At a recent leadership workshop I was facilitating, an attendee asked me how I work with executives on “soft issues, such as culture?” My response was that employee culture is not the soft and squishy stuff that many executives, and even some human resources leaders, believe it is. It is tangible, measurable and shaped by leaders who know how to impact it. Moreover, if leaders don’t address culture when implementing new strategies or integrating an acquisition, chances are, they will fail.
Management consultant Peter Drucker famously told executives at Ford Motor over lunch that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Research tells us that nearly 70% of strategies fail and 40% to 75% of acquisitions fail. One of the leading causes of these failures is not addressing the employee cultural issues that circumvent and stall business strategies.
Culture consultant Stan Slap informs us that employee culture is about survival.[i] When you implement new business strategies, the rules of employee survival change. You need to inform your employees what they have to do differently to succeed. Otherwise, they will resist the new strategies out of fear for their survival.
Management and customers have their own cultures, separate from employees. But, the same thing applies – if you are changing the culture, you have to communicate the new code for survival.
The good news is that culture is measurable.
You can manage what you measure. You can implement what you understand. You can do this same way you implement an R&D or marketing project: by implementing a project plan with strategy, objectives, milestones, measures and then making informed adjustment as you go. It all starts with leadership.
One of the easiest ways to measure culture is through surveys, sensing sessions and internal blogs.
There are many surveys available to measure employee culture. These surveys are not the same as employee engagement surveys. Employee culture surveys measure employee attitudes and their understanding of and alignment with the business vision, purpose, strategy and goals. They also measure employees’ underlying beliefs and assumptions about new strategies, their commitment, involvement, feelings of empowerment and, finally, their adaptability to market and organizational forces. Surveys, particularly when they invite written comments from employees, provide powerful insights into the employee culture’s readiness and willingness to align with change.
If rekindling innovation is your business strategy, there’s a powerful cultural assessment for innovation that measures the 12 dimensions of successful, innovative business cultures. These dimensions break down into four major components:
- Infrastructure and resourcing
- Ideation and knowledge management
This innovation methodology has been benchmarked against more than 2000 companies.
Focus groups, or sensing sessions, are a powerful tool for learning how employees are interpreting leadership messages and what is or isn’t working. It never ceases to amaze me how strategic messages can miss the mark when they are not relevant to the needs of the employee culture! Focus groups are particularly powerful when used in conjunction with surveys.
When implementing new strategies, I have found it extremely useful to open up an internal blog and let employees voice their compliments, concerns and questions. If your employees trust you, they will voice their likes and dislikes. Blogs are a powerful way to learn about obstacles to change so that you can take actions to overcome them. Blogs work best when questions are treated with respect, and are responded to quickly and candidly – within 24 hours or less.
If you don’t immediately know the answer to an employee’s question, you need to offer a deadline for finding an answer, and then meet that deadline. In most cases you will know when you have addressed your employees’ issues because their questions cease. This often occurs in a matter of just two to three weeks.
It all starts with leadership
Leaders can dramatically impact and change employee culture. But, leaders who believe that their role with strategy is over after the market and financial analysis is complete, the strategy is articulated, and the new organization chart is communicated, are delusional. That’s often why 70% of new strategies fail. Leaders need to recognize that their work and the work of their implementation teams has just begun!
We know from research that leaders who do well with strategy implementation and drive M&A success have high scores in leadership traits such as integrity, customer focus, adaptability, building relationships, influence, motivation and developing others.[ii]
The role of middle managers is just as important as executives for ensuring a successful strategy execution or merger and acquisition. Many of the above traits are also important for middle managers, along with the ability to align with strategy, take direction and delegate.
The next time you dismiss culture as soft and squishy, remember the words of business consultant and author Jim Collins, “Culture is strategy!”
Have you had success with implementing new strategies or a merger and acquisition by measuring and changing your employee culture? I would love to hear from you.
Victor Assad is a strategic human resources consultant and coach who works with key decision makers and human resources leaders on talent management, accelerating change, leadership development, innovation, and other strategic initiatives such as mergers and acquisitions, strategy implementation, and flexible workplace. Please e-mail Victor at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Victor’s website at www.victorhrconsultant.com.
[i] Stan Slap (2015) Under the Hood: Fire Up and Fine Tune Your Employee Culture, Penguin Group, New York, NY.
[ii] J. Keith Dunbar, (September, 2014), “The Leaders Who Make M&A Work,” The Harvard Business Review.