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Aligning stars: how to unite culture and transformation

Aligning stars: how to unite culture and transformation

Following our recent transformation breakfast event, Zhibek Valevka, Associate at Odgers Connect, and Natalie Smith, an independent people and change consultant, looks at the people aspect of a change programme and explains how organisations can get it right

Culture is the very essence of an organisation. It can be strong – there on the surface; evident within days of walking into the business. Others are weak, requiring an insider’s perspective to get a true feeling for it. Some are malleable, allowing leaders to mould the shape of the organisation with ease. Whilst others are stalwart, with the company’s employees ‘locking arms’ against any notion of change. It is there when a sales executive picks up the phone to a client, when a HR officer manages a dispute and when a manager drives a team to success, or failure. Every organisation has one, and any form of change that is implemented will be affected by it.

This becomes all the more important now that change is a constant journey, rather than a one-off event. Even the most established of organisations understand that standing still is no longer an option. But change, without consideration for culture, can have damaging effects on productivity, motivation, loyalty and the overall performance of an organisation. These negative consequences are felt deeply by the people living through them, but they also impact on the bottom line. How then, do you get it right? Earlier this month Odgers Connect invited a cohort of HR leaders and cultural change specialists to the latest event in our transformation series; this is how to successfully align transformation with company culture.

Transformation is, for the most part, driven by cost reduction, new technologies, strategic change or reactive moves to competitors. These are tangible drivers of change, easily measured and quantified in the minds-eye of a chief executive. Less quantifiable is the people aspect of a change programme and as a result, it rarely becomes part of the change journey. To mitigate this, change should start with the senior leaders themselves; they should be prepared to change as much about their own behaviours and practices as they are about their organisation. Leaders must own the ‘why’ of change and lead through role modelling (changing their own behaviours) as well as storytelling. Change is then driven from the top and by example.

Two key agents of cultural change are the HR function and the organisation’s middle management. HR needs to be engaged from the very beginning. They will provide an understanding of what skills are going to be needed for the desired future state, and which areas of the workforce should be upskilled. If they are not there from the start then change leaders risk alienating HR from the process and the function itself then becomes resistant to the change journey.

Similar circumstances exist within an organisation’s middle management. They are, by and large, the group that will offer the most honesty about the cultural challenges and needs, providing change leaders with a highly accurate picture of what is required for the change journey. What’s more, they are the primary facilitators of change; they will sponsor the idea within the workforce, delivering the senior leadership team’s ‘story’, as well as being pivotal in implementing new practices. People managers are best placed to understand and communicate the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of change. They understand the practical impact of change and can see the challenges and opportunities that need to be addressed. However, this group also has a vested interest in their position within the organisation. If they are not on-board with the change, if they see it as a risk to their position or job within the company, then they will be an organisation’s biggest barrier to realising the change journey. This group therefore needs to be engaged from the beginning, they need to understand the necessity for change and their role in implementing it. Most of all though, they need to feel part of the change.

The next step for change leaders is the workforce. Most company leaders have the best intentions when it comes to cultural change and put a lot of effort into implementing new practices and change measures to ease the cultural aspect of the journey. However, these are processes, whereas culture is made up of emotional, behavioural and political elements. The cultural change narrative therefore needs to be delivered with authenticity; it needs to be something that individuals connect with and can see a genuine need for. To successfully embed change, employees must be able to answer the question ‘what’s in there for me?’ What’s more, the change programme should be a process of building relationships and trust with the workforce. To achieve this, you need to give people agency. This means allowing them to shape and influence the change to show that they have some power over their world; that the change is something done with them, not to them.

The millennial and Gen Z generations in particular are highly susceptible to paying lip-service to change initiatives, especially those that aren’t delivered correctly. Comfortable with the ongoing change in their personal lives, (driven by rapid technological developments) they view moving jobs every couple of years as an effective and necessary career path. This can however, be mitigated through an effective cultural change programme; above all else, cultural change should be about implementing a mind-set of constant change throughout the workforce. This not only helps to engage the workforce but creates a working environment that is adaptable, resilient and innovative. This translates into loyalty, where the organisation’s best employees are less inclined to jump ship every couple of years.

Achieving this shift in perspective to a model of continuous change is increasingly imperative. Customer behaviour now demands agility whilst competitor actions now demand adaptability. Ensuring culture is aligned with a strategy geared to constant change is the most effective way of staying in the game. If nothing else, every organisation needs to remember that the thousands of decisions made by its employees every day are instinctive, influenced by the environment around them. These unwritten rules are the ‘make or break’ of any and every organisation.

For more information, please contact Zhibek Valevka.

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