How to leverage the top team as a beacon for culture change

Given the right skills and tools, HR is in a unique positon to work with top teams to enable and embed organisational and culture change

Given the right skills and tools, HR is in a unique position to work with top teams to enable and embed organisational and culture change, write Richard Boston and Britta van Dyk

Culture change is a whole-system phenomenon, but the exec team has a massively disproportionate impact on the organisation’s ability to change.

Working with the team, HR can help it be a force for change where all too many execs are beacons for the status quo. Most HR professionals have heard John Kotter’s finding that more than 70 per cent of all attempts at major organisational transformation fail. So why would we want to try to “change” a culture anyway?

Because organisations must evolve at least as fast as their environments do. If they fail, they’ll wither and die – sometimes quietly, often spectacularly. Their competitors will out-manoeuvre them; they’ll fail to keep up with the changing needs of their customers, their staff or their market; and their existing ways of being will no longer be fit for a world that has changed and left them behind.

Sure, staying ahead of the curve requires organisations to evolve their structures, policies, processes, technology and infrastructure. But underpinning all this, and more, is culture. It means changing “the way things are done around here” with the honest and explicit intention of ensuring the organisation thrives, not just survives, over the long term. It’s a mammoth task that requires leaders and their allies in HR to pull all manner of levers to change the mindsets and habits of dozens, hundreds or thousands of people. They’ll change reward mechanisms, structures and processes; they’ll tweak the symbols and stories that are the emotional fabric of the organisation. These are significant challenges in their own right, but none of them will succeed if the top team isn’t actively leading the change.

However, all too often, the most senior execs recognise the need to change. They log it at an intellectual level, make the odd promotional video, and then carry on their own lives exactly as before. Meanwhile, their minions are expected to re-program themselves to conform to a strategy document written for investors and/or the media, and a list of values that may or may not have genuine currency. Cue a wave of cynicism, excuses and work-arounds and – ding! – the bell tolls as another ambitious change enters the graveyard of empty (OD) dreams.

So how can HR professionals help their top teams “get change right”?

5 steps to helping executives get change right

5 steps to helping executives get change right
It’s not easy, but some do it very, very well. Our experience and research suggests a five-phase approach that leverages the combined wisdom of the most successful practitioners of organisational and behavioural change. It’s an approach we use when working with senior leadership teams. We emphasise the word “with” here: this is not work that is done “to” or “on” the exec. Particularly when internal HR practitioners are doing the work, it’s critical that the exec feels their HR colleagues are doing it with them and for them. “With” because HR and the HRD will need to be changing their own mindsets and behaviours as part of the change in organisational culture; “for” because the culture change and associated work with the top team must deliver tangible improvements in the team’s ability to deliver on the needs of the business. Only when HR is working with and for the team, with both parties sharing responsibility for its success, does the work feel truly authentic.

1. Engage. The first step is for HR to engage the top team. This is just as necessary if the team themselves are calling for the change: we all know that many execs fail to role-model what they’re demanding of their staff. Engaging the team means HR role-modelling three core disciplines of leadership and team performance:

i) Establish a direction, which requires a plan of action that answers these questions:

  • In what direction does the exec need the organisation to go?
  • What does that require the HR team to do (and do differently)?

ii) Secure commitment means answering these questions:

  • How will the “change agent” build and maintain trust between everyone involved? Trust requires faith in each other’s competence and integrity, a belief that all parties share common ground and are all on the same side – not here to serve HR’s objectives or the “people” agenda. It also requires a sense of common ground, which means speaking the language of the business, not just the language of values and touchy-feely fluff.
  • How will the change agent promote healthy challenge within the team? This means all parties, including the HR staff involved, being courageous and “speaking truth to power”. This can be difficult for HR professionals who feel embroiled in and/or threatened by organisational politics.
  • How will they create a strong, deep emotional driver for change? Without a real sense of urgency and genuine emotional buy-in, there’ll be no role-modelling and the change will most likely fail. Rational arguments and spreadsheets rarely cut it: any HR professional seeking to facilitate significant, meaningful change will need to create a palpable experience that truly convinces everyone that that change is necessary – including themselves.

iii) Build the capacity for change, which means answering these essential questions:

  • Does HR have the time, resources and skills (coaching, facilitation) to do this work?
  • Do they need to bring in outside help?
  • Do the organisation and the exec team have the time, energy, team coherence and collective courage to make this work?

