How Change Agents Helped These Companies Transform Their Culture

Changing an organization’s culture is considered one of the most difficult challenges for leaders, and those with experience will confirm that it can be a massive undertaking.

Whatever challenges the organization is facing — low morale among staff, bad behavior at the senior ranks, unhealthy team culture, employee burnout or poor performance, lack of innovation — the situation requires attention and corrective strategies to position the company for sustainable improvement and success. If left unexamined, these problems inevitably worsen and cut off the organization’s chances for recovery.

Enter the role of the change agent. Change agents, whether internal or external, provide guidance and expertise and help leadership teams understand the challenge at hand, assess next steps, and collaborate on a clear path forward.

In the casual setting of last year’s Ultimate Culture Conference, skilled change agents shared the following success stories on culture transformation. Covering diverse industries such as architecture, construction, consumables (food), and healthcare, their experiences are worth examining for useful insights to apply in your own culture journey.

HKS Architects

Challenge — Dallas, Texas-based architectural firm HKS Architects creates places that enhance the human experience, like the US Bank Stadium, home of the 2018 Super Bowl. After collecting employee satisfaction data for 10 consecutive years, leadership sought to better understand the current culture and the roadblocks that were inhibiting employees from taking the most successful actions.

Solution — A culture survey was initiated firm-wide using the Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI) from Human Synergistics. Well-coordinated company-wide discussions, covering 20 offices across the globe, were conducted to review cultural attributes and the climates and prevailing behaviors of the various offices. Office leadership engaged staff in goal setting and planning. A new performance development system, ELEVATE, was implemented; not linked to compensation, the system involves managers meeting with team members three times each year. Change agent Cheryl Kitchner led ongoing discussions to facilitate participation and learning; vocal support from senior leadership is visible.

Outcome — HKS reassessed its culture in 2016 using the OCI and added an assessment of the work climate with the complementary Organizational Effectiveness Inventory (OEI). The retest, showing an impressive increase in survey participation, confirmed remarkable reductions in Passive/Defensive and Aggressive/Defensive styles and vital improvements along the Constructive styles. Key changes included stronger commitment to and focus on personal and professional development.

A second phase of improvement is ongoing.

Advocate Aurora Health

Challenge — As the largest health system in Illinois, Advocate’s challenge was to increase and stabilize engagement, focus on culture change, and strengthen relations within a high-profile, semi-autonomous unit that struggled with negative team dynamics, unproductive work relations, and entrenched passive-aggressive behavior.

Solution — Focusing more on culture  than climate, emphasis was placed on helping leaders and teams make the connection between outcomes and their actions and behaviors. Simultaneous “teach & learns” were delivered at all organizational levels with a keen focus on achieving ideal behavioral styles and impact.

The change initiative was guided by an OD professional specializing in culture transformation and leadership development. Change agent Diane Stuart’s 10 years of healthcare management experience qualified her to lead Advocate’s change effort through an intense and collaborative learning process using assessments like the OCI and Leadership/Impact.

Outcome — As leaders gained awareness of their behaviors and their impact on others, Advocate achieved a dramatic shift in culture, attained high levels of engagement, and exceeded financial goals. The impressive turnaround results realized by the focal unit have subsequently been used to motivate, guide, and transform other Advocate teams and departments.

Johnsonville Sausage

Challenge — Members and leaders of Wisconsin-based Johnsonville Sausage have a bold vision to “be the best company on earth.” This requires that the leading national sausage brand be culturally prepared and poised for aggressive innovation on its way to growing and becoming a $1 billion company. An important step was determining whether the company’s research and development subculture would foster innovation and growth while supporting their desired culture famously cultivated in the “Johnsonville Way.”

Solution — susan Dumke, Johnsonville’s research & development senior project manager, partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Professional & Executive Development to coordinate a pilot culture study led by Lisa Yaffe, program director for executive leadership.

Accredited in the OCI, change agent Yaffe guided the Johnsonville team through the assessment and reporting process.

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Outcome — A pilot study confirmed that the R&D employees maintained a strong Constructive subculture that helped the team stay aligned, focused, and to work together and grow. The process also confirmed that the OCI could be leveraged for assessing and developing the Johnsonville culture more broadly.

Lessons learned

Culture-related change efforts come in many forms. These three very different success stories provide the following lessons:

  • Recognize how your current culture is helping and hindering progress toward key strategic priorities.
  • Use a valid and reliable survey to gain a common language for and measure of both culture and climate.
  • Understand culture and climate as a foundation for adjusting strategies or plans to improve results.
  • Combine culture assessment and development efforts with leadership assessment and development.
  • Partner with experienced culture change agents for perspective and expert guidance.
  • The journey never ends. Engage leadership and all team members in additional phases of improvement as progress is measured and confirmed.

The guidance and expertise of a change agent can be invaluable to your change effort. I invite your comments below and on our Twitter and LinkedIn channels.

This article was first published on Human Synergistics.

Kalani Iwiula

Kalani is a marketing professional with Human Synergistics and oversees the company's social media, blog properties, and blogger community. With an aim to create, curate, and support high-quality content covering workplace culture and the impact of leaders, he gives voice to colleague expertise via digital media planning and partnering. As an integrated marketing specialist, Kalani believes in the power of branding and its role in connecting how people think and perform in their workplace cultures.