The Culture Change

Steve Shoemake, Vaco’s global technology practice leader and Cincinnati’s Co-Managing Partner, gives his thoughts on what’s necessary for a successful culture transformation within a business.

Katherine is a seasoned veteran of a large company, Fortune 500, with broad experience across multiple departments. She currently hangs her hat every morning on the peg with the title “PMO Director” on it.  She’s competitively compensated, she believes her team loves working for her (they don’t), and last year in her review, her feedback from the Chief Administrative Officer didn’t wow her. Perhaps that stems from the fact that Katherine thinks she could do a better job than her boss, the CAO.  She thinks he’s the worst kind of leader imaginable – the kind that basks in the glory when everything is rosy (“Project Portfolio came in under budget!”) – and points blame when everything is rough (“If our PMO knew anything about Agile, our developers would be four times more productive.  We’ve got to get with the times!”).  Katherine has already let some of her boss’s colleagues – namely the CIO and CFO – subtly know that if a CAO change was ever considered, she’d welcome a chance to take on more responsibility.  Katherine was convinced that her “meh” review stemmed from his incompetence and insecurity…not her performance or personnel development.

Now her company has announced yet another “Culture Change.”

“If I hear the word transformation one more time, I’m going full exorcist on these idiots,” rang the voice in her head.

And with good reason – she had been there for 13 years, grinding her way (oh so slowly) up the corporate ladder, passing floors of talentless colleagues along the way. In that time, her company executives must have joined a book club, passing along the following corporate trends like a flask on a camping trip:

  • Process Re-engineering! We’re going to get serious about quality and 6-sigma!
  • Enterprise Resource Planning! We’re going to replace our antiquated system and completely re-think our business!
  • E-Commerce Revolution! We’re going to re-invent our entire operating model and launch our digital footprint!
  • Agile Transformation! We’re going to become servant-leaders and revolutionize the way projects get delivered!
  • Data Analytics! We’re moving beyond data to focus on information to reform our decision-making!

Sound familiar? This could be any company, and Katherine could be anyone.  Have you ever stopped and pondered a simple question:  Why do so many “Culture Changes” or “Transformations” fall short of delivering on the promise?

I’ve had a front row seat for many transformations. Some were wild failures, some were moderate successes, and some were moderate failures, but close enough that executives could raise their hands and claim success. And yet there were others – those precious few – that were truly successful.  Amazingly successful. When you look at the individual people involved; the leaders, the players, the industries, the business climate, the regulatory climate, the technology – all of it – you can start to see patterns. Let me share my biggest takeaway.

Culture change can fail for dozens of reasons, but true change only occurs if one ingredient is present:

  • Most impacted employees have a higher Emotional Intelligence (EQ) than average.

Time and again, the key to real change, at least that I’ve personally observed, starts with individuals who have (and I’ll use a simple EQ framework…there are several, but I like this one the best) greater:

  • Self-Awareness. They are aware of their own strengths and limitations and tend to be optimistic. Change doesn’t threaten them.
  • Self-Management. They don’t torpedo change or passively sabotage it. They constructively manage conflict and can have productive conversations with colleagues with whom they disagree.
  • Social Awareness. They think of others that are going through the change at least as much as themselves. High degrees of empathy.
  • Social Skills. Having “mastered” the first three, they now have a network internal and, in some cases, external to the company, whom they can positively influence…because they’ve earned their trust.

If your company is going through another corporate culture change or transformation, take an honest assessment of your own, your leaders, and your colleague’s EQ.  What you discover there will be a good indicator of the potential success of your initiative.


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