Capacity was sadly lacking in a travel company we worked with. The exec team initially fully endorsed a culture change initiative aimed at building leadership capability. However, they hadn’t factored in other imminent changes – they were about to be publicly listed, which soaked up their time and distracted them from their ongoing commitment to the initiative. Parts of the organisation still benefited thanks to one level of leadership receiving a year’s worth of intensive development! But this wasn’t cascaded down as intended, and was a messy experience in the eyes of employees. This in turn dampened the credibility of both the execs and their HR partners. For all the effort involved, the program didn’t have the required impact.

2. Assess. Only when all players are genuinely engaged is it worth working with them to assess:

  • the current culture – its strengths and weaknesses, the opportunities it offers and the threats it opens up
  • the habits, needs and mindsets within and around the team, and its organisation, that have created the status quo and will hold it in place.

We’ve found it best to get the team to lead on gathering and processing this data – either together or individually – remembering that the HRD and their team are part of this dataset. It can be really helpful to add in direct feedback to, and between, team members, and psychometric data. We’ve also developed an in-depth high performing teams questionnaire that streamlines data from the team and its stakeholders to help assess its ability to lead the change.

3. Align. The three core disciplines that can really help align the team and its stakeholders to drive the change are:

i) Establish a clear, simple direction by asking, “What are the three to five things the team needs to be doing differently if it’s to get the organisation to change the way it wants to?” Then have each team member identify the three to five specific, observable changes this will require of them as individuals.

How to help align executives and stakeholders to drive change

How to help align executives and stakeholders to drive change

ii) The latest psychological research on behavioural change in organisations shows very clearly that the biggest predictor of whether people actually change is their motivation to do so. Securing their commitment to the agreed direction means digging deep – for everyone involved, including those in HR who are seeking to help the exec team lead the change. If change agents can’t meet everyone’s needs, including their own and including those needs people would rather not talk about, then some stakeholders will actively or passively resist the change. They might fake buy-in, but their people will soon see through them.

iii) Ensure the team has the necessary capacity to make the change. Are the right systems, processes, structures, resources and skills in place? If not, make it happen or – even with the clearest direction and the best will in the world – it’ll be “ding!”, and off to the graveyard.

4. Progress. This is the really hard part. The change agent is convinced everyone’s aligned; they’ve pressed the “go” button on broader change in the organisation; but how do they keep it going?

We take our inspiration from the literature on systems thinking and two great books: Immunity to Change and The Chimp Paradox. Blending the three enables change agents to engage with the conscious, subconscious and unconscious forces in individuals, teams and organisations that make it hard for them to change.

Whatever the change agent’s inspiration, it’s critical that they and the exec team receive support and challenge from all directions: fellow team members, employees, non-execs, HR and ideally from external stakeholders. To facilitate this, we recommend giving rudimentary training in coaching to the exec team and everyone involved with them in this process. It’ll help them encourage each other and their staff, and it raises each individual’s self-awareness and emotional intelligence. This whole process works best when cascaded down through the organisation.

5. Review. Everyone likes results, right? They’re motivating, reassuring and they add to the credibility of any process or intervention. We use a range of before-and-after measures, including our high performing teams questionnaire, to measure how the top team is doing on its own terms and those of its key stakeholders. However, while HR and exec teams often “do the dance” of wanting nice hard metrics that demonstrate the impact this kind of work has had, if change agents have truly been on the journey with the team, and have earned the trust of its senior stakeholders, the metrics will often be just the icing on the cake. The best proof of cultural change comes from getting out there and listening to what the CEO, front-line staff, customers and the media are saying about the organisation. And not just in surveys, but day in, day out.

The success of any culture change depends disproportionately on the actions of the exec team. HR practitioners have a unique opportunity to influence those actions, and our experience tells us their chances of doing so are greatly enhanced by:

  • working through each of the five phases without scrimping or short-cutting on any of them: engage, assess, align, progress, review
  • role-modelling, applying and encouraging the three core disciplines for leadership and team performance: establishing direction, securing commitment and building capacity.

It takes skill, it takes courage, and it’s not always easy – but then culture change rarely is.

Clearly aligned
Leaders often hear the cliché “walk the talk”. It is essential to align the exec team and the organisation’s key influencers with the change. At a mining company we worked with, the CEO was so clearly committed that he was the main driving force behind the change. Everything he did was congruent with what he asked of the people in his organisation. He shared his 360 freely, warts and all. He publicised what he was working on and learning. He personally launched every one of the development programs running for all four tiers of management and ensured one of the exec opened every subsequent module. He used the language and concepts of the program on a daily basis and – reportedly – in every interaction. He was a true poster child for cultural change.

For the full feature, see the next issue of Inside HR magazine. Image source: iStock