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Navigating in the dark Featured

9:38am EDT July 22, 2002

One of the most important change efforts a leader can undertake is cultural change. People routinize their behaviors. Most expect their work environments to remain constant -- they have their perceptions, take security in them and develop comfort zones around them. Cultures change only slowly. When you think about your current culture (where you are now) and the culture that is crucial to bring about your strategic vision (where you want to be), and realize there is a difference, it's time to institute change. How? Transition is an arduous, slow process. Consequently, you, as the leader, must provide the impetus, energy and motivation to bring about true change. You must champion the cause, perpetually exemplifying faith in the outcome (where you want to be). This is your crusade to change old habits. Here's where to begin:

Do something crazy, but in line with the new culture. Something has to signal the troops that a change is occurring. You have to get your employees' attention. For example, a client firm avoided OSHA problems and dramatically involved the hourly shop people by implementing a family culture -- literally treating employees the way the owners would have wanted their own sons and daughters to be treated.

They had a special day when they shut down the factory (a first!), cleaned, repaired, painted and generally addressed all of OSHA's (and the employees') concerns.

Prepare for crisis because people will test your resolve. "Do they really mean it this time?" "Is this the next program of the month?" The tests can be small and subtle or outrageous and obvious -- grapevine chatter to sabotage. Anticipate it, be clear on how you will deal with it, and act uniformly.

Be consistent in whatever you do. This is perhaps my most important admonition. If you tell everyone "Quality is most important" but ship known low-quality products to meet budget, your quality culture is dead. If you tell employees that they are the firm's most important resource, but fail to provide appropriate training opportunities, they will no longer believe you. If you commit to improving process, then balk at the cost, future "commitments" will be ignored.

Hire, promote, reward and develop employees in tune with the new culture. Termination decisions should also be made in light of the new culture. Remember the adage, one bad apple ...

Create new, or perpetuate existing, myths and stories for use as powerful tools for building and supporting your new culture. Getting people to talk about the crazy way you introduced your culture change helps maintain the aura and cement the change. Consistently drawing on your organization's history as it supports the new culture is a fabulous way of changing culture while maintaining continuity.

Start at the very top. Change has to begin with the top executives. Likewise, your senior line managers must be on board and committed to the vision, or the change will not occur. This is not a task you can delegate solely to the human resources manager. This change must speak with line authority.

To get started, you may need to invest some time to identify the key characteristics of your current corporate culture and assess whether it supports your strategic vision. Like the bat that navigates blind in a dark cave, you may be unaware of how your culture may be undermining your strategy (and success).

You are less likely to fly blind if you take control of the change and create the culture you want. Lance Kurke, Ph.D., is president of Kurke & Associates, Inc., a Pittsburgh-based strategic planning firm. He is president of the CEO Club of Pittsburgh, serves on the faculty at Duquesne University and is an adjunct at Carnegie Mellon University. Reach him at (412) 281-2930 or at kurke@msn.com.