Of all the challenges I face as a business coach, helping clients to change a negative culture in their business is undoubtedly the most challenging. First of all, I often have to help the business owner to identify exactly what the current culture is, acknowledge that it needs to change and then prepare them for the journey. I’ve used the term journey quite deliberately because that is exactly what the process is. I wonder if someone asked you what the culture was in your business if you would be able to answer definitively. And if you did, are you confident that your current culture can survive the test of time? This is of course assuming that the culture is a positive one.
I’ve had CEOs and managing directors question whether culture is even relevant in a business. Imagine, for example, that all of the KPIs and benchmarks in your business are being met, even though there is a culture of blame or negativity. Does it really matter? I once had a director tell me he was a “scoreboard kind of guy” and who cares about culture if the results are on the board? He had a point to some degree, but what if the results could actually be so much better and how are we going to maintain them if the issue of culture remains unaddressed?
In most cases culture creeps in to a business. It doesn’t change for the worse overnight. It isn’t like some sudden fever that comes and stays for a day or two and then passes. It is more like a creeping vine, which starts small, in one corner of the business and over time grows across the entire operation. If results are reasonably okay then management will often pass it off as a “phase” or a “blip” on the radar. The truth is that it is like a noxious weed that will eventually strangle the life out of everything that is productive and positive about your business. You can choose to ignore it while the scoreboard still looks good, but you certainly do so at your own peril.
Once you accept that culture is a significant part of the future of your business, the next acceptance is the realisation that changing it will be a journey. Just as it has undoubtedly almost silently crept in to your business, you will have to take time to unravel its vines, poison its roots and replant the soil. The other realisation is that this can be a war. You will strike resistance. People become comfortable in their positions and with their surroundings, particularly if they are self-serving. As with any war there may be casualties. As you seek to undo the damage and replace the culture, there may be team members who will not embrace the process and you have to be prepared to lose them. I have worked with businesses where culture change was a priority in order to move forward and those businesses had to face the loss of what they thought were key team members.
As one of my clients says, “You have to have the right people in the right seats on the bus”. If you have the right bus and the right seats then it may be that some people will choose not to come along for the ride. That may be a distressing time, especially for family businesses, but it is a reality of change management. So, now we know that culture is vital, that poor culture is something which has invariably developed slowly and perhaps insidiously over a period of time, and that correcting it is a journey, what are the steps you can take? Here is a simple five-step process which you can embark upon right now.
Step One: I like to talk in terms of revolution over evolution. If you were to start your business over again right now, what would it look like? What culture would you choose? How would you want the business to feel and to be perceived in the marketplace?
Step Two: Compare your answer to Step One with how your business actually presents. If you think you may be too close, ask the opinion of another. Of course you can always arrange a coach to come and tell you the ugly truth, but if you don’t want to take that step, ask a trusted friend, customer or alliance to give you their honest opinion. You have to tell them you want the honest truth and be prepared to hear the absolute truth as hurtful as it may be.
Step Three: Make a list of the top five differences between your ideal culture and reality. This will help identify the areas you would most like to see changed. There may be more than five but for now, put the rest on the back burner and just list the five that frustrate you the most.
Step Four: Make a bullet point list of three things you can do to change each of the five culture differences you would like to change. Once you have made the bullet point list, expand in detail on exactly what steps you will take to achieve each of the three objectives.
Step Five: Finally you need to enlist the support of a trusted ally. Perhaps it is someone in the business who you think would like to see the culture change as much as you would. If you don’t think you can find an internal ally then call in the services of a coach or consultant to help you and keep you supported and accountable. Remember this will be a journey so you need to buckle in for the ride. There is no doubt though that once completed the culture change will enable you to achieve results in your business that you may have previously thought were not possible. Be dedicated and committed and above all… be brave!