No Easy Fix

Changing an organization’s culture takes time and effort — and always starts at the top

Back Article Nov 5, 2019 By Jessica Kriegel

Despite all the talk about creating an ideal company culture, it continues to remain a mystery to many executives. A string of happy hours and team-building sessions is not enough to carefully craft an ideal organizational culture. Culture is a complex system of many organizational variables, including strategy, processes, leadership styles, empowerment, organizational structure, personalities, shared language and social norms.

Organizational culture is the values, beliefs and behaviors practiced in an organization formed over time because they are rewarded or punished by formal and informal rules, rituals and behaviors. Or, to oversimplify it, culture is “the way we do things around here.”

So, how does culture change happen? It’s complex, it takes time, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The following is an example of culture change that happened over the course of multiple years; hopefully, it will make the process a little less mysterious. Details about my client’s name and industry have been changed for anonymity.

Foxclore, a rapidly growing organization in the biotech space, has 14,000 employees. Each team within Foxclore has a unique organizational culture. Some of those cultures were intentionally created by the leadership and team, while others were organic. The cluster of various cultures within the organization was created as multiple startup businesses were acquired and merged into the company throughout the years. 

Understanding the Culture

The leadership team began to reflect on the culture that had been created haphazardly. They started by asking themselves questions about the team. “Are employees proud to work for Foxclore? What words best describe our culture?” And, ultimately, “Are we OK with that culture, or do we need to work to shift it?” Thus began a two-year journey of assessment, strategy sessions and goal planning. 

I started by conducting interviews with the leadership team, hoping to create a confidential and safe space to share their impressions and concerns and provide feedback about the organizational culture as they perceived it. We then used results from the annual engagement survey to understand employee opinion. 

Three themes emerged: Employees did not trust all of the leadership team, employees did not fully understand Foxclore’s strategy and overall engagement was relatively low.

Defining the Strategy

The business then needed to define a strategy that encompassed an organization’s purpose, core values, vision, priorities, objectives and actions. As much as the leadership team discussed strategic initiatives, there was not a one-page summary of the strategy anywhere in sight. 

We conducted an in-person strategy workshop for the leadership team. Before meeting, the leadership team shared their individual visions and core values, and then I worked with the CEO to align their statements with the corresponding elements in the strategy. A draft strategy was created before the session so the leadership team had something to react to. On the first day of the in-person workshop, we devoted eight hours to refining and finalizing the strategy.

As a group, each of the strategy’s six components were debated until there was one, united strategy for the organization. We then created a detailed communication plan that incorporated numerous mediums, repetitions of the messaging and conversations to discuss internally. The communication plan included a series of staff meetings, emails and visual aids to ensure all employees were aware of the strategy. 

Engaging the Team

Once the strategy was established, it was important for employees to understand how they personally connected to it. By involving employees and obtaining their buy-in, we hoped to address the low engagement in the survey results. The leadership team met to determine their goals for the following fiscal year and decided on the key metrics that would measure success. These goals were then rolled out to employees through a series of staff meetings and emails. The expectation was for the goals to cascade down through the organization and become more granular as that happened.

To ensure continued success, the leadership team set quarterly metrics and reported on them. This ensures everyone knows how much progress is being made, and it also allows the business to shift if necessary and alert the organization of that shift. Employees would understand where they fit in and what their roles are so they could feel directly responsible for the team’s success.

Leadership Blind Spots

With the foundational aspects defined and communicated, the group tackled the lack of trust in leadership. Through a series of focus groups and internal conversations, we identified a blind spot: All the senior leadership came to the company from one acquisition in 2014. Employees who came aboard from other acquisitions felt their contributions were not as valued and that employees from the 2014 acquisition received preferential treatment.

Recognizing that dynamic allowed leadership to have some difficult, but necessary, conversations. Over the next year, changes were made at the top to diversify the leadership. Leaders spent more time with employees from different acquisitions so that they could get to know the wealth of talent they previously were not as familiar with.


The company’s annual engagement survey scores have increased every year since the culture transformation began. There is more work to be done, but the leaders discovered there were dynamics in place that could not be addressed with team building. Culture change always starts at the top and is not something that can be trained into employees. There are a series of levers that leaders can pull in order to make culture change happen, including incentive structures, transparency commitments, physical workplace changes, technological implementations, and, yes, even time spent at happy hours.

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