Leading Culture

Strategy and Business recently published an article about culture change. Unusually, the case study wasn’t about a company, but TV Chef Jamie Oliver’s project to improve eating habits in one of the unhealthiest cities in the US. The link to the full article is here.

There are several things highlighted in the article that we recognise at RA as being relevant and important:

Know the Culture

Frequently leaders pay attention to their products and processes, but culture is left to fend for itself. Leader’s need to recognise how the existing culture shapes the actions of the workforce on a daily basis:

  • What get’s attention?
  • What gets recognised & rewarded?
  • What’s acceptable? What’s not?

When leaders can answer these questions they’ll be able to articulate the real culture of their organisation, and not the one that’s written about on the Company’s website.

Demonstrate Success.

To demonstrate success it’s important that change leaders have a clear idea of what that success looks like. This means building a clear picture of the behaviours that match (and mismatch) the ways of being and working that they want to embed.

Once leaders know exactly what they’re looking for, they can identify the people in the organisation who are already being role models for the change. Each small individual achievement in line with the new culture is added to the library of stories that the leader can access and share in their everyday conversations.

These adhoc ‘Leadership Conversations’ are an opportunity to share the benefits of the anticipated changes, give recognition for desired behaviours and to warn of the dangers of staying stuck in the past.

Identify Key Influencers

Influence can be a subtle thing and in organisations we are influenced by more than just the boss.

  • Cultural Carriers are visible figures in the organisation that have extensive networks. They speak publicly and frequently, inside and outside the organisation and their behaviour is an informal representation of the culture.
  • Pride Builders are respected members of a peer group. Their attitude towards any changes influences the behaviour of their immediate colleagues. For example if a respected member of a team dismisses the leaders change message with a ‘Here we go again…’ comment, it’s likely that most of their peer-group will adopt the same response.  Most teams have a pride builder, they set the local tone for what’s acceptable and unacceptable, so its essential that leaders engage with these people with a compelling narrative of their Big Idea – what needs to different, why it’s important and what will happen if nothing changes.
  • Authority Figures have official responsibility in the organisation. Most of the workforce look up to these people with the unwritten understanding that behaving like them is what it takes to get on and be successful in the business. If an authority figure acts in a way that undermines the desired culture, the generally received message to their people is that the change doesn’t really matter. In this case it’s essential that the Leader engages in one of those skilful, but ‘Tough Conversations’ that re-aligns expectations and spells out the negative consequences of detrimental behaviour.

Aligning Formal and Informal Change

Change pushes up against the habitual human response of developing a sense of security through consistency. It’s the minority of people who shout ‘Yes! More Change!’ when faced with altering their way of working. Yet it’s exactly this type of response that will sustain the culture development into the future.

One of the ways to help people to change their behaviour is to ensure that policies, systems and processes support the change. If we want a culture of responsibility, but the systems demand 12 levels of authorisation before a commitment of resources, then the behaviour won’t stick. If we say we want to act ethically, but use questionable suppliers, then the change is undermined. If on the other hand we want to make team-working the default way of working, changing the recognition systems to reward team-behaviour and not individual performance will support the change.


  • Leading Culture is a vital aspect of Leadership.
  • Setting clear expectations of what behaviours demonstrate the desired culture is essential in making that culture possible.
  • Identifying and recognising existing role models for the new culture builds a foundation for the success and makes the change tangible.
  • Key influencers exist in any organisation. Culture development projects must engage with Cultural Carriers, Pride Builders and Authority Figures.
  • Formal systems and policies must support the desired behaviour changes.


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