Producing change Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

When Tom Stofac accepted the position of CEO at Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio in 2005, one of his first priorities was getting employees to laugh.

Adding laughter to the work environment was part of Stofac’s plan to change the organization’s corporate culture from one based on fear to one based on trust, he says.

The revamped culture at LSSCO has led to more productivity from Stofac’s 750 employees and a greater focus on the organization’s mission of people in need. And while changing a culture may sound simple, Stofac says it takes discipline as you start by recognizing what your current culture is, then establish a new one and get employees to buy in to it.

“Clearly define the culture that you want, what you expect and ways in which and examples of which that would play itself out,” he says. “Then, go and communicate that to people. At the same time, listen to how they might want to make their lives better in the work world, and deliver.”

Smart Business spoke with Stofac about how to change your culture.

Recognize the culture.
The biggest thing is you have to recognize that there is a culture, whether you want to create it [or] shift it. But a culture is going to be created, with or without you as the CEO. So you need to just recognize it and then develop the culture that you want because it’s going to be created one way or another.

Culture really comes down to, in its most basic format, a trust-based culture or a fear-based culture. In a fear-based culture, people are not willing to make decisions even for fear that they might get fired or get written up. They’re paralyzed.

That’s the first key piece of what a culture can be: Is it trust-based, or is it fear-based?

A simple way to recognize the culture of your organization is to walk around. During the walk-around, listen and take in all the behaviors and attitudes that exist. In essence, observe your culture with your ears, eyes and mind. Look for behaviors that will tell you how people are communicating.

As you talk with people, look for how they react to you as the leader. Are they comfortable? Are they genuine? And most importantly, are they enjoying what they are doing?

If you don’t hear any laughter, it might be a good sign you live in a fear-based culture and people are not having fun. Then turnover is probably around the corner.

Gain employee confidence in your leadership to produce change.
Establishing the baseline of trust begins with the leader trusting his or her own ability to lead as well as being comfortable with who they are as a person. Then the process becomes easy.

Meet with groups of staff, ask what could make the organization better, and pick the ones that work best and do them. Also, be available to meet with your employees. But most importantly, trust begins and ends with how your organization’s employees see you act, talk and respond to different situations.

Once you establish a trust-based culture, then you can pick up other pieces of that culture, like I expect everybody to talk to one another and communicate between departments. And how do you do that? You model that as the CEO.

As the CEO, I always get out. I’m forever out in our programs or out and around the corporate office talking to different people and getting different people to talk to one another. That creates again, that trust-based culture that goes beyond one that people can have more trust between departments and share that vision.

Be honest about the changes.
The first thing I did was say, ‘Everybody get out of the suit and tie. You can all go business casual now.’ That just sent a little message to everybody that, ‘OK, it’s a different day now.’ Everybody can get a little more relaxed.

I pulled everybody in and told them, ‘Here’s the decisions I’m making, this is why we have to make them, this is what we’re going to do, and I’m asking you to try to support me through this and stay on this bus. Here’s the vision; here’s what we’ve got to do to get through this.’

You establish quick, open, honest communication to all levels of your staff as quickly as possible, as openly as possible. And yet [you have to] truly understand and know the boundaries of not throwing them all away but understand and communicate where the boundaries are and where they’re not.

Involve employees in the continual process.
Undersell and overde-liver. By that I mean, you go and you ask what can make it better for them. What can make their lives better?

You don’t promise them the world. You don’t promise them to fix everything at once. You don’t promise to do everything they ask.

You listen to what they have to say to make things better. Then, you take steps and you get a couple quick wins to be able to say, ‘Yeah, see, I have listened. And, yes, things are going to get better.’

I just kept encouraging people: ‘Thank you, you need to give me that feedback. I need to know.’

(Managers) have modeled that behavior after I did that here, of going back and saying, ‘What do you need; what will make it better?’

You continue to do that, and you meet with them on a regular basis. That’s how you can create and shepherd that culture.

HOW TO REACH: Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio, (614) 228-5200 or