In today’s fast-paced, fast-changing world of business disruptors (think AI, digital transformation, and regulatory compliance to name a few), many businesses find they must transform dramatically – and sometimes urgently -- to remain competitive or even stay alive. New products and services may be needed, significant changes in business practices required, and/or shifts in corporate culture to support new business models.
When the stakes are high and the pressure is on, there’s a tendency to fall into reactive mode – and that’s a dangerous spiral. This is the moment when leadership matters most. A consistent focus on the long-term horizon is the best way to lead through the present turbulence and storm(s).
I was in such a position in my corporate career – hired as President and COO by a venerable, 3rd generation family business at a time when they were facing the most challenging industry cycles in their history. Caught in a dramatic economic downturn, we were overloaded with debt, had excess inventory of airplanes (some very expensive idle assets), and had contract commitments we knew we couldn’t keep. I was the first outside leader in the company’s 60+ year history, brought in to lead the company out of this rut. And we were under pressure to act fast.
I could see the possibilities for what could be built from the solid foundation of this business if we could turn it around. But the company culture was stuck in an old, small business, local mentality identity with bigger obstacles in front of them than they had ever seen before. Doom and gloom were omnipresent. Yet I believed this company to be a strong brand and a largely capable team with the makings of a solid platform for growth. I needed them to see and believe what I could see with fresh eyes. And I wanted them to know what was possible for us as an organization.
Once in the position, 3 critical strategy discussions ensued – Board and senior-level buy-in to a new corporate vision and growth strategy; securing significant outside capital; and, leading a sweeping cultural shift throughout all levels of the organization to support and drive our turnaround and plans for expansive growth.
Even with our backs against the wall, it was easier to get money than it was to change the corporate culture. Old ways were well established and attitudes were deeply entrenched. There were more than a few naysayers who openly scoffed at our growth plans and said we were dreaming. Changing or shifting an established culture is not an easy task even in the best of times. It takes a well-developed strategy, perseverance, commitment, and a genuine connection to the WHY to win the hearts and minds of all employees and stakeholders. Let me offer a few insights from my experience across these important dimensions.
Strategy & Approach
Earning buy-in to your new corporate vision and growth strategy is essential. Old ideas and established identities are hard to change. So how do you get the full organization to align and rally behind you with a sense of ownership and engagement?
Here are 6 key steps.
1. Know thyself
Understand and appreciate your organization – its greatest strengths and its story. Sincerely honor and value company history. Build upon current strengths as you chart growth for the future – including the necessary change in corporate culture. This is essential, and it can be elusive. One day you feel the pride, and the next day you wonder what happened to that spirit. Stay true to “who we are” while painting a clear picture of the kind of organization we want to be.
2. Embrace the naysayers
You can’t change without them. Identify those most resistant to change, particularly at mid and senior levels where there’s greater potential to negatively affect the organization. Take the time to listen to and understand the resisters. Bring them on board. It may seem easier to let them go, but they often have a wealth of experience and insight that can fuel future growth. Learn why they are so tenured. Make sure their heart is in the right place - focused on doing what’s best for the business and thus the people in the long run. Have the difficult conversations that need to happen. Get them invested in the vision. Share your passion for what’s possible and gain their support by developing a foundation for mutual agreement on the game plan for growth.
3. Convey a compelling vision
Paint the picture of a brighter tomorrow. What does growth and success look like for your organization? Make it visceral. Map out where you’re headed, the vision for the business, and why it’s important for the company – and every member of the team. Be multi-sensory and make it compelling on all levels.
4. Collectively create the roadmap
Your best success will stem from a unified emotional belief and action steps derived from the collective team. Your organization will feel valued, empowered, and energized because they’ve had a hand in building this future together.
5. Establish key milestones
Identify and articulate what success will look like in 3 months, 6 months, year 1, year 3, year 5. When people and organizations can see, measure, and experience success along the way, they will embrace and support change more readily.
6. Celebrate success
Start with early wins throughout the organization. Make it fun and exciting. Success driven by the collective spirit – collaboration, determination, and hard work - begets enthusiasm, ownership, and more achievement. Experience the “flywheel effect” of your team’s success. (recommended reading: Good to Great by Jim Collins)
Many companies try to accomplish too much too fast and sometimes with limited thinking as to what’s possible. Understand it may be difficult to turn a large ship around and it will take some time. In developing your approach, map out a reasonable timeframe and be sure to identify the success points along the way.
No leader is ever successful driving sustainable corporate culture change from the corner office. You must be in the game with your team and acutely aware of the interests of all stakeholders.
1. Go deep inside
Dive deep to connect your inner beliefs with the desired cultural change. It must come from the heart. Ask yourself – Who am I? What do I stand for? How do I connect with this cultural change - as a leader? As an employee? As an individual? What does it mean to me – and everyone around me – to do the work necessary to make these changes?
2. Take it forth
When you believe, take it forth with heartfelt integrity. Clearly articulate the why and the how. Walk your talk. When you believe, it shows. And it’s contagious. Honest conversations will happen and your organization will be quicker to feel and embrace the need for positive change. Make an emotional connection with the mission. The numbers and milestones are guideposts on the journey, but the inspiration comes from the heart.
3. Get involved
Roll up your sleeves and make it personal. Walk the halls, solicit ongoing feedback and input, host lots of gatherings, and most importantly, provide an invitation for open and honest communication. Listen not only to what they say, but how they feel. Make real-time adjustments based on inputs. And communicate openly, honestly, and frequently. Communication is the #1 responsibility of the leader driving a change initiative.
Successful cultural shifts and changes should create a new emotional energy throughout the organization. Early on, look for behavioral cues such as a more positive outlook, more bounce or spring in the step, and more positive momentum. When you see more smiles, you’re on the right track. Check in regularly with your leaders and management team. Take the initiative and hold gatherings to keep a pulse on the organization. Observe, ask, listen – and act.
With the right strategy and approach, perseverance, and commitment, your organization will become more engaged, have a heightened sense of ownership, and possess the collective determination that’s paramount to transforming culture that will drive sustainable growth and vitality for your business.
In my experience, this pattern has presented itself repeatedly. What initially appears to be a significant challenge turns out to be the doorway to a culture shift that needs to happen to unlock the latent potential of an organization.
Back to my story … That company has continued to grow, succeed, evolve, and produce amazing outcomes for the employees, the clients, the communities they serve, the shareholders, and many more constituencies who have benefited from its continuing success. The company is doing well and truly doing good in the world as it approaches the end of its first century of service.
ECC Executive Partners are proven C-Suite executives who provide specialized, confidential mentor and advisory support for C-Suite executives and executive candidates. If you or your organization are looking to enhance leadership, drive business results, and accelerate success, we’d welcome the opportunity to partner with you. Give us a call at +1.847.920.0190.
Bill Koch is an ECC Executive Partner and Executive Coach based in Dallas, Texas, USA. Prior to ECC, Bill has over 25 years in management and leadership, serving as CEO for a Fortune 500 subsidiary and President, CEO, and Chairman of several global aviation businesses, both public and private. Bill is also past Chairman of the National Air Transportation Association, where he served as the voice of business aviation, representing the interests of the aviation community before Congress, and federal, state, and local government agencies.
Bill holds a BA in Political Science from Southern Methodist University. He is an ICF-certified coach and a Certified Master Professional Director by the American College of Corporate Directors. Bill also currently advises for a private equity portfolio, mentors executive leaders, primarily in the Fortune 500, and serves on the Forbes Coaches Council.