From the Front Lines: Changing an Organization’s Culture in 14 Months

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Two years ago, I took the management role for an organization of about 40 people.  My predecessor had been asked to leave the business as the team’s performance had gradually lost its way.  My task was to turn the team organization around, no small feat when you’re an outsider.  Morale was low after a series of various setbacks, the culmination of which was my predecessor’s termination.  Such dynamics certainly made for an even more complex situation.

The team had all the make-up of a great organization, and had indeed been at the top of their game in years past.  Despite this, though, focus on goals and the business needs had slowly drifted over time, which I personally saw as more of a leadership issue with my predecessor than it was anything else.  Innovative ideas were rarely pursued, processes and procedures were out of date, and there was a general lack of energy and urgency about daily affairs.  There was no vision.  It was the same thing day in and day out and people seemed to go about things however they wanted.

Outlining a Strategy

I knew the circumstance before I took the role, but admit I was not sure I would be successful.  I needed a strategy to not only create a new culture, but also one which maximized the skills of each team member.  The team was, of course, understaffed.  If I made changes that drove people to leave, it would only make matters worse. 

In hindsight, it ended up taking about 14 months to change the culture and to instill a winning attitude.  Over those 14 months, I chose a strategy in which I relied on very open and raw feedback (albeit, presented in a careful way) combined with creating incremental shifts in my expectations.  

Department Meetings

Every 6 to 8 weeks I would hold a department wide meeting to review metrics and goals.  Further, I would also share with my team some of the raw feedback that I had received from others.  For example, shortly upon being hired, I was asked “how a team of 40 could be allowed to produce so little.”  It wasn’t that they were not producing anything, there were simply not producing the right things.  I knew I was on the right track with my quest when one employee spoke up and thanked me for sharing the information.  They had never heard anything of that sort of comment before, he said. 

More importantly, at the end of each meeting, I highlighted my expectations for employees as the manager of the organization.  We then discussed what they meant. Each of these items were based on my own observations or was given to me as feedback from other managers regarding my team’s performance.  The following items are the specific focus points for expectations that I shared with the team over the first 14 months.   

Expectations of the Team

Expectation #1:  Professionalism – In the first meeting with the team, I highlighted professionalism as my number one expectation of them.  I was all for a relaxed environment, I told them, but when it comes to business, professionalism was key.  I explained that professionalism was about meeting commitments and about how they conducted themselves when working with others.  Professionalism is one of the most important things I look out for as a manager as it is a direct reflection on them as individuals and us as a team.  I also explained that professionalism meant that explosive disagreements were unacceptable and that they were to keep any attitude or tempers in check.  As this was the first real team meeting, I wanted to set a tone.

Expectation #2:  Learning as Individuals and as a Team – In the next department meeting, I emphasized that we as a team needed to understand that learning and improving was expected.  After all, I told them, if we did not learn from mistakes or learn through experience, we would never be able to address new challenges.  In this regard, I made it clear to my team that I would be taking steps towards giving them each new assignments when time permitted, so they could stretch their intellect and skills. 

Expectation #3:  New Solutions to Old Problems – Often times when complacency sets in an organization, as it had with the team I managed, we often hear that inevitable ‘we’ve always done it this way’ answer to a question.  In the third department meeting, we discussed that our problems would never be solved by applying historic solutions – obviously they had not worked in recent years, I told them.  We needed to rethink our approach to the work we did.  To get better, we needed to think better.

Expectation #4:  Effective Communication – As time went by, I began to notice how much time and energy when into basic communication: emails, meetings and phone calls.  As we struggled with our capacity and were understaffed, I explained to the team that we needed to work more efficiently.  Sending emails that were 3 pages long took tremendous time to write and were unlikely to be read in their entirety, if at all.  I requested they adhere to two simple rules.  First, if an email is more than 5 lines long, they had to pick up the phone.  Second, they adopt the 30 minute meeting and reduce the number of full hour-long meetings.  Communication needed to be short, sweet and to the point.

Expectation #5:  Leadership As a Team and as Individuals– When we reached the next meeting, I found that years of tight boundaries and a sheltered environment created by my predecessor           had resulted in somewhat of a ‘do what you’re told’ attitude.  This was certainly nothing against the team members, but something that had to be addressed.  During this meeting, I emphasized the need to be innovative and creative.  As individuals, I continued, they each needed to be leaders within their various assignments since no one else would do it for them.  I closed by telling them that when they as individuals were leading and regularly thinking outside the box, we as a team would be at the forefront of the broader business.

Expectation #6:  Ownership and Accountability – It was late in the year by the time the next meeting came around.  We were in the middle of a number of major projects and the team was working long hours.  In the weeks leading up to the meeting, though, I had received a few remarks from my peers concerning actions that some of my employees had dropped, as well as a few small deadlines that had been missed.  As a result of this feedback, I spoke to the team about the importance of ownership and accountability.  I shared with them the feedback I had received less gently than I had myself received it (withholding names of course).  When they made commitments, they had to hit them.  When they were responsible for a task, it was their responsibility to ensure it was completed.  Missing commitments was not acceptable.

Expectation #7:  Sustainable Balance – When the final department meeting of the year came, it was two weeks away from the Christmas holiday break.  As my prior meeting had been quite direct on addressing Ownership, I wanted to pull back and focus on the importance of the holidays and spending time with their families.  I took this approach to emphasize that while expectations for them were high, the team needed to be successful in a healthy and sustainable way.  Brute force and long hours would eventually cause burn out and other problems that we did not need.  I told the team that I was extremely proud of what they had accomplished in that first year.  By this point the results of the metrics were in.  I reminded them that just a year prior our metrics were the worst in the company.  After 14 months, they were among the best.

Reshaping the Thinking

Each of these expectation discussions helped me reshape the thinking and the attitude within the department.  After each one, I saw small shifts in behavior of various individuals.  As time went by, momentum started to shift and we began to dig ourselves out of a rut.

Now, one final point.  I did not simply manage the team’s morale and engagement through these meetings.  Rather, I knew that I, too, would have to demonstrate the values and expectations I openly discussed with the team.  Further, for all that I asked from them with these expectations, I knew I had to fulfill my end of the bargain on the management side – I had to secure funding for training classes they needed and purchase some much needed equipment.  I needed to address gaps in pay and compensation.  I was under the belief that if I tackled all the things they told me were ‘long overdue,’ it would remind them that we as a team could return to being the best. 

Parting Thoughts

I share this management experience with the hopes that it gives other managers some ideas and encouragement as they embark on changing the culture within their organizations.  I will be the first to admit that I was not sure I would be successful with this strategy.  Given all the pressure I was under to turn things around, there were certainly times when I thought I should resort to a more direct and harsh approach.  Further, bringing new people in at times seemed easier than redirecting those I already had.

But fortunately, it did work.  And after a very painful first year, things continued to improve in the second year as our plans started to fall in line.  Despite those 14 dark months, the entire experience was worth it.  I leave you with a comment one employee said to me as the clouds began to lift and things were looking up in month 14: “It’s a great time to be part of this team.”

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