All executives, human resources leaders and organizational development consultants know that leading change and implementing new strategy is difficult. The empirical research tells us that 70% of company strategies fail. I, like many of you, have depended on change methodologies like John Kotter’s Eight Step Change Model to implement new strategies. I’ve found that the model works if management perseveres. But all too often executives believe that their work is done after a new strategy is communicated. That’s a delusion!
When the real work begins!
The “real work” of leading change is the focus of Under the Hood: Fire UP and Fine-Tune Your Employee Culture, a new book by New York Times best-selling author and cultural guru, Stan Slap. Last week, I had the opportunity to listen to Stan Slap speak about his observations on employee culture and hear his advice for aligning an organization around a common purpose. Stan was speaking at a workshop in Silicon Valley held by the Human Resources Strategy Forum and growBOLD, the organizational development association focused on Biotech.
Stan spoke of employee culture as if it were a living, breathing organism – its primary concern is survival. When you implement organizational change, you shift the rules of survival, and the organism goes crazy. The real work of change is engaging with the employee culture, which is rational in its way of thinking. Employee culture needs to understand why the change is required, why past strategies failed, what will not change, and the new rules for survival. Then, employees can build emotional commitment.
Stan Slap advised, “It is a myth to believe that strategy has to be planned well. No, it has to be implemented well. You will be camped on Mount Delusional if you do not build your strategy on emotional commitment. Effective strategy implementation requires inspiration, not just information.”
Employee Culture excludes management.
In Under the Hood, Stan highlights the work of pioneering Anthropologist Margaret Meade in her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa. Meade observed that an illiterate, indigenous culture develops elaborate roles, rules and rituals for survival that influence the behaviors and language of everyday life. The culture does this by storytelling, and the often-repeated stories became “legends.” If everyone knows the rules of survival at the watering hole as imparted by the legend stories, for example, fewer people will get hurt.
Stan maintains that the same forces of survival, roles, rituals and storytelling are at play in companies. Similar to Margaret Meade’s Samoan indigenous people, contemporary employees repeat their legend stories. These stories are about corporate executives and managers: How they lead, their behaviors, what they value and how to survive when working with them. The catch is that these stories are shared exclusively among employees in hallways, the espresso bar, and happy hours. They are not told to the subjects of the stories: management.
“If you can’t sell it on the inside, you can’t sell it on the outside.”—Stan Slap
Stan shared the story of a well-known company that had been promoting its “do or die” strategy for nine months, with little success. The company repeatedly articulated the strategy through all-employee meetings, e-mails, posters, mouse pads, screen-savers, t-shirts, even balloons! Then the company conducted a survey and asked one critical question, “Do you understand the company’s new strategy?” The overwhelming answer was, “No.” When Stan looked into the nuance of the comments and the wording of the question, he discovered that employees actually knew the strategy, but didn’t fully understand it – the company used too many big words. More importantly, employees didn’t understand why they should rally around the strategy. They had experienced other strategies, most of which had failed. Why rally around this one? What was in it for them? So, they didn’t work to support it.
Customers have their own culture.
Customers can tell when employees halfheartedly or enthusiastically endorse new strategies. Stan Slap asserts that customers are also looking to see how management treats its workforce. Customers believe that if employees are treated with respect, they will be treated with respect.
“Employee culture is powerful, genetic and hereditary. What cultures want to happen will happen.”–Stan Slap.
During times of change, employee culture goes into survival mode. It burns through a lot of energy sorting through announcements, facts and rumors, and trying to figure out the gap between what is said and not said. This limits the energy available to fuel organizational flexibility, resiliency and innovation. To keep this siphoning off of energy to a minimum, Stan offers the following advice.
- Plug into the power source with understanding – Help your employees understand the new strategy, and how they can align with it.
- Context of past strategies–looking backward – Don’t blame employees for the failure of past strategies, or employees will shift into survival mode. Take care to explain what is not changing and focus on its dependability. Whiners are sacred to employee culture because they articulate cultural violations. Listen to their complaints and address the issues!
- Predictability and looking forward – Be clear about what is going to happen in the future. The more your employee culture can predict how the company will act, the less energy it requires to classify the future as reliable.
- Sense of Self – If what your company does, and how and why it does it is a positive force in the world, it boosts your company’s sense of self. That generates energy! Demonstrate this positive force by what you do and how you do it. Be human first and a manager second. Earn trust a little at a time. Millennials look for a reason to believe. Give it to them! Keep giving it to them!
What is under the hood of your employee culture? Do you know how to plug into its power source?
Victor Assad is a strategic human resources consultant and executive coach who works with key decision makers and human resource leaders on global talent management, accelerating change, leadership development, and other strategic initiatives, such as mergers and acquisitions, strategy implementation, and flexible workplace. Contact Victor for a free one-hour strategy session at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Victor’s website at www.victorhrconsultant.com to download his free HR whitepapers and read more of his blog posts.