Organizational Culture: The Moment for Change

New CEOs have a golden opportunity to embark on the difficult work of changing organizational culture. But it doesn’t last forever. These four lessons from CEOs who have been there can help others seize the day.

New CEOs have a golden opportunity to embark on the difficult work of changing organizational culture. But it doesn’t last forever. These four lessons from CEOs who have been there can help others seize the day.

Imagine you’ve just been hired as a new association CEO or executive director. No doubt you participated in extensive interviews with key staff and reviewed qualitative and quantitative data that the organization shared with you during the CEO search process, so you’ve got at least a high-level familiarity with the organization you are going to lead.

But, from the moment you are hired, you will inevitably begin with that awkward and sometimes frustrating period of learning, where you and the organization spend some time feeling each other out. This is where you both discover the difference between what you thought you were getting into and what is, in fact, the truth.

Let’s face it: During the interview process you can get to know each other only so well, and you’ll need some time actually working together to understand what it is really going to be like. Usually the differences are minor, but in worst-case scenarios they can lead to a speedy departure of the new hire, which is costly for everyone involved.

This is a particularly important time for a new CEO. In general, employees expect to see some level of change when there is a change at the top, even if change was not specifically mandated during the hiring process. Staffers expect the person in the top position to set the tone for “how we do things around here,” and that means that with each new CEO there is a chance for a significant shift in culture. When we give presentations about culture change, we find almost invariably that the people with the most detailed questions—those who are going through culture change at the time—start their inquiries with some version of
“So we got a new CEO a few months ago, and …”

For a new CEO, the question becomes “How much do I try to change?” Change is not easy, and culture change has its own specific challenges, so you don’t want to end up biting off more than you can chew. On the other hand, the door for change seems to open automatically when a new CEO takes over, and it will eventually close, which means change may be much harder to initiate later on. You don’t want to miss your opportunity.

We interviewed a number of CEOs who worked through some tough culture-change initiatives in their first few years on the job to get some insights into how they managed this complicated and dynamic time in a CEO’s tenure. Their stories, combined with our own experience helping organizations through culture change, yield four important tips for navigating the process.

​1. Understand What You’re Changing

To change a culture, you have to know exactly what it is you are changing, so a big part of this will be an adequate assessment of your starting point. This can include a full-blown culture audit conducted by an outside consultant.

Arlene Pietranton, FASAE, CAE, was not yet CEO of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) when its culture-change journey began several years ago, but her predecessor invested in an audit of the culture as the first step. The audit helped ASHA’s leaders to be precise about the specific kinds of behavior changes that would come along with the new culture. They disseminated internally a
“From/To” document that spelled out the behaviors of the old culture that they were leaving behind (“Managers appear as judges who apply a top-down, directive management approach”) versus the ones they were seeking to develop (“Managers are seen as coaches and team leaders. …
[L]eadership is participative and flexible”). Eventually, as the new culture took hold, ASHA got rid of the “From” category and just provided employees with clear guidance as to what their culture looks like in practice.

​2. Find Personal Alignment

When you seek to understand what you’re changing, don’t limit yourself to understanding the organization’s existing culture. You should also be prepared to take a hard look in the mirror.

Debra BenAvram, CAE, has worked through a culture shift at the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN), where she is CEO. She learned early on that the culture an organization is moving toward needs to be closely aligned with the CEO’s own personal leadership values.

“It’s not a one-shot thing,” she explains. “It’s something you’re always working on. I’m always finding new ways to live the culture that we have.”

So if there isn’t a crisp alignment between your own approach and the culture you’re building, you’re going to run into trouble down the line. ASPEN seeks this alignment as part of its hiring process for senior managers, using an outside consultant to interview most new hires to assess them for cultural compatibility. They don’t look for cultural
“fit” per se—­BenAvram knows that her association’s culture will evolve over time, so the goal is not to have everyone be exactly the same—but this process gives her a sense of how prospective employees might challenge the culture and where they might struggle when their personal work style runs counter to the expectations of the culture.

​3. Focus on Results, Not Process

When you do finally get down to the nitty-gritty of changing the culture, rest assured that you will encounter some resistance along the way. You may want to chalk it up to a general resistance to change, but remember: People don’t resist change in general—they resist doing things that don’t make sense to them, and, more important, they resist doing anything where the primary reason is “because I said so.”

Scott Lynch, CEO of the American Boiler Manufacturers Association, is in the middle of a culture change that is touching on multiple aspects of the organization. In the process, he got some pushback from staff. Instead of pushing back harder (with the weight of the CEO title), he promised that if the new approach didn’t work, ABMA would go back to the old one. It sounds simple, but this “only if it works” approach reduced the resistance significantly.

And sometimes you might even need to do some resisting of your own—in particular, resisting the urge to insist on doing things your way all the time. Peter O’Neil, FASAE, CAE, learned an important lesson in the ongoing culture improvement work he has been doing as CEO of the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) over the last 10 years:
patience. He worked hard to resist making every change that he wanted to make during the shift, even if he thought an existing process was completely unworkable.

“I had to allow myself to be uncomfortable and let it play itself out,” he says. “In the end, some of the things I thought we should change worked out just fine given our context and our people, and we never changed them.”

For a new CEO, the question becomes How much do I try to change?

​4. Expect (and Embrace) Turnover

Of course, sometimes staff members who resist change are not pushing back just to be difficult. They really don’t like the direction of the new culture, and, in many of those cases, they should be coached out of the organization.

Associations need to get better at separation. People quitting and being asked to leave should be more common and less dramatic, because the goal is to create a sharper alignment between the organization’s culture and the approach of every individual employee. When the alignment is strong, more potential will be realized in both the employee and the organization. And when the alignment isn’t there, some people need to go.

O’Neil says AIHA purposefully managed about 42 percent turnover that was culture-related as it started to implement culture change, and this process “significantly improved both the quantity and quality of our output” in the end. And regardless of the level of turnover, all the CEOs we talked to reinforced the need to be supportive in coaching people out. Help them network. Help them find new opportunities. They are not “wrong” because they don’t like the direction the culture is heading, so they shouldn’t be punished for it.

There is no easy path to culture change. But you may have noticed a theme running through these four tips: You can’t effectively change a culture without being clear about what your organization values internally and why those values drive success. So start with a culture assessment or other process that will identify where you lack that clarity; this will help you identify specific changes that will strengthen the culture.

Then make sure that you and your employees can align yourselves with the culture in a way that has personal meaning. When you are transparent about what drives your success, some employees will understand that they are not a good fit for your culture, and those necessary separations will be easier.

All of these recommendations involve one thing: alignment of what is valued internally, what drives success, and what matters to your people. Focus on that alignment, and the messy process of culture change will become easier to manage.


Jamie Notter

By Jamie Notter

Jamie Notter is cofounder of the consulting firm Culture That Works, LLC. He is a coauthor of Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World and When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business. MORE

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