Blog – Get Executive Buy-in For Organisational Culture Change

by Shaun McCarthy

Unsurprisingly, one of the most asked questions at our recent 2022 Culture and Leadership Conference was “How do I get buy-in from my Chief Executive (or senior executives) to commit to and even lead culture change?”

Most people have heard the oft quoted line that 70% of change initiatives fail, so it’s no wonder then that CEOs are reluctant to commit given the odds do not seem favourable!

This then begs the question; how can you get a reluctant executive across the line? As always there’s no guarantee but a few basic pointers to bear in mind.

    Culture is defined as the shared values, assumptions, and behavioural norms that exist throughout the organisation – they are the ‘unwritten rules’ about how things get done. These norms are developed over time by the expectations created by leadership styles and organisational systems, structures, and communication processes.Culture is not engagement, nor is it about jazzy offices and foosball tables in the staff café, even though this may be how your sceptical executive sees it.Much of the media today around culture focuses on one aspect of culture – the ‘people’ side of culture such as employee engagement, ‘toxic’ cultures and the like.But this fails to address an equally important role of culture; that of adaptability. Not only does culture impact how people feel about being part of an organisation, it also determines how effectively the organisation adapts to changes in its external environment. This has been brought to the fore by the COVID pandemic where adaptation is a daily challenge from people, supply chains, economic and customer/market perspectives.
    With Culture, perception is often the reality in that Executives who haven’t given much thought to culture often don’t stop to think that their organisation actually has a culture right now. It is already influencing how people behave and they don’t know how. It is often the case that organisations measure everything as indicators of success but fail to measure the very core of organisational performance – its culture.The question is – does your current culture help or hinder? Beyond a doubt, without measuring it you will never know.
    Be knowledgeable about, and comfortable with the relationship between culture and performance. Your sceptic may not know how culture impacts performance. It has been shown through numerous studies that Constructive cultures lead to higher performance, whilst Passive/Defensive and Aggressive/Defensive cultures limit performance. A quick review of the research and publications page in our website shows over 30 studies, reported in peer reviewed journals showing the relationship between culture and performance from safety and reliability in nuclear power stations, sales growth in retail stores, delivery effectiveness in social service organisations, to performance in hospital and ED facilities, and product quality in the manufacturing industry.
    The point of this is that culture means money. It’s not just a ‘nice to have’. It’s not just about making everyone happy. It’s about discipline in expenditure control and growing the revenue through improved quality, customer service, adaptation to market forces, and alignment with strategy. It’s also about better management of human costs, such as reduced staff turnover and therefore reduced recruitment and training costs. It’s also about better management of safety and risk, leading to better cost control.For governmental organisations it’s about effective expenditure control, improved customer/end user responsiveness and more effective strategy development, along with reduced people related costs as above.One study (published in the book Firms of Endearment) even went so far as to show that those organisations with effective cultures outperformed the S&P 500 index by a factor of x 14.2 over 15 years (based cumulative returns 1998 – 2013).Organisational culture not only impacts performance across a number of variables, it also impacts the organisations brand – as both an employer and a marketer of services/products. That’s why the authors of the book referred to above called their organisations with more effective cultures ‘firms of endearment’ – people liked working for them, buying off them and even supplying to them.
    Many see different cultures required for different strategies, but the research does not support that. What the research does show is that culture influences strategy effectiveness in two ways. Firstly, in the strategy development phase, where the quality of decision-making (strategic choice making) influences the effectiveness of strategic choice, and secondly, during the strategy execution phase, where the organisations ability to deliver on its strategic choices is influenced by organisational factors such as responsiveness, customer service and so on. That’s what led prolific author Peter Drucker to make his famous statement – “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
    So, think about your current culture and how it might help or hinder your organisation’s ability to successfully execute its strategy. Identify deficiencies and improvement areas as part of your case for culture.
    Look for pockets of effective culture and leadership within your own organisation and make them exemplars. Particularly if your organisation is quite large, there must be certain parts of the organisation that you know have better leadership and better cultures than the rest of the organisation. Particularly if these units perform better. This provides you a real live example of how culture and performance are linked. Use this as a typical and appropriate model in your case for culture.
    Research has shown that you don’t need a so-called burning platform, but you do need to make a case for change. To pitch the case to a reluctant CEO think about what his/her ‘hot buttons’ are. Is it possible cost savings such as reduced hiring costs with reduced turnover, or general discipline around expenditure control? Or is safety improvements or risk management? Is it more customer centricity, or service/product quality? Or is it more related to organisational/people issues such as a lack of ‘accountability’ throughout the organisation, units operating as ‘silos’, poor teamwork, or low employee engagement?
    Understand that culture can be measured and change over time can be tracked. Often your sceptic sees culture as something that is somewhat vague and hard to pin down. The result is they support something easy to understand such as engagement and focus on that. Culture is very real and presents itself as the behavioural norms throughout the organisation. These norms can be measured and can be linked to performance. Human Synergistics has been measuring culture for over 30 years now.
    Live the culture you aspire to be. Change can start from anywhere and behaving constructively will create constructive responses. Be curious, demonstrate care and show the impact of creating and sustaining a constructive culture.
    People know when they are being sold to. Use your coaching skills to present the importance of culture and the case for change, including the suggestions above. Be prepared – clearly articulate for yourself issues with the current culture and the benefits of nurturing positive and sustainable cultural change. Promote reflection in the mind of your CEO. What do they want to be known for? What legacy are they creating? Remember, the very notion of ‘change’ can be threatening to some leaders so use transformative words like ‘development’, ‘improvement’, or ‘alignment’ instead.


Change Solutions

Tools & Simulations

Our suite of diagnostic tools can help you measure and develop every level of your organisation.

About Us

The Circumplex

Our ground-breaking measurement model has been used by millions of clients around the world.

Want to achieve genuine change & unlock growth within your business?

Contact Human Synergistics to find out how we can help you today!
Scroll to Top