Different Shades Of Change

Different Shades Of Change

Leading cultural change is one of the most difficult challenges in the life of a leader. It is also the true test of leadership capability and authenticity.


When I first read the HBR article “Ordinary Heroes of the Taj” on the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, a sense of chill ran down my spine. I could not fathom how in the utmost desperate hour of deciding between life and death, the employees of the Taj Hotel demonstrated that their responsibility towards the hotel guests was more important.


A lot of analysis went into understanding the ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ of their behaviours, and among them, the culture of Taj stands out for me. As Michael Margolis said, “If you want to learn about a culture, listen to the stories. If you want to change the culture, change the stories.” Therefore, I think that leading cultural change is one of the most difficult challenges in the life of a leader. It is also the true test of leadership capability and authenticity.


The growth mindset


Organisations with a strong and healthy culture are known to be agile, resilient, and successful. Microsoft’s Satya Nadella popularised the adoption of the growth mindset and it is credited as the reason for the cultural transformation of the organisation. It was not about the leaders or the managers or merely the individuals changing – it was everyone and I think that is one of the main reasons why it became a wave – a real transformation from a “know-it-all” to “learn-it-all” mindset. As Satya Nadella said, “Our ability to change our culture is the leading indicator of our future success.”


Leading a cultural change starts at the top, and there is no doubt that leaders have to role model the behaviours embodying the new culture they want to create. However, it does not end there, and most certainly, we must accept that there is no finish line! Many a time, employees think it is their leaders and managers who need to change, and the leaders think that everyone else needs to. The truth is that a cultural change is always huge and a shift of such magnitude and impact cannot be successfully achieved with a fixed mindset.


When leading a cultural change, many a times, organisations focus too much on the outcome or destination, whereas it is truly the journey that takes time – a journey that needs patience, persistence, and passion. A huge transformation initiative often feels like a new or less tested treatment in the trial phase. It is important to pay attention to the smallest of changes in charts as it is critical to identify not just the progress but also the side effects through symptoms. E.g. What does high attrition, low engagement scores, decreased sales or increased customer complaints mean? These events may seem unrelated, but mostly it is not the case, and thus require collaboration between all functions, departments, and teams.


 The other aspect of leading culture change that I want to expand is about what we learnt from Michael Margolis - changing the story! For me, it is like providing a purpose. We know that stories are powerful, and growing up, they had an impact on us and they do even today!


An emotional connect


Stories have a powerful emotional connect that binds and connects us at different levels irrespective of our gender, race, or age. They motivate, create a unique purpose, and activate the growth mindset. When leading a cultural change, many experts have said that it is not about replacing the old with the new. ‘Change’ is scary for all of us. Therefore, relating it to a story helps break down the discomfort, resistance, and complexity.


What do we need to change today to be relevant and successful tomorrow?


What is not working today and may cease our existence tomorrow?


The reason for changing a culture is about realising the business goals, and so, what is the story that we are telling ourselves and our people? The story must be compelling and convincing.


Leading change is as much about execution and beyond as much as it is about planning. A great plan not well executed is as good as not starting at all! The change strategy plan must also include how will we sustain the change. We know the saying “The soft stuff is the hard stuff”. So, what behaviours will employees demonstrate when no one is watching? It is very human to resort back to the old ways of doing things and not going out of the “comfort zone” even if we know it is not the best – for many, the known devil is better than the unknown angel! While the story will give the purpose and the reason for change, the incentive to sustain that change will come from reward and recognition. A change in processes, practices, and systems to support and encourage the shift in culture is needed. E.g. performance assessment framework, reward, and recognition criteria etc.


The role of cultural competence


Finally, I would also want to bring up the role of cultural competence in leading cultural change. It is not about just being a global organisation or strategically deciding to open an office in a new location or going through mergers and acquisitions. As an example, let us see how organisations are warming up to realise the benefits of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). DEI goals cannot be achieved if the organisation does not find a way to harness the benefits of cognitive diversity. This comes from building an inclusive and psychologically safe environment. For many organisations, this is a cultural change and leading such a change requires leaders to have both emotional intelligence and cultural competence to be effective.


An organisation’s culture reflects in its brand that is created through its product or service. We have many examples where the best strategic decisions have failed because of culture misalignment. The famous quote attributed to Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a statement that I believe will always hold true to its meaning while its menu may change. The most recent one I read was “Culture eats strategy for breakfast and transformation for lunch!”


Disclaimer: The thoughts expressed by the author in this article are solely her own and does not represent the organisation she works for.


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