Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


Leading Cultural Change

Volume: May 2016

Bob is a winner. Whether he is engaging in athletics, board games, or work, he strives for victory. With regard to work, he settles for nothing less than winning. He demands solid ethics, so he is not a “win at all costs” leader. He also demonstrates and expects loyalty. Bob fires team members only as a last resort. During his career, Bob has held three management positions. With each position, Bob has built the team from scratch. His teams always delivered solid results.

It was no surprise when Bob was approached to lead a large group that was struggling with their deliverables. While Bob was unfamiliar with the team members, he was aware that the group was collectively viewed as poor performers. When Bob accepted the promotion he was given carte blanche to do “whatever it takes” to improve results. Soon thereafter Bob thought to himself, “We are going to win!” He then took pause and thought to himself, “But how?” He began to ponder a strategy as he gently gnashed his teeth. 

So what is Bob to do? Globally, he needs to change the culture of the department that he is inheriting. This he realized quickly. Bob also knew that each cultural change opportunity is different. A menu of best practices ran through his mind. In addition, he had to assess what level of sternness or softness (command or nurture) to employ while driving this cultural change. With all of these things considered, here are thoughts and actions that Bob put forth.

  1. Pragmatic Optimism. Peter Drucker summed up the power of organizational culture when he said: “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” Smart, pragmatic leaders recognize just how important a positive culture is to an organization. Bob knew that he could devise an ingenious strategy, but it would be crushed by the weight of a dysfunctional culture. He also knew that in order to change the team’s downward performance trend, he needed to change the culture that was influencing the team’s performance. Bob knew from past experience that culture is the real driving force of an organization. Also, any new team members who entered the organization would be quickly influenced by the existing, toxic culture. They would abandon any positive strategies and fall into the vortex of the established group-think. Bob needed to change his group’s mindset if he was going to change the organization’s culture. He needed to optimistic, but in a very pragmatic way.
  1. Two-Week Listening Tour. Even though Bob was thrown into a performance train wreck, he gave himself the gift of 14 days to learn, first-hand, the lay of the land. He put on his consulting hat and visited with people, groups, departments, and other facilities. On his journey, Bob ask open-ended questions and sincerely listened to the information and suggestions that were shared. The team also learned about Bob - as a person and as a boss.
  1. State Real Values. Based on his observations, Bob crafted what he believed were the positive values of the organization. Bob knew it was important to make these values come to life. For example, rather than stating the value of integrity, Bob would say: “We will deliver on our commitments, do what we say we are going to do, and hold our valued colleagues accountable to do the same. We have Integrity!” Bob’s ability to add meaning to what were otherwise flat, meaningless values really resonated with the team.
  1. Solicit and Share Expectations. One of the smartest things Bob did with his new team was to meet with key people and teams and ask what they expected of him. In the process, he learned about the team’s perspective and about their past frustrations. Many of the expectations he heard were common sense and not surprising. Some of the expectations were pet peeves that were doable. And some of the expectations were wild and wooly. Bob committed to most of the expectations and had some great dialog on the items that were controversial. His skilled listening also set the stage for the team being open to his expectations. He shared very specific and lofty expectations with the team. Ultimately, the team found Bob’s expectations to be inspiring. Bob’s expectations sharing exercise was perceived as a positive. In addition, the mutual clarity of expectations began to create a culture of cooperation that the team had never experienced. What truly set Bob apart as a leader were his monthly check-in meetings that revisited and reinforced everyone’s expectations. In other words, he made increased collaboration a real process. A system that, in retrospect, his team referred to as the The Process of Winning.
  1. Live It! Bob knew that if he did not lead by example and walk-the-talk, his people would never follow him. He was maniacal about doing what he said he would do. He focused on exceeding his team’s expectations. He started meetings on time, and actually ended meetings on time. His team had not experienced the latter in years (perhaps decades). The team followed Bob’s lead by working with more integrity. They met deadlines. They exerted more effort. They sought to not only meet Bob’s expectations, but to exceed them.

So what happened to Bob and his cellar-dwellers? Once they found their working rhythm and injected positive qualities into their culture, they slowly started to turn things around. Then, after some successes, they gained momentum. Bob encouraged his team, praised them, sought to keep them grounded, and helped them to believe they could accomplish more. They did. They gathered a few more successes. Did they ultimately get out of the cellar? C’mon, this is Bob we are talking about. Of course. They won big time. On the 21st month of becoming their leader, Bob proudly informed the team that they had become the #1 performing unit in the company. Number one! Save for normal attrition, the feat was also achieved with the original team. Oh, and they have been number one for three of the past five years.

Bottom Line: The culture of an organization is a living, breathing thing. What dark matter is to the universe, a culture is to a team. It is everywhere, yet unseen by the naked eye. A culture just is. When an organization has a poor culture, awful results are experienced. When an organization has an authentic, meaningful culture, results sizzle. When it comes to changing a culture, the leader has to immerse themselves in what their team is experiencing and lead by example. Communication is paramount, and sharing expectations regarding desired behaviors is essential. Creating and maintaining a healthy organizational culture is an art. Only the most dedicated of leaders can create a healthy culture. And you, my friend, know a very dedicated leader. Just look in the mirror.

Until next time, be well.

Doug Van Dyke is a Tampa Bay based executive coach, leadership development expert, and strategic planner. To learn more about leadership development programs, coaching, strategic planning, or to have Doug speak at your next event, visit www.leadershipsimplified.com or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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