Kotter International is a world-leading change company that helps leaders build the capacity to drive large
April 27, 2020
Culture Change and How to Get There. Ensuring that your business is doing not only the basics right but fostering a culture that embodies everything that you do really well, is key as we move forward through the COVID outbreak. To this end, we wanted to share an interview that we did with Greg LeStage from a few years back who at the time was working at the renowned change company – Kotter International. Gregg shared his insights on culture change which seem as important today, as they did when we did the interview.
Tell me a bit about your background?
I have been in the broadly speaking performance improvement, organisational change field for about 15 years now, from behavioural research, in regards to leadership, and sales force effectiveness. They are the main two areas.
I have led teams, delivered solutions, and been on the business development side served as a consultant to organisations so I have 360 degrees perspective on these critical issues.
The thread for me as a former academic is learning. Learning is a critical element in change, it can help individuals and organisations do what they need to do.
Reading a bit about you, you taught at Oxford University?
I taught literature. The similarities between that and what I do now aren’t immediately apparent (laughs) but I think a real driver is storytelling. When you’re trying to motivate others it’s about creating a narrative about what the future could look like. The better at the narrative you are, the more effective you are as a leader.
My work in literature is something I draw upon often.
Research is also something that has helped. Taking in a lot of data and making sense of it, your swimming in it all the time, so that’s how I make the connections.
Storytelling seems to be incredibly important in business these days
Storytelling is certainly trending, it’s been on the rise for the last 5 years.
How can you gauge what kind of culture, you have within your organisation currently?
It’s the great starting point for anyone dealing in large scale transformation. Engagement surveys are really useful indicators, I’m not massively into assessments, its a billion-dollar business and I think many of them fail to execute, however, engagement surveys are interesting ways of figuring out if people are happy, why or why not. Those are indicators of culture. That’s one.
Two, at the other end of the spectrum, is anecdotal evidence, so if you’re a top leader and you’re connected with the team then those people will have this evidence, what the culture is, just through observation and stories. That’s valuable too. It’s not hard data, but it adds texture which is important.
What is a culture meant to do in an organisation? Culture is meant to drive you forward in accomplishing your mission, so this is an issue of change. That’s all. So how do you assess an organisations change readiness, that’s the angle on culture also when you’re specifically looking at change readiness?
What happens if the change is thrust upon you? I’m thinking of the public sector in the UK, the NHS etc. This is slightly different from being able to plan, there is no choice in this change. Is it important to look at culture change alongside these financial changes perhaps?
Our research shows that change is a constant, the gap between change and how we react is widening. We’re not static we always change, so the question is what is your ability to handle the change that will come towards you? It’s less are you ready to handle X (cuts in funding), Y will be something else. So those organisations that are ready for ‘X’ or ‘Y’ those are the ones that succeed. Change readiness is broadly about a capability, rather than you’re specifically ready for to take on a massive IT conversion or something like that.
How you define which culture I would like at my organisation, how do you define what we should be?
Straightforward answer. You have to define what your values are, what are your personal leadership values, so how do your employees relate to each other? Relationship with clients or your environment, they are the foundation stones and the most reliable ones for culture creation; they must be based in values.
What about organisations where some workers don’t even know. They may be written down and quite complex, but have no connection to people, they are meaningless…
So that’s the real challenge. You can put those values in elevators, town halls, that’s one thing. You have to know what they look like and demonstrate themselves yourselves as leaders. You draw attention to the right behaviours and celebrate them. Its starts from there and builds itself up and out.
Give me an example of how you demonstrate your values to your workforce; say for example ‘innovation’…
I think it would be “we value the sustainment of an innovative organisation2 rather than ‘be innovative’ which is a nuance I know.
When innovation happens it’s named, you shout about your little wins, call them out and celebrate them. Someone is celebrated for being ‘innovative’.
Leadership behaviour has to embody the values, even if people don’t know you or have never met you. Honesty is a good one, it’s very rarely heard, as are apologies, the ‘I’m sorry, I made a mistake’ very powerful.
It sounds like we are oversimplifying it, but it matters.
If you’re a large organisation perhaps you have several cultures and several sets of values within so if you define your values and they don’t resonate what can you do about this?
There is never one culture, but if they are set upon the same values, then you can resonate and connect. Companies need to hold onto their core set of values. It’s localising the values which is important.
So if companies have 20 values…
That’s ridiculous, it’s shown up similarly when competencies are overplayed. It’s unclear, it’s hard to connect.
More is less. 3 or 4 values are where companies can make it work.
What key things should I consider before embarking upon a journey of culture change?
We believe that culture change is the by-product of something else; companies that set out to change their culture as the end conclusion, very often are unsuccessful.
Going after a particular culture, even with a defined set of values is extremely difficult to do because there is nothing to grab onto. That happens all the time.
Change is the by-product of something else. Organisational development people or HR people are often looked to provide the answers, it’s doesn’t work. There has to have an organisational link or business link that you go after, and culture change then happens.
We stand tall on this view and have lots of evidence, whereby organisational goals or missions, specific ones, will bring about cultural change.
What we find and insist upon is that the leader or business unit head must absolutely be signed up and committed, visibly and vocally to leading the change. They need to have a team around them that will be equally supportive, not just at the beginning, handing it on to HR is the death nail for change. You must involve, but to be seen to step away from it, to blink, to hand it off, or back away or letting it die will lead to failure. This is the key thing.
