Is Changing Culture Difficult or an Excuse?

Culture can literally change overnight - it isn’t always the proverbial ‘super tanker’ that takes an eternity and is incredibly complex to navigate and turn around.


We all know that leadership emanates from the very top and a definition of culture is “the way we do things around here”.


I used to work in a large blue chip organisation (with thousands of employees) and was part of their senior leadership team. We had a bit of a culture of working too many hours and regularly being late for meetings.


The CEO left and we had a new one appointed - a lovely guy called Ben. He was brilliant and really personable.


I recall when we had our first ever executive meeting with Ben. It was scheduled for 9.00am.


At 9.00am Ben closed the door and started the meeting. 


At 9.05am two of the executive team arrived smiling and sat down. 


Our first discussion with Ben was therefore around 9.06am and it was about leadership. Ben explained how he understands that occasionally there are emergencies and that he’s OK with people making their own priorities - he would just like informing beforehand, so he knows if we need any help and that we’re OK.


He then informed us of how the door will always be closed at 9.00am and if any of us feel that the meeting isn’t important enough to attend on time, then we should simply choose not to attend at all. 


He also told us that it isn’t because he is CEO - it’s just common courtesy and he would expect the same for all employees. If somebody on the shop floor wants a meeting with him, then he owes them the respect to turn up to that meeting on time.


By 9.00am the next day, the culture had started to change, as we all had the same approach - that’s how things were going to be from now onwards. We started planning travel time between meetings or arranging less meetings and subsequently we became much more efficient.


A few weeks into Ben’s tenure we had a flight to the USA. 


As soon as we were allowed, the laptops came out and we began to work - that’s what we always used to do. Ben put his eye mask on and just told us we’re crazy, we work too many hours and we should get more rest. We swapped the laptops for headphones and had a relaxing flight.


Being a mediator means I get in the middle of lots of negative issues in workplaces and it’s often about the culture, which always comes down to leadership.


It doesn’t matter what your posters say on your walls about values, visions and all that good stuff - or even whatever is contained in your glossy Powerpoint presentations.


What makes the difference is how people are with each other and that originates from everybody in leadership roles.


For me, when we say culture is like turning around a super tanker, it’s an excuse for saying we’re not tackling the big leadership issues - because they’re too hard.


This is why when people have mediation skills they get amazing results and 90% of the time it isn’t in mediations, it’s just how they deal with people - they enable proper conversations.


Talking (and more importantly) listening gives insights.


Insights change thinking.


Thinking changes behaviours.


Behaviours change culture.


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