• David S Cohen

The Confusion I’m Feelin: Culture Versus Strategy


I'm weary as Hell The confusion I'm feelin'

Ain't no tongue can tell.

Bob Dylan “With God on Our Side” (1963)

I often hear corporate leaders say: “We need to change our culture.”

They go on to complain that the “old way of doing things is not getting us anywhere.”

So, they invest in the development and roll-out of a new culture.

Is that what they want or need to do?

Let’s take two banks as examples. We will call them Bank A and Bank B.

Bank A:

Bank A is over a century old and well-established in North America, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Historically the bank’s leaders always sidestepped precisely defining the value set. While they would not formally articulate the values, they argued, the values were apparent to all by the way we act and how we make business decisions. Historically the values focus on loyalty, accuracy (auditing), doing right by their customers and a commitment to our employees.

Over the past few years, the concept of culture evolved as the new hot-button topic in the Employee Experience. Bank A appoints a new CHRO. Soon set of four new values appear. Did they take hold? Do employees know what the new values do for the bank in general, or them as employees? Now Bank A has as its aspirational values: aspirational values of integrity, respect, passion and accountability

Last term I gave my graduate students an assignment: Go to different branches and ask the frontline staff (The CSRs) to name the new values, describe the behaviours associated with each value and how the values of the bank impacted the way they work with one another and customers.

While there were some employees, of the other banks, that did correctly answer the questions, not one student met a customer service representative from Bank A who was familiar with the new set of values; let alone understood the new values. Instead, these customer-facing employees answered: “What new values?”

During a conversation with an employee working in the president’s office of Bank A, I asked him the same question about the values. The response: “What new values?”

Bank B

Bank B is in Australia. Bank B hired a new CHRO who declared the company needed to be more strategic to meet the needs of customers who are younger and more mobile.

On a video, to employees, the CHRO laid out her plan. She stated, bluntly, the bank had to change the culture. The employees needed to become a culture represented by agility, become comfortable using new mobile apps/technology to connect with customers on the customer’s terms.

She repeatedly interjected the need for a culture change that focused on embracing technology. Employees who listened were confused. The foundation of the bank’s culture, as long as anyone could remember, are the values of:

• Integrity • Collaboration • Accountability • Respect • Excellence

Were they suddenly supposed to treat customers with less integrity, respect, collaboration or accountability and excellence?

No. None of those things would change. In fact, the only thing changing was a market strategy and the tools to make the plan a reality. The confusion the employees were feeling was because she called it a “culture change”, but the employees knew they were not shifting the culture (the values) only the means of business execution.

To my mind, her best approach would have been, to begin with, and emphasise that the values are not changing at all – they are staying the same, celebrating them through stories or what I refer to as ‘corporate legends’! In the new and old world, they treat each other and customers the same as they always have treated them. What is changing is the tools, the marketing, and the behaviours needed to reach those customers.

Employees who feel lost during a significant organisational change disengage when leaders confuse strategy with culture. Consider the feelings of the employees when they have always perceived themselves as engaged, productive and flourishing in the long-standing culture. What is the impact on the employee when leadership introduces new aspirational values?

Avoiding Resistance to Change

To keep employees highly engaged during a strategy change:

  1. Define with clarity the values of the organisation and provide meaningful behavioural explanations for each one

  2. Hire new employees, at all levels and roles, to fit the values. Lack of fit equals a no-hire decision

  3. Help employees understand and adopt the behaviours that authentically define the values from day one

  4. Provide feedback on living (or not living) the values on an ongoing basis; don’t wait for a formal year-end review

  5. Identify your high potential employees as those people who live your values and have the aspiration and capabilities for more significant responsibilities

  6. When you promote someone, especially to a senior role, only do so if they act according to living the behaviours that define the values

  7. Identify your corporate legends (stories) that exemplify living the values in especially arduous circumstances and use them to build a shared understanding of the employee experience

  8. Ensure your company’s actions, ceremonies, rituals, etc. reinforce your values

  9. It is critical to ensure the values are reflected in all business decisions

Finally, remember this, even in the midst of change, people always return to what makes them unique and special. What makes them feel they are doing the right things and not just doing things right. The anchor for feeling good is living one’s values.

“Get back to where you once belonged!”

The Beatles (Songwriters: John Lennon / Paul Mccartney 1969)


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