Leaders: Get Ready to Get Your Hands Dirty

Leaders: Get Ready to Get Your Hands Dirty

Individual Change as a Part of Culture Change

Leaders at your company may be looking for the one magic trick that will make your company look great: that one thing that will impact everything and can start right away. However, the truth is that authentic culture change is not possible if the only action an organization takes is to bolt new policies onto its existing culture. While we seek to inspire and motivate our clients by helping them leverage their strengths, providing compelling data to inform action, and using examples from the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For, we know that in the end the real difficult work has to be done by the client themselves.

In other words, for any workplace to become great, leaders need to get their hands dirty and do some incredibly difficult work.

Last month I wrote about the importance of having a purpose-driven culture, but that is only one part of the culture change process. An organization can spend hours clarifying their purpose and the cultural values that will help them live it, but that effort is wasted without an effective process for rolling out and socializing it within the organization. This is where much purpose work falls short. If your purpose is sustained by your values, and employees do not understand how to properly live your values, then how can they act in line with your purpose as an organization?

Culture Change from the Top

We have long said that culture change starts at the top, with leaders committed to and acting in alignment with the goal of becoming a great workplace. We see various degrees of commitment when it comes to key leaders, and to some extent, organizations can make progress with minimal executive involvement. But to truly change your culture, those at the top are the most important. The organization can roll out endless initiatives to improve the workplace, but if there are not role models to follow, others will not join and the critical mass needed for full cultural adoption will never occur.

In a recent blog, Great Place To Work® Consultant Rich Dec wrote about what he believes is the secret to improving workplace culture. It isn't perks or benefits, technology or capital, branding or's your CEO. Dec discussed three key traits that make CEOs successful in changing culture, all of which center on the illusive concept of behavior change. First, successful CEOs are willing to get better themselves. Second, they make an effort to be vulnerable and receive feedback. Finally, successful CEOs follow through on their own personal work, having the courage to continually hold the mirror up to themselves and consider how they are impacting the culture.

Leaders Model and Enforce the Way

While individual behavior and setting the example are key attributes of leaders engaged in successful culture change, there is also another key aspect of their role. Organizational leaders must clearly articulate the desired culture in a tangible way, and then hold people accountable for living it every day. In a popular entry on LinkedIn, management consultant Kathy van de Laar posted this photo capturing this significant aspect of cultural leadership:

Leaders must enforce the organizational culture they are looking to create by setting standards and ensuring that members of the organization live up to them. This requires diligence, consistency and an unwavering commitment to reaching a better state. Organizational change initiatives fail when behaviors across the group are not aligned, and often the success of this work is based on whether leaders are willing to take an authentic and constructive stand against deviant behaviors.

This includes the incredibly difficult work of taking a stand against their own behaviors as well. If leaders do not provide a model to follow then they may be perpetuating the problem. It is not possible for a leader to be successful in upholding expectations for others if they themselves do not follow them. Many organizations spend a great deal of time in the definition phase, articulating their desired culture and values, but fall short when it comes to true implementation of the behaviors it takes to create change.

This is the real work of culture transformation. Leaders must get honest with themselves about their own behaviors, and then turn that awareness outward to the organization so that all employees are empowered and supported in living the new culture.

About Hannah
Hannah Jones is an Analyst on the Services and Products, Consulting Team at Great Place To Work®, supporting client delivery, research and product development. Hannah has a degree from UC Berkeley in Psychology of Leadership.