Trying to Change Your Corporate Culture? Here Are 3 Lessons to Remember

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Company culture is much in the news these days, a development I am very excited to see as it shows more and more buy-in to the importance of culture as something that can be created and, yes, proactively managed.

A round-up of articles that have appeared during the last few days teach three important lessons on organizational culture:

Lesson 1 – In the Battle of Strategy vs. Culture, Everyone Wins

What’s more important? Strategy or culture? I’ve written my own opinions based on research from Booz & Co. The argument continues on, with this perspective I particularly like from Bob Frisch, managing partner of The Strategic Offsites Group:

“It’s like asking whether you would rather back a great poker player with weak cards or an average player with great cards. You’re more likely to win when you have both: a great player and great cards. The same goes for culture and strategy. You don’t have to choose. Culture doesn’t eat strategy, and the company that lets culture do so is likely to starve.”

That quote comes from a Fast Company article that goes on to share insights from the CEOs of companies with famously strong cultures, including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Jigsaw. Be sure to click through for several videos.

Lesson 2 – A Healthy Culture Has Defined Attributes that Require Effort

John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing, pointed out in a recent AmEx Open Forum article that a healthy culture takes work over time to create, manage and maintain. He also defines seven attributes of a healthy culture:

“My belief is that a healthy culture is a shared culture, one created through shared stories, beliefs, purpose, plans, language, outcomes and ownership. These aren’t little things; these aren’t things that you get right during an annual retreat. These are things molded over time with trust and passion and caring. These are things that evolve because you work very hard at finding them, holding them and making them important.”

Yes, company cultures can “just happen” (and, unfortunately, they very often to). But you can also take control of your culture by focusing on these seven attributes.

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Lesson 3 – You Can Change Corporate Culture

And that leads us to one of my go-to writers on company culture, Chris Edmonds of The Ken Blanchard Cos., who explained in detail in a recent SmartBrief article the critical role of leaders in changing culture:

“Corporate culture is the most important driver of what happens in organizations, and senior leaders are the most important driver of their organization’s corporate culture. To change an organization’s culture, all leaders must change how they spend their time and what they communicate and reinforce on a daily basis. Their focus shifts from ‘great performance’ to ‘great performance WITH great citizenship.’”

And that’s the heart of the matter – reinforcing desired behaviors through strategic recognition frequently is the foundation of proactive culture change and long-term management. It’s recognizing the how and not just the what. It’s honoring and praising the progress, and not just the results.

Have you tried to change company culture? What methods did you use? How successful was the effort?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


2 Comments on “Trying to Change Your Corporate Culture? Here Are 3 Lessons to Remember

  1. Derek – Culture happens whether you plan on it or not. It’s like the adage “To not decide is to decide”. Everyday, every employee’s action is driven by the culture. If the culture is loose and independent, then everyone does what they feel is best (hopefully with some agreed-to principles or guidelines)..
    If the culture is highly controlled – one and only one way to do things, than innovation is stifled.
    Culture is the outcome of management’s decisions and interactions with their employees. And if it is consciously directed and aligned to the corporate strategy, then the outcome that the company wins is improved.
    Just my  two cents.

  2. I agree with Tim’s comment that culture is built through what leaders and managers DO, and less about what anyone says. This is how culture becomes “unconscious” – because it is passed on through who gets promoted, hired, and rewarded.

    In recent years, the topic has become of such great importance because organizations are undergoing increasingly rapid change, in which nobody can “hold the whole” anymore and product life cycles are shorter in every industry. To create clarity and alignment among thousands of people about a fixed plan was hard enough – creating that when the target is continuously moving is nearly impossible.

    That’s the power of culture: It provides common ground and sure footing in a world of change. In our view the culture task is usually less about altering the fundamental DNA of a business (unless it’s toxic culture) and more about alignment and clarity, that the management practice support a common view of winning, teamwork, and sound decision making.

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