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“I Underestimated How Messed Up The Culture Is”

No amount of due diligence can adequately prepare a new leader for the realities of an organization’s culture. It’s just one of those things you have to experience for yourself. As I have often said, culture is like pornography…difficult to define but you know it when you see it.

What I hear consistently from leaders who are new to a company is how screwed up the culture is. Here is a list of the top complaints.

  • “I’m appalled at how mediocre the performance standards are around here.” The new leader expects an organization of A players and she is confronted with a slew of B-/C+ ones instead. And some of those sit on the executive team. Her first instinct is to clean house and clear the decks.
  • “I would have been fired at my last job if I had allowed this amount of misbehavior!” Subterfuge, disrespect, hostile negativity, back stabbing and worse. New leaders are shocked not only to see these actions on display but to find out how acceptable they are. They begin to question their own sanity during that first year as they try to change this norm.
  • “I prefer to have an open door policy but everyone around here takes that as an invitation to walk in and trash their colleagues.” Staff are looking for new, more sympathetic, ears to complain to. Most executives don’t expect peer to peer conflicts to get escalated to their offices. They struggle to push this away and not take sides. But they see how it is a cultural norm to recruit allies.
  • “How people make decisions around here is just nuts!” Nuts can mean too reliant on getting everyone’s buy in or zero transparency or never making a decision or constantly allowing decisions to be revisited or total command and control. Whatever the dominant style, it is entrenched and the new leader is met with resistance or hostility if he tries to change the norm.
  • “You’d think that the (founder, former leader, former corporate entity) was still present! People’s heads are stuck in the past.” Mythic leaders are referred to as if they were still sitting around the table. Names (and mugs and pictures and awards) of the original company are used routinely. Tales from the good old days are legendary…not to mention better than this crappy overlord. New leaders expect the challenges of integrating into the company. But they don’t expect to compete with ghosts that haven’t been around in decades.

Once they are done (for the moment) venting their frustrations with me they implore me to just tell them how to make it all better. Don’t I wish it were that simple! We are talking about human behavior here; long term habits and perspectives. Other worthy leaders have come before and gave it their best shot at transforming the culture with limited success.

So what is a leader to do? Give in and go native? Just ignore it as best as possible? Take it on head first? I don’t think there is one answer that fits all. I suggest starting with a set of questions to ask yourself.

  • How good are my interpersonal skills? Can I effectively engage all types of people across all levels of the organization? Can I establish trusting rapport with people?
  • How well do I control my frustration? Does my body language express my unhappiness? Am I prone to reach a boiling point and then pop off?
  • How much patience do I have? Do I have a long term perspective on making these changes? Can I handle two steps forward and one step back?
  • Am I able to set and describe clear expectations in respectful ways? Can I deliver praise or negative consequences 100% of the time in response to people’s actions? Can I be matter of fact and neutral rather than overly enthusiastic or punitive?

My point is that changing a culture is a marathon and you have to stay the course and be in good condition to get to the finish line. It requires resolve and stamina that is unwavering. It is not the same as other longer term initiatives you will take on as the new leader. This is all about your deep knowledge of yourself, your limitations and your interpersonal skills.

Assuming you have answered the questions above with a good amount of satisfaction here are some practical do’s and don’ts that work in the real world.

  • Don’t use aggressive and demanding words, tones or programs. No one will change just because you are angry and adamant. It will have the opposite effect. When we hear threats we get ready to fight.
  • Do define performance and behavioral expectations and standards in positive and succinct terms. As the new leader the staff expects you to describe where you are headed. Make sure that this part of your agenda sounds like “In order to achieve these business goals we all need to be in this together. We can get there by offering respect and supportive interactions and reaching out to relevant collaborators” rather than “It is no longer acceptable to operate in your own silo or connect only to long trusted colleagues”.
  • Do adopt a demeanor that signals fair, respectful and firm. Develop simple mantras that are delivered to everyone to make your approach obvious. (“I understand your point but we are going in a different direction.” “I see that you are frustrated with person X. I suggest you work things out directly with him. This doesn’t have anything to do with me.”) If everyone feels heard and respected they are more likely to listen to you. If you say no it is not about a person; it is about an issue or task. Once the staff understands that no one is being singled out for special treatment…that it’s just business…they are better positioned to comply.
  • Don’t let them see you sweat. If people know what will get your goat you will get a lot of goats! If something outrageous is happening go into your firm and respectful gear. “This conversation is unproductive and I’m stopping it right now.” “I called you into my office to tell you that your behavior in the meeting was rude and counter productive. You can have a different point of view but until you can express that in a way that is helpful I suggest you remain silent.”
  • Do understand that at least half of the staff are hoping you will fix this shit. There is a large silent or co-opted majority in organizations that have figured out how to survive in the midst of all this crap. They are not happy but they feel powerless to change it. If you take the lead in ways that are admirable you will have a large following. You probably had a critical mass of supporters the second you walked in the door. But culture can be so dark that even the good people have been sucked under. Reach out to them. Eventually there will be enough of them that the balance of power will be upset.
  • Don’t let the truly evil ones remain in the organization. You can’t put forward new standards without getting rid of the worst offenders. Your words can only be believed if you take appropriate actions. All organizations have a handful of nasty, subversive, power hungry people. Follow all the proper HR guidelines but do show them the door. You will win allies just for doing that.

Changing a culture is not just a marathon. It’s a contact sport. You have to be prepared to hang in there through lots of bad days. You will see and hear things that make you crazy. Just remember, the board or CEO picked you. You have legitimate power in this situation. The unruly ones just think they have power. It’s okay to show them who is the boss.

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