Blog – Changing culture – What CEO’s regret

Corinne Canter Senior Consultant, Human Synergistics Australia

Over the course of a decade in my work with Human Synergistics, I have interviewed a number of CEOs and written about their leadership and cultural journey. When I asked the question “what would you have done differently?”, the answer is always the same: “I would have been more proactive about managing the leaders who didn’t support the vision”. That old adage ” one bad apple spoils the keg” is very true. These CEO’s had learned that the hard way,

People aren’t stupid. Feel good rhetoric is cheap and means nothing until it is verified by experience. If you are a CEO seeking to create a high performing constructive culture, you need high-performing constructive leaders energizing their teams and role-modelling what ‘good’ looks like. People don’t expect their leaders to be perfect just congruent.

So when any of your leaders are not aligned with your message, your biggest barrier to culture change is white-anting your efforts from the sidelines. So how can you tell if you have a ‘bad apple’? here are some clues:

  • They say one thing but do the opposite.
  • While they seem to agree with the decisions and initiatives around culture at the exec table, they are slow to deliver.
  • Their people learn about what is going on from their colleagues in other divisions, not from them.
  • They will tend to describe efforts at culture change as “warm and fuzzy”, “fluffy” and argue that they have more pressing priorities. This can show up as the more passive aggressive version where they couch their opposition in terms of ” you know I think this is important but…”

Any of these signs (certainly all) require a frank conversation with them to call out your concerns, explore their position, understand their resistance and discuss if there is a way forward ( where they are willingly prepared to behave differently). Most importantly set very clear expectations about what you need to see from them moving forward. No one should be exempt, no matter how close you are to them, nor how great they are at delivering results ( there will be a cost to these results by the way). It doesn’t have to be a “one strike and you’re out!”, just be clear and unambiguous about your expectations and actively manage them to that.

When these reluctant leaders are allowed to heckle from the sidelines or drag their feet, your credibility as a CEO is on the line. David Morrison got it right when he said: “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”


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