“We’re working on changing our culture” is one of the most common phrases I hear from leaders at all levels. In fact, the Harvard Business Review recently dedicated an entire issue to it, highlighting the popular adage: “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The reasons for changing a company’s culture vary, but here are the ones I hear most frequently:
- We have 100 years of successful history, but what got us here won’t get us there
- We bought a bunch of awesome smaller companies and we’re crushing the spirits of our new employees before they can settle in and add value
- We need to move to Agile/ERP/Cloud/Lean/etc. and the legacy systems and teams are holding us back
- We have always been “home” country-centric and now we need to act and think globally
- We used to be a product company, but now we need to work together differently to become a platform or solution company
- If any of this sounds familiar, I have a question for you.
Who is purple for culture?
When I help executives identify leaders for culture change, we color-code the experts as “purples.” Greens are consistent with the experts, and yellows are still learning. It’s a helpful short-hand when you’re talking about staff with specific expertise, because you want to know who your standard-setters are. Who is doing it “the right way” right now? Who would you replicate if you could? In other words, who is purple?
Aligning with a culture is a “softer” skill than specific, technical skills of say – an engineer who builds artificial heart valves – but it is no less important. That’s why every leader needs to be able to clearly point to individuals on their teams who embody the culture they’re trying to create.
Harvard Business Review contributors Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng talk about this in the “Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture.” They identify four levers you can pull to change culture. Number two on the list is: “Select and develop leaders who align with the target culture.” I’m going to put it even more bluntly.
How can you ask people to join you in a new culture if you can’t say what you want by simply naming a person (or a few people, collectively) and say, “if you’re like her/him/them, you’re on the right track?”
So, who’s purple for culture in your organization? Don’t worry if it’s just a gut feeling at this moment. Jot down their names. Still stuck? Here are some answers I’ve heard from executives:
- No one. If that’s true, then it’s a good thing to know. Can you bring together a few people who collectively represent the culture you’re after?
- Me and I’m the only one. New executives often face this. I spoke to a new CIO who joined a 100-year-old retailer and that was his lament. In this case, think about at least one person whose values are pretty close to the culture you want. Can you recruit and shape them?
- The company we just bought is full of them, but they’re not politically very powerful. The old guard seems to be waiting them out. How can you elevate their status?
- I can name several. Now what? Figure out whether they collectively embody the culture change you’re after, or if there is one person who is the whole package. What opportunities are there for them to initiate culture change in others?
Once you’ve identified your standard-setter, you can start to deconstruct what it is that person actually DOES that makes them purple for culture. They likely won’t be able to explain what they do without a little help—it’s like breathing for them. Here are some topics to address:
- How do they present their ideas?
- How do they listen and respond to others’ ideas?
- How do they plan, including whom do they involve and when?
- How do they make decisions?
- How do they confront problems/disconnects/disagreements with their peers, and up and down the org structure?
- How do they talk about customers?
- How do they talk about the business and what it takes to help the company succeed in the market place?
- How do they spend money?
You get the idea. Culture isn’t abstract. By identifying your purples and documenting the specifics of how they personify culture change in your organization, you’re well on your way to changing the hearts, minds, behaviors and actions in the rest of your organization.