Authentic Leadership Insights

A Case History: A Total Culture Shift

By Bill Shirley, BT, MCC

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” — Charles Darwin

While most executive coaches focus on the Organization’s Strategy, we focus on the Organization’s Culture; creating an adaptive and developmental culture, one that is responsive to change.  Many years of experience has taught us the wisdom and truth in the above quote.  Peter Drucker recognized this when he said, “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast!”

Solving today’s most intractable problems always requires a responsive culture shift.  Successful strategic initiatives require gaining employee Buy-In through influence to dramatic shifts in thinking, feeling and enthusiastically embracing new behaviors.  McKinsey reports that 65% of these strategic initiatives fail and another 15% are only partially successful!

The workplace culture is a powerful force that is only vaguely understood by most leaders.  Its purpose is to preserve the institutional wisdom of the organization, so it is innately resistant to change!

Generally, culture is “the way we do things around here.”  We define it more precisely: the culture is “the employee’s most successful way of thinking, feeling and behaving.”   We define a culture shift as the emergence of the new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving required to successfully execute the current business strategy. When we want a new behavior, we change the ecosystem so as to call forth that behavior.

Successful strategic initiatives are created in an environmental ecosystem that encourages and nurtures the desired ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.  This creates All-in engagement and stimulates the creativity required to exceed the requirements of the Key Success Factors.

We have over 20 years’ experience in successfully guiding culture shifts in support of new business models and strategic initiatives.

One example that demonstrates the power of our methods involves an investment management company serving high net worth clients who are accustomed to considerable personal attention.  This company was created by two brilliant Managing Partners who had the unique ability to create enduring relationships with their clients.  A rapid, individualized response to a client’s call is a distinguishing part of their brand.

The elder partner wanted to move towards retirement by not being involved in day-to-day operations, and gradually transferring his client relationships to younger members of the client service team.

The younger partner assumed the role of Managing Partner, but wanted (as soon as possible) to have more free time, not less.  He visualized a new business model involving an intelligent, adaptive team that would allow him to be away from the office for at least four months throughout the year.  During much of this time away, he would have only email and phone contact with the office.

In his vision, he expected all aspects of the business to perform as well, if not better, when he was away as when he was in the office.  Given the internal systems, personnel and culture, he was realistic in his expectations as to how fast his vision would become a reality.

We were engaged to guide the required culture shift to support this radically new business model.  It is an article of faith in the investment business that the Managing Partner is on the job every day and available 24/7.  We could find no existing business model similar to his idea as assurance that it was viable.  However, we knew how to create a workplace ecosystem that supported the desired culture and the intelligent, adaptive team his vision required.

The partners and their entire leadership team had to see their relationships, responsibilities, and roles from entirely new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving – an entirely new organizational culture!  However, old habits resist change.  “A change imposed is a change opposed” — (from “Who Moved My Cheese?”).

People don’t resist change, they resist being changed.  Everyone in the leadership team was directly involved in every key decision.  There were no un-negotiated expectations in the new organizational structure.

The Managing Partner, and two other leaders immediately engaged in leadership coaching.  We used the worrisome, day-to-day challenges each faced as the raw material for each coaching discussion.

Each individual controlled their own agenda.  The Managing Partner indirectly influenced the agendas of the other two by pointing out opportunities for growth and development.  These were suggestions, not expectations.

Each individual came to two monthly (one hour) coaching sessions prepared to drill down on assignments from the previous session, or introduce new material in the process.  The discussions were often intense, sometimes emotional.

In the course of these interactions, each gained clarity and understanding of their own deepest needs, desires and motivations.  They became more confident, competent and effective leaders as they deepened their knowledge of their natural leadership talents.  Everyone gained autonomy, experienced new mastery and felt renewed purpose.

These coaching engagements covered several years.  We are still in frequent contact with this leadership team and are aware of their ongoing challenges.

The cultural shift supporting this strategic plan was in place well before the latest economic down turn unfolded.  However, the organization had never been tested against these severe, volatile and uncertain market conditions.  The organization came through this high stress period with a solid business performance, high morale and no turnover.

The client relationships are stronger than ever.  As the economy slowly recovers, the business is performing above expectations.

The Managing Partner wrote the following comment to a prospective client who asked for a reference:  “Bill Shirley has been my business coach since 1999, and is perhaps the most influential person in my life and business.”