a customer service first business. How did he do it? One thing was to remove the time tracking process; the second was to never discuss tracking hours again, and measure success in client satisfaction.

Changing culture is a mix of identifying and changing the processes and mechanisms involved, sharing these new practices with employees, and changing their thought process through leading by example. Provide employees the reasons, tools, direction, and permission they need to behave differently.

Actions speak louder than words

Values go hand-in-hand with corporate culture and if you have clarity on those values and the strategies you are trying to achieve, as a leader you need to walk the talk and be that culture yourself. Be careful of your own language and behavior. It’s not enough to put a list of values on the wall or update the employee handbook – you have to live it.

I believe culture is the glue that holds a company together and makes people want to work for it and do business with it. Culture can be really hard to define if it’s inmate but certainly easier to change if everyone involved understands what you’re trying to achieve and why, so they can believe in it.

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