The secret source of change is urgency. When a large number of workers, 50 % of the unit, feel urgent in regards to this. Creating excitement and urgency to do something is so powerful. So it could be expanding into another area, or as with the UN, another of our clients, there ‘opportunity’ is to work together ‘better’ and meet there mission. There opportunity is ‘restructure’.
So how do you frame a negative situation? Something like a lack of finance, a restructure?
You frame it positively. You may say that out of this bad situation we will be better as an organisation. So health care for instance, you create a positive, “how do we provide world class care?” rather than fixing a particular problem. It’s not a problem statement but an ‘opportunity statement’ which the leadership creates.
They create the window, which may look different in 2 years, but it’s the window now, something that we can achieve, people getting their hearts into the programme.
You must have volumes of people. A common mistake is to appoint change specialists, project managers and the leaders say “go change the organisation”. They can’t do it, there are not enough of them, and people don’t like being told what to do.
Employees, they want to be involved and own the chance, so you have to give them permission. Don’t allow just a few people to do this. You need people to raise their hand and get involved.
Create urgency around an opportunity, and then get your leadership alignment, set yourself up to go after the goal, the opportunity.
Get the most junior person involved who can understand it, they can see the connection. They then live the value. It involves everyone, so don’t just allow the ‘smart people’ to do this, the senior level people of high potential people. Don’t leave out thousands of people; they are doing the work day in day out. Involving a diverse set of people, in large numbers is critical.
How do you ensure that the people on the coalface connect?
When building your ‘volunteer army’, your team must go after these people, go to the coalface and present the opportunity, reach out to them and ask them to raise their hands. When you engage people you have diversity of thought and energy, go to the coalface and get it.
Get people excited about the concept. The only criterion is that you want to do it, you’re not judged on seniority, the leadership must want people to generate the issues. So if you know there are problems, get the voices of the employees involved in solving it. You need hearts, hands and heads.
So these people have the ideas to improve the business, but don’t always have the conduit to get there ideas through?
That’s correct. The volunteer army or innovation network will be key, you blast the opportunities out, and bottom up can occur. Don’t just be nice to people, use their ideas and help change the organisation.
Give me an example?
The US army were a client of ours, and they were looking to bring soldiers in and help them develop in the Army way. Lots of bureaucracy, slow and they needed to change. They wanted to produce helicopter pilots at a high rate, because of the slow cause of change they struggled.
The opportunity therefore as we framed it was to ‘produce pilots’ it’s a specific goal. Nothing to do with culture. They turned things around in 6 months. The merging culture came on its own as a result of this.
The culture became more inclusive, less top down. Decisions and responsibilities flowed down, they have broken it out and non-uniformed people are in the room, they involved more people across in ranks in roles.
This approach allows you to sustain change as more people are involved. These to me are the most interesting elements of change when lower ranked employees drive it.
You have a hierarchy, where change doesn’t happen, there is nothing you can do about this, you have to just manage do today. So create a small volunteer army and the 2 systems can run alongside each other, and cultural change occurs. Its s dual operating system.
Timescales of change 2 months or 2 years?
It is not set but there is a floor. A common mistake is defining change as something small, so giving time and budgeting money and effort for 6 months, they call it change management. Appoint several people over a year, and it fails.
Always unstick people from the notion that it will be quick. Typically we say 18 and 24 months to learn how to do it yourself as an organisation. You need to do one full transformation cycle so it’s longer than most people are prepared for. Our research shows this to be true some are faster most are longer.
The essential factor is the identification and celebration of wins. So if change is a molecule of transformation, wins are the molecules of results. Common mistakes are when organisations fail to see the small wins, let alone celebrate them. That’s the food for the volunteer army.
Something real happens, so simple steps like an email, newsletters, the communications are important?
Absolutely. You need urgency and the identification of small wins and the celebration of them. It creates interest to the volunteer army.
You deal with many clients across the world, lots of success, what are the chances?
The chances are high if you don’t give up. When success starts to unravel is when people declare wins too early. When you back of too early and say you have won. This lowers the chances. Persistence and consistency.
Get people urgent, get the volunteer army in place create strategies that have meaning to people, celebrate wins and results and your chances of success explode.
What investment is needed? What about cash poor organisations?
Our approach to get people to sign up because they want to do it, and raise their hand, they are often the most busy people in the organisation, they find the energy. The way they innovate, the investment doesn’t have to be high. You need to pay for people to brainstorm, plan and go act, that’s where the investment is.
We have only seen a couple of times where millions is involved for these change programmes, grass roots is the best way forward, its low cost upfront and stays low-cost. The employees are the people to do it. It’s very personal, find the frustrated people who aren’t invited to change and give them permission.
If leaders don’t buy in then will it work?
How do you measure the success?
This goes back to the small wins, at the beginning you set up the metrics. So you need needles that you want to see move. Track the wins, the small ones; the tactics of gathering the wins is the important aspects here.
The little things that you could do to have a big impact? Perhaps a leader doesn’t buy in, what could you do?
At a middle level people are either the obstacle or the answer for large scale transformation. Engage these staff within the volunteer army, name them as critical, they are the liaison between the top and the bottom, they have to enable both sets of people above and below. Invite them, don’t tell them what to do.
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