10 Strategies for Getting Executive Support for Culture Change
People often talk about corporate culture as a matter of "getting it." So it has gone with a variety of developments in the corporate landscape: the Internet, diversity and inclusion, quality, safety and so on. When encountering new terrain, influential senior executives fall on a spectrum:
Resistance: "This is nonsense!"
Skepticism: "Does this really affect the bottom line?"
Openness: "Let's invest and try it."
Embracing: "This is fundamental to our success!"
When the Internet emerged in the mid 1990's, many saw it as a fad, promoted by young techies who had no idea how to run a business. Now we know that businesses that didn't embrace the Internet early had to catch up later. If you get culture and want others to as well, this article is for you.
"Culture" was deemed "Word of the Year" in 2014 by Merriam-Webster based on its tremendous spike in online queries. We believe this interest has history before it, and a future ahead. Case in point: In the recent $12.2 billion merger between Marriott International and Starwood hotels, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson sent a letter to all 180,000 Starwood associates that centered not on the business benefits of the merger, but on the cultural implications. "A big part of our people-first culture is treating people with respect and transparency," wrote Sorenson, whose company has been on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list eighteen times. "You'll experience both as we work through this process."
When it comes to company culture, at Great Place to Work® we see senior executives fall along the spectrum of strong resisters to strong embracers such as Sorenson, and everywhere in between.
From our experience, we offer ten strategies for those of you who truly get culture and would like to bring important and influential colleagues along.
Strategy #1: Sharpen the Conversation. With executives who see "culture" and "values" as mushy, it is particularly critical to speak with clear definitions, distinctions, and ties to business outcomes. A company's stated values are the core principles that guide decision making, behavior, and create predictability and consistency across the organization. Culture is the pervasive beliefs and attitudes that characterize a company. In a great company culture, people trust leaders, have a sense of pride in their work, and enjoy their colleagues – and the culture serves the strategy.
Strategy #2: Build Personal Meaning. Try asking a culture-resistant executive about his or her own experience. What's the best job you ever had? What's the best place you ever worked? What made it so great? Answers like "We worked as a team," or "We got it done, whatever it took" are the opening to say, "THAT is culture. And that is what we can intentionally create in every part of our company. We can do that."
Strategy #3: Make the Business Case for Culture. Those who look to data for proof should know that the public Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For (a list we create) perform nearly two times better in stock returns compared to broader indices. And great workplaces have voluntary turnover rates that are as much as 65% lower than their peers, helping mitigate the hefty cost of chronic employee flight (lost knowledge and productivity; hiring, onboarding, training and other costs). That is just the start; the business case for culture is strong. You can bring it home by identifying specific initiatives and performance indicators in your own organization that will be helped by higher trust.
Strategy #4: Link to the Pain Points. We believe the root of many serious business challenges is the absence of trust in the culture. The money question is: "How might higher levels of trust mitigate the problems we're seeing?" Talking about your company's pain points – rocky acquisitions, big projects with time, cost or quality issues, poor cross-functional alignment, failure to execute new strategies – is a good way into the real concerns of top leaders.
Strategy #5: Establish Social Proof. Robert Cialdini, an authority on influence, describes a number of strategies that could help make the case for culture. "Social proof" is particularly powerful. Visiting a respected company with a remarkable, palpable culture can inspire your leaders to dedicate themselves to similar efforts.
Strategy #6: Make It a Personal Challenge. Imagine saying to your CEO, "When I talk about culture, I am in part talking about the enormous power YOU have as a role model here." It's normal to defer to CEOs, but in our experience they welcome challenge. Imagine a conversation with a frustrated senior executive who is saying, "If only people here would..." It takes courage to ask: "How could you and other leaders role model a different set of behaviors, more like what you want to see?" You will have to push through resistance, but stick with it.
Strategy #7: Make the Personal Appeal. Never underestimate the power of looking someone in the eyes and speaking from the heart. Seth Godin, a leadership author, says you don't need charisma to be a leader; you get charisma from being a leader. It can be as simple as taking a stand, saying: "I don't often you ask you just to trust me. In my heart, I am sure culture can transform our company for the better. I am asking you to have faith on this one."
Strategy #8: Paint an Inspiring Picture. When you are trying to persuade others, it can be tempting to protect yourself by under-promising. Don't. Paint a powerful picture. "It will set us apart in the marketplace, and in the market for talent." "It will be your legacy." "You will be prouder of this than anything you do." If you believe these things, then state your vision without qualification, caveat, or diminishment.
Strategy #9: Tell Stories. "All politics is local," said politician Tip O'Neill. Same with culture. Find and share real, ground-level stories of what happens when the culture is strong, high-trust, and strategically aligned. More powerful are stories of the real suffering and damage low-trust cultures create. In a low-trust culture, people are unproductive and demoralized. Then they take that home. Stories help senior leaders feel it.
Strategy #10: Invoke the Golden Rule. The day-to-day work experience of senior executives is insulated. They are protected from many of the routine frustrations of a low-trust culture. Build empathy by asking, "Imagine you were a mid-level leader trying to do the right thing, but were often stymied by politics and other consequences of a low-trust culture. What would you want senior executives to do to help you?"
At Great Place to Work® we know from experience that companies can build high-trust cultures. We also know it takes time and commitment from people who believe in, who have faith in, the value of a strong culture. Stick with your beliefs about culture. You are making progress and one day something, maybe something small, will catalyze big changes. Don't be careful what you wish for.