Create a Culture of Change

By Linda Henman, Ph.D.

People change when the pain of staying where they are overcomes the fear of change. Sometimes, however, people don’t perceive the pain before significant damage has occurred.

Like insidious heart disease, symptoms of impending destruction may go unnoticed. As the senior leader, your job is to build a culture of change, one that supports the long-term strategy of your company.

Truly great companies understand the difference between what should never change and what should be open to change—between what is sacrosanct and what is not. A well-conceived change effort, therefore, needs to protect core principles, the enduring character of an organization—the consistent identity that transcends trends, technology, product line, or services.

Core principles provide the glue that holds an organization together through time. Throughout history we can see examples of how people captured and exemplified their fundamental beliefs. The Declaration of Independence, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and the Bible all offer examples of how people have written and adhered to their core creeds. Even when the organization grows, diversifies, or changes location, these beliefs provide enduring tenets and a set of timeless principles.

Successful leaders don’t confuse, and don’t let their direct reports confuse, a change in operating practices with a change in core ideology. The root of culture is “cult,” a testament to the kind of thinking that can often guide decision makers to adhere to a mindset that no longer works. But just as senior leaders can encourage cult-like thinking, they can stimulate a culture of change. A change in operating practices or strategy does not constitute a desertion of all that is “holy,” but only those organizations that create a true culture of change can help their people understand the difference.

There are two kinds or organizations: those with a strong strategy and culture of change and those going out of business. In other words, what got you here won’t necessarily get you to the next level. The Pony Express did not become the railroad, and the railroad did not become the airlines. Vanguards in their days, both the railroad and airline industries thrived. Today, however, both industries suffer from decades of bad management.

Unlike the leaders in these two industries, you will need to excel at reading the tea leaves. What opportunities and threats loom on your horizon? How can you leverage your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses to ready yourself for them?

You can start by replacing large-scale, amorphous objectives with results-driven goals that focus on quick, measurable gains. After all, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, “The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.”  The formula is simple: reinvent, reengineer, and become the architect of your organization’s future.

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