Company CultureEmployee Experience

A Road Map for Culture Change

Five HR executives offer their strategies for creating a shared vision and mission that encourages employees to do their best work. 

By Simon Kent 

“Often culture has been described like the wind,” says Hemant Nandrajog, managing executive for talent, development, and culture at African-based BPO company CCI Global, “While it’s invisible to us, its presence can be felt and its impact observed. The flow of wind towards or away can have a significant impact for things to be either smooth sailing or making it more difficult to navigate.” 

While clearly influential on the fate of a business, as Nangrajog notes, changing a company’s culture is extremely difficult. Culture is almost intangible, embedded in the values, beliefs, customs, practices, systems, behaviours, and processes of an organisation. Moreover, while traditional change management strategies have suggested change should be enforced from the top of an organisation down, cultural change requires the buy-in and action of everyone, everywhere. 

Before any change takes place, it is important to understand why and if culture should be targeted in the first place. “There can be many reasons why we would consider changing the culture of a business such as persistent managerial issues, high staff turnover, absenteeism, decision-paralysis, and so on,” remarks Ólafur Kári Júlíusson, head of people and culture at Iceland metal analysis company DTE. “To properly get things done, the whole organization has to be on board. Creating a shared vision and goals of organizational change across the whole organization is vital for success. Leaving HR to deal with the culture change is a recipe for failure and is, simply, passing the buck.” 

But while organisational change may not be the responsibility of HR alone, the function is well situated within the business to drive the change. “Well-rounded HR professionals understand people, what helps to engage them, and what may need to be done to overcome resistance,” says Katie Obi, CHRO at business software company OneAdvanced. “They can help to facilitate the programmatic mechanisms to embed new behaviours and bring programmes to life, but they can and should also act as a mirror to senior leadership on the success of the change and where adjustments are needed.” 

At OneAdvanced, Obi says their first step in culture change was to deliberately define what kind of company they wanted to be—a task well suited for HR. “This included our mission to power the world of our customers’ work, our connection to creating technology for positive impact, our values, and the environment we want to create for our employees,” she says. “We are on a really exciting transformational journey and cultural revival, and the embedding of new behaviours is a significant part of what we need to do in order to be able to execute on our mission and strategy. We did not do this work in isolation, rather we co-designed this with our employees to ensure it resonated and people felt ownership around our culture.” 

Cultural tone is often set by senior leadership behaviour. “To truly change culture, every leader and individual needs to agree to show up, prioritise, and interact differently at work,” she says. This means the business has to address and resist the status quo, a difficult challenge but one which must be overcome if the business is to evolve. 

“In our own recent brand revamp, our role in HR has been to reflect on what we stand for as a business, and to hold conversations directly with employees to hear what matters them,” explains Carolyn Walker, global HR director at tech talent experts Tenth Revolution Group. “This has played a central part in the development of our new brand values.”  

Walker adds that regardless of the business goals pursued through the change, co-designing with existing employees needs to be a part of all cultural change work. “Including your staff in the process gives them a much greater sense of investment in the project,” she says. “The most important element of any workplace culture change is approaching it with intention. Whether it’s a smaller, more internal conversation or an expansive project aimed at repositioning your business in the market, you have to approach it with clarity in both objectives and methods.” 

“Everyone, from entry-level employees to the C-suite, needs to buy into your company culture for it to feel authentic,” says Emily Laflin, head of HR EMEA at Lattice.

Emily Laflin, head of HR EMEA at people platform business Lattice, agrees revamping an organisation’s culture demands leadership buy-in, strategic alignment, and unwavering dedication. “Everyone, from entry-level employees to the C-suite, needs to buy into your company culture for it to feel authentic,” she says. “New hires tend to look to their peers to understand company norms and culture, yet the tone needs to be set from the top. Leaders need to live and breathe it. Leading by example is the easiest way for managers and executives to get everyone on board.” 

“Changing culture takes not weeks or months. It takes years,” asserts Júlíusson. “It requires patience, unwavering pertinacity, and perseverance. We’re changing old habits, breaking up rigid ways of communication and drawing a line in the sand.”  

If nothing else, HR needs to be there to remind the organisation of the intention behind the change, making the purpose, vision, and mission clear and communicating this regularly. “We need to express clearly what it is we want to do, how we want to act and what we stand for,” says Júlíusson. “But not only this, clarity on what is not acceptable is essential. After all, culture is what you tolerate.” 

Culture Drivers 

Hemant Nandrajog describes levers that HR can use to affect overall culture and its embedment and sustenance. 

  1. Reframe the narrative. Successful leaders will need to role model and use storytelling as their strong tool to share the purpose, the “why we exist,” and the “what do we impact” to evoke desire, responsibility, and lasting commitment to change, rather than focussing on just the need and speed for change.
  2. Establish a group of culture influencers. To set things in motion, assemble an influencer group that’s well represented by top and mid management, a variety of different departments, and front-liners who play a critical role in promoting change. They should emulate the desired culture and be able to listen to feedback and suggestions.
  3. Utilise digital platforms and tools.Workplace environments have evolved and the use of digital channels and tools is becoming more and more popular with the TikTok generation. It’s important to provide alternatives to physical meetings, like instant communications and succinct information dissemination.
  4. Celebrate quick wins. Culture is a shared phenomenon and just like celebrating success, everyone gets involved.
  5. Create safe spaces. HR plays an important part in creating or identifying spaces within which the employees can carve actions and discuss ideas for implementation.
  6. Keep them engaged. Use engagement initiatives to keep the momentum, commitment, and retention going.


Tags: EMEA May June 2024

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