sign on the sidewalk "passion led us here"
Every leader is different, but here are some tips from tech industry leaders who successfully stayed ahead of the competition PHOTO: Ian Schneider

When successful companies have culture problems, they make headlines: "Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture," "Amazon’s Allegedly Harsh Work Culture Has Made Headlines" and "What You Can Learn from the Facebook Culture Crisis" are just a few examples. These headlines serve as a reminder of how important company culture is to the success of your business.

Poor company culture plays a large part in failed digital transformation initiatives. If you are planning to embark on a digital transformation journey, it’s important to examine the current state of your company’s culture to ensure it is strong enough to support digital initiatives.

Culture change doesn’t happen overnight. Bad behaviors and patterns are built over time, and it takes patience, strategy and solid leadership to reinforce good behaviors. Both the senior leadership team and the organization as a whole need a strong set of priorities and a clearly communicated path on how you’ll go after them. As a leader, you must help your employees understand how their actions support your organization’s mission and vision, and why their support and buy-in is important.

To help move things along, here are three ways to help drive cultural change — none of which involves demanding your organization change.

Recognize What’s Working

When trying to drive change, it can be easy to focus on what’s not working rather than what is. The reality is that any corporate culture is the result of good intentions that have evolved in unexpected ways. For example, a belief in innovation is now driving staff to build everything themselves, rather than purchasing purpose-built software, or a commitment to customers has resulted in overspending.

The challenge is to show how your original values are still relevant to your organization’s success today. Employee surveys, interviews and observation can help you identify your cultural strengths. Consider asking questions like:

  • What part of your job inspires you the most?
  • Do you know why our company exists? What is our purpose?
  • Can you name our corporate values? What do they mean to you?
  • Do you feel our executive team behaves in a way that is consistent with our company values?
  • How is success rewarded?
  • How is failure addressed?
  • If budget and staffing were no issue, what would you do to improve our organization?

Acknowledging the importance of your existing culture and its strengths will make any change feel less like a top-down directive and more like a necessary evolution. Don’t forget to take advantage of employees who are already aligned with your desired cultural values. If you look, you’re likely to find departments and teams that are already exemplifying desired behaviors. Spotlights these areas of success to the wider organization.

Related Article: Can You Engineer an Innovation Culture?

Create Connectedness to the Culture

Leaders drive company culture. This presents its own set of challenges because we have to reflect on our own engrained behaviors to change the way we have always done things.

Let’s say your organization decides to be more customer-centric. Maybe you have a big organization-wide kick-off meeting where a new mission about customer-centricity is unveiled. The company invests a lot of money in a digital transformation initiative that will connect customer data and make it accessible to the larger organization. However, the executive team doesn’t consider how to improve the customer experience, does not prioritize customer visits to hear their concerns, and never introduces organization-wide conversations about why customer-centricity is valuable.

If executives aren’t leading the conversation, and if they aren’t prioritizing customers in their decision-making, will the rest of the organization follow? Of course not. The executive team must lead and model the way. However, they can’t get it done alone. If you are leading a digital transformation initiative, you must build commitment and alignment within your senior leadership.

Senior leaders have an important role in digital transformation: They provide day-to-day leadership for the organization to follow. Their cues — both spoken and unspoken — help their teams understand what’s really important about your initiative.

As a leader, you must put the right people in place to drive change. It’s easy to default to including only visionary and inspiring people in your leadership group, but remember you also need leaders who understand the technologies and strategies that are currently in place.

Related Article: Execs Are in the Driver's Seat for Innovation Success

Communicate the Benefits of Change

When it comes to communicating the benefits of change, don’t forget to demonstrate the idea in action. You can do this by approving projects that highlight digital transformation, innovation and agility; using data to help employees solve problems more quickly, without requiring levels of approval; and rewarding and recognizing behaviors that support your mission and vision. People will work harder if they are directly contributing towards organizational goals and are recognized for the value they add.

You can’t bribe people to be loyal to you, but you can invest in them so they want to be there. Your employees should understand how they support your organization’s long-term strategy and goals. Slapping your mission and vision on the company website and considering that effective communication won’t get it done. Instead, try using some techniques from your marketing team, like:

  • Framing the issue. Connect the issue to why the organization exists (its purpose or mission). Incite action by showing how your proposed initiatives will benefit others and the organization as a whole.
  • Demonstrating quick wins. Showing the benefits of change is one way to bring in doubters.
  • Embracing symbols. Demonstrating your corporate purpose through slogans and symbols reinforces your message and helps unite your team. Don’t underestimate the power of a free t-shirt or coffee cup.

For more information, check out the Harvard Business Review article "Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate," with research and techniques from social movements that can be applied to culture change.   

It's fundamentally really hard to change company culture — but you can enhance its best characteristics,” said Marissa Mayer, former Yahoo CEO. “You have to repeat your mission, and your purpose, and the values you care about, over and over and over.”

Executives, as individuals and as management teams, tend to bias towards decisions that have worked in the past. It can be difficult to encourage them to embrace risk and step outside their traditional toolbox. Bur remember, any behavior is changeable, but change only happens when people take action. Be prepared to encourage consistent action over time, and you will certainly see a change.