6 Steps to Create a Culture Shift That Sticks

Why should organizational culture be important to you? If you don’t have an immediate answer, it probably means this topic doesn’t receive much attention from your executive team. You may even think of culture as one of those “soft” aspects of business that doesn’t drive results.

The truth is, your company already has a culture, whether it was created intentionally or not. For culture to be a priority, you need to have a personal investment in it and understand that it does indeed have an effect. A positive culture can boost results, while a negative one can depress them.

Related: How to Turn Excuses Into Results

Why culture?

Culture has become a buzzword in the last several years because of an increased emphasis on branding and image. Fun-loving or socially minded cultures get a lot of attention; we’ve all seen popular companies with things like creative office spaces, gourmet coffee bars, environmental focus and one-for-one giving.

Many companies use these perks and social agendas to attract young employees to arduous jobs. Doing data analytics all day may not be the sexiest job, but getting a free soy latte helps take the edge off. Culture has emerged as a way to entice and retain both employees and customers.

The biggest mistake leaders make when attempting to shift their company culture is trying to force something that is incongruent with reality. Culture must have a strong and meaningful foundation and have the backing of leadership. Putting a ping-pong table in the office isn’t going to singlehandedly change the culture if the culture is already well established to the contrary.

I once worked with a CEO who was an extremely critical micromanager. You can imagine the kind of culture this created. If she had suddenly decided that her company was going to be a cool and laidback place to work, it would have been very difficult to execute. The atmosphere was so severe that instead of embracing a new culture, employees would have simply been waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Creating a company culture that has staying power starts with having clarity around values. If you know what your company stands for, you can translate those values into a culture. The key is to reinforce these values internally so that everybody on the team understands the what and the why—as well as how to execute work that supports those ideals.

Here are six steps to build and maintain a culture that sticks:

1. Understand your core values.

Identify the three to five principles that are the most important to your company. Then pinpoint how these core values can become mission-driven and the ways they might influence how you work. When you implement values at the practical level, you can start to say, “This is how we do it. This is the XYZ way.”

2. Do a culture audit.

To get to where you want to go, understand where you are starting from. First do an evaluation internally to see how your core values are being implemented and demonstrated (or not) throughout every department. Then examine from an external perspective to see how customers and potential employees perceive your organization.

3. Look for the gaps.

And identify what it will take to close them. It may be that the core values expressed by the executive management are so far off from where the company is that you need to go back to square one. Or you may just need to make small adjustments. For example, if the accounting department is letting calls go to voicemail and not modeling your “customer service” value, you can easily institute a change where someone directly answers those calls.

4. Evaluate leadership.

If you have a culture that is toxic, the executive team must do some serious self-examination, whether it’s a 360 evaluation or bringing in an outside facilitator. Many times, leaders can be blind to their own shortcomings, especially if they have built a successful company and if most employees are tolerant. A culture that sticks starts from the top, not only when it comes to buy-in but also implementation.

5. Start small first.

Begin implementing little changes that fall in line with the stated values and fill the identified gaps. Trying to do everything all at once will only lead to failure and frustration. Make the shift in digestible chunks, rolling it out over several months.

6. Keep it in check.

For any cultural shift to stick, you must be consistent. Make monthly, weekly or even daily efforts to support the new culture—and to check in with how progress is going. Give your team tools to reinforce values on their own. One of my clients, for example, came up with an acronym that is descriptive of its core values. It is used internally and helps the team recall their cultural foundations in any situation.

Shifting a culture is truly a dynamic process because what it represents to you and your employees may change over time. You can undertake this type of initiative when you want to strengthen your brand or enhance your ability to attract top talent. Whatever the reason, create a plan for implementation and execute methodically to be successful.

Related: 5 Must-Have Traits of Successful Leaders


Dr. Lisa M. Aldisert is a speaker, author and business adviser based in New York City. She is the president of Pharos Alliance. Her latest book is Leadership Reflections: 52 Leadership Practices in the Age of Worry.

1 Comment

  1. Seneca on September 19, 2018 at 10:35 am

    Thank you for writing this up Lisa, excellent points.

    I recently finished reading Tony Hsieh’s book – ”Delivering Happiness” and found his journey in building a culture at Zappos really insightful, would recommend anyone who wants to build a community and strong culture to give this book a read.

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