Leaders Intentionally Shape Organizational Culture to Succeed at Strategic Change

By Nancy Benthien and Jill Knocke

Companies in highly technical industries, e.g. Energy or Technology, are known for their capabilities to engineer solutions to difficult problems such as safely drilling high pressure/high temperature (HPHT) wells or creating self-driving automobiles. It’s natural to think that industry leaders can simply apply similar engineering approaches and processes to address their own organizations’ challenges.

Why is it then, that so many strategic initiatives in companies produce little results, stall, or out-and-out fail? Why don’t change management processes really work? Recent studies suggest that approximately 60% of organizations are considered weak in execution. (1)

In our experience, there are multiple factors to the under-performance of strategic initiatives.  Many of these factors have an analytical or technical origin. But organizations tend to overlook the “human side of the equation”. These “soft” barriers to success include:

  1. Leaders give too little importance to how their own attitudes, values, and behaviors affect the culture and climate of the organization. Thus allowing corporate culture to take shape without thinking about what the desired behaviors and ways of working are needed to deliver results for the long term.
  2. Failure to fully engage employees deep within the organization in the strategic change process.
  3. Reducing the natural organizational resistance to change, the “organizational antibodies”, through both direct and indirect action by leaders.

The existing mindsets and behaviors in a group or organization trying to change will have a profound impact on its success. In other words, trying to implement a strategic change in an organization without addressing the required cultural shift will likely doom the project. It’s like trying to quickly move the Titanic away from an iceberg with a rudder that is too small. 

Like that iceberg, culture is exposed at the surface, but also goes much deeper. The visible parts of culture are an organization’s stated values, its signs, traditions, symbols, behaviors and interactions. Nice posters of a company’s values in every conference room are aspirational and do not reflect the “real culture” in an organization. Modifying a system or process and educating employees through a training course about the new process won’t make it stick. Yes – a few people will readily adopt the change, but most won’t because some of the underlying attitudes, values, and beliefs are not aligned with it. That’s why focusing on changing processes or procedures will not lead to lasting change. To really transform a group or organization, leaders have to understand how to engage, enroll, and empower people in order to affect change. It takes intentional leadership with passion and stubborn dedication to modify culture in order to achieve the desired performance of the group.

Culture can be a source of strength for growth or a hindrance to a company’s performance. As noted in a recent Harvard Business Review article,

Leading with culture may be among the few sources of sustainable competitive advantage left to companies today… Properly manage, culture can help leaders achieve change and build organizations that will thrive in even the most trying times.(2)

Intentionally shaping culture is one of the key mechanisms leaders can employ to successful execute on their corporate strategy. Strategic change occurs when leaders pursue a strategic direction and are willing to address change from a human perspective not just the organizational structure, processes, or systems.

Culture DIagram3.png

What does this cultural platform look like and how do leaders align it properly to get the desired results? It starts with understanding your organization’s current culture.  It has to be assessed and uncovered. This can be done through cultural diagnostic tools, through interviews, observations, or workshops. These tools provide insights into both the strengths and hurdles that exist in the organization. If done properly, this work will also provide insights into the hidden, assumed, or unconscious aspects of culture.

Once the desired culture has been identified a plan is created to embed the new values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in the organization.  A critical first step is for leaders to act intentionally and consistently to demonstrate alignment with what is being said. People watch their leaders and they will emulate those leaders, especially if they trust and respect them. 

It is also critical to develop and empower influencers deep within the organization to implement the plan for transformation. It’s important for leaders not to abdicate their roles in this process.  The development, empowerment, and accountability of leaders and influencers are usually gained through workshops, group coaching, individual coaching, and mentoring.

As the change effort unfolds, leaders need to acknowledge and celebrate successes to reinforce the strategy execution. Actively monitor progress and build ways to sustain the transformation (typically through feedback, coaching, mentoring, and co-designed workshops). As you can tell, executing on strategy is a journey, not an event. By leveraging and actively shaping your company’s culture to execute on your corporate strategy, you are improving the organization’s performance.


(1) The Secrets to Successful Strategy Execution, HBR, June 2008

(2) Groyseberg, et al, HBR, Jan/Feb 2017

Written by Nancy Benthien

January 24, 2018

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