Ideal Outcomes

Why Changing Corporate Culture is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

by Jason Richmond, CEO and Chief Culture Officer at Ideal Outcomes, Inc.

As featured in the Forbes Business Council blog 

If you’re worried that your company culture is on the wrong track, you might be right. But in fact, most corporate leaders don’t recognize that they have a problem until it has become toxic.

An article in MIT Sloan Management Review expresses it well: “It can be challenging for leaders to ‘see’ culture up close. Like fish unaware of water, senior leaders may become too accustomed to their own perspectives regarding culture.”

Then a crisis strikes, and it becomes apparent that the root cause is buried deep in the corporate culture. Once leaders recognize the issue, it’s human nature to impatiently demand urgent change. But the detrimental culture evolved over a long period of time. It didn’t happen overnight, and it can’t be fixed overnight. It’s a marathon and requires long-term effort; it’s not a quick sprint to the goal.

Why is improving corporate culture so important? An analysis shared in MIT Sloan Management Review of 34 million online employee profiles found that a toxic culture was the No. 1 reason for U.S. workers quitting their jobs in 2021. The main elements in such a culture included a lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion; workers who felt they were disrespected; and unethical leadership behavior.

One in four American workers dread going to work, and nearly half have thought about leaving their current employer, according to a 2019 report by the Society for Human Resource Management. The net result is a five-year turnover cost of $223 billion.

So, how can you improve corporate culture? Here are the five steps I have identified through my hands-on experience with clients and as president of a culture change consultancy.

Determine what you want your culture to be.

What are the hallmarks of an upbeat, thriving corporate culture as far as you’re concerned? Each organization is different. You can’t copy someone else’s culture or hire someone from a company with a successful culture and expect them to magically imbue it into your company.

It’s important that leadership initiates and continues to support the process of defining culture. However, it’s equally essential that the voices of a wide range of employees are heard. Various approaches include:

  • Have your direct reports hold discussions surrounding culture with members of their team.
  • Use an internal social media platform (if you have one) to solicit input from the entire workforce.
  • Stage a company-wide contest to develop a purpose statement.

Transfer the results of these efforts into a written commitment that is displayed in all corporate communications and modeled by leaders. Your culture should be embraced and lived by all.

Make a plan.

If you understand what your culture is and what you would like it to become, you can develop a strategy to get you there. One thing I know for sure is that changing or reviving your culture never happens by chance. Planning is essential because your intervention strategies must be intentional and purposeful. A gap analysis will help.

In conducting this analysis, dig deep into the behaviors of workers at every level and compare them with the corporate values you have established. Are there any meaningful disconnects? If so, be sure to make plans to rectify them. Otherwise, your culture will become toxic. Part of the planning process requires finetuning the corporate statement, so it is simple and to the point—and clearly communicated.

Track your progress.

Many people think it’s impossible to measure something that seems as “soft” as culture, but it is not only doable; it is also critical. Treat culture in the same way customer-centric organizations treat their customers. Regularly use simple surveys to track progress, especially in times of rapid change. Without measurement, there is no accountability, and it can be difficult to course correct.

Consider measurement from two angles: desired business results and behavioral/qualitative outcomes. Start with business goals, and recognize gaps between where you are and where you want to be. Then, identify necessary actions to close the gaps. Do the same for behavioral/qualitative outcomes. At my company, we recommend Net Promoter Scores as a key measurement with some monthly and quarterly reviews. Surveys need to be often enough to measure progress.

Maintain your new culture.

Changing your culture is a major undertaking—and it is never-ending. Your new culture must be embraced and lived by everyone in your organization. If someone is not a good match at the outset, they will not last. This means that you must consider cultural fit in the hiring process.

Describe the company culture in some detail, and ask the interviewee what specifically appeals to them about it. Show them around the office, have them meet current employees and solicit their feedback. Personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can also help.

You must also allow your people at all levels of the organization to be culture champions. A key element is communication. Keep culture at the forefront by discussing it in meetings, conversations and in everyday life.

As individuals, many find it hard to change their habits, so doing so across a company with hundreds or thousands of individuals is a mission not to be taken lightly. Approach it in a systematic, thoughtful way and appreciate that it is a long-term endeavor—a marathon—to reach the finish line.

And, know that once you’re there, you can’t rest on your laurels. Stay aware that the culture of the organization is going to change and evolve. It needs to change and evolve.

Contact us when you’re ready to change and evolve your workplace culture.