Culture Change Is leader-led: 3 keys To Successful Transformation 0

Change is necessary. It is inevitable. And leaders need to embrace a new way of thinking and match words and action with authenticity. Then and only then they can lead change and transform a culture.

Some years ago I was appointed as a change advisor at a nationwide supermarket chain, let’s call it “SuprValu”. The CEO of the company, “Mike Brown” called me into his office shortly after my arrival to discuss his concerns about the progress of an IT system implementation that was failing to deliver the expected change in his business.

“I’ve already poured tens of millions of dollars into this IT project Siobhan and I’m yet to see the promise of a more customer-driven company” Mike fumed. As we chatted over coffee on the sun-drenched afternoon, small beads of sweat began to form on Mike’s temples. The CEO was feeling the heat, not just from a sweltering summer, but from shareholders who were fast running out of patience for better returns on their investment in SuprValu.

What the Consultants Promised

A bead of sweat on Mike’s brow began to trickle down the side of his face in the soaring, near-record summer temperatures as I began to explore with the CEO what was happening at SuprValu. Employees seemed to be drowning in data but the company was still not anticipating and meeting shoppers’ needs fast enough. Mike told me “Customers expect more than convenience. They are looking for products that match their lifestyle choices, an improved shopping experience and the type of local, seasonal products they are buying in rival stores. We are reactive, sluggish and we’re being left behind!”

The CEO’s recent tour of the stores revealed that new market entrants were also developing online ordering and delivery solutions that SuprValu was struggling to match. The latest sales figures confirmed that competitors were gaining market share and that revenues were plummeting.

Where are the benefits that the consultants promised me when they pitched for the work to implement the new IT system?” Mike ex-claimed.

Delegating the Change To the Consultants

Mike took another sip of coffee and mopped his forehead as the air conditioner chugged to cope with the sweltering heat. I wondered how the CEO was seeing his part in the transformation of SuprValu to a more customer-centric company.

“Mike how would you describe your role?” I asked. The CEO was quick to respond with this list of his five key priorities:

Number 1: Deliver decent returns to shareholders
Number 2: Meet shoppers’ demands
Number 3: Grow revenues and expand the store network
Number 4: Manage costs and drive efficiencies
Number 5: Provide opportunities for employees to develop and grow

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This list of priorities was revealing. Despite the fact that Mike was in the middle of a major transformation to a more customer-focused organisation, he did not describe his role to change the company. The CEO’s mental map of his responsibilities did not include his change leadership role. If he did not see this role, then it was highly unlikely that he was taking up this role.

Mike went on “I usually end up postponing or cutting short my weekly meeting to review the progress of the change agenda with my team. I leave that to the consultants to run”. Mike’s jaw suddenly dropped as he realized that he had outsourced his change role to external consultants. The CEO had relegated his change responsibilities to the bottom of his list of priorities and consistently allowed the urgent business demands to take the highest priority in his day.

“Successful bosses step into their role to transition the organisation from the current to the desired state. Effective change leaders typically dedicate at least 20% of their time to their change role, espe- cially in the early days of the culture journey.”

He was not working with his leaders to figure out a way to outsmart the competition and it began to dawn on him that the key reason for the painfully slow progress of the change was that he had failed to step into his change leadership role.

Three keys to Successful Transformation

There are three key lessons to be learned about culture change from Mike’s story:

Culture change is leader-led

If the leaders don’t take up their role to change the company then the transformation efforts will fail. Line managers at all levels in the organisation play a role in shifting the culture in their part of the business. Mike had outsourced the change to a group of external consultants and was failing to get traction on the move to a more customer-centric company. He was now feeling the heat from his shareholders about the glacial pace of change at SuprValu.

Culture change is leader-led. If the leaders don’t take up their role to change the company then the transformation efforts will fail. Line managers at all levels in the organisation play a role in shifting the culture in their part of the business.”

Leaders must step into their change role

Leaders must learn to run the business and change the business in times of volatility and disruption. Mike was focusing on running the store operations and his ‘business as usual’ activities. This was an area he felt comfortable in and he knew how to manage. He was neglecting his role to lead the transition from the old ways to the desired future at SuprValu. “I’ve been consumed by firefighting and I’ve allowed the pressing business demands to take up most of my time and attention” the CEO admitted.

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Successful bosses step into their role to transition the organisation from the current to the desired state. Effective change leaders typically dedicate at least 20% of their time to their change role, especially in the early days of the culture journey.

Break the Pattern

Transforming workplace culture is a challenge that requires leaders to break out of the old ways of doing things and shift the (often) deeply embedded patterns in the culture. Mike was aware of the “siloed” pattern of operating at SuprValu but was not pulling his leadership team together to work on the supply chain issues that were preventing the company from meeting shoppers’ demands for a different experience. His leaders were tackling the issues in their siloes and the fractured culture was preventing the supermarket chain from leap- frogging the competition. Breaking these embedded ways needed to begin with a change in the behavior of the leaders.

So what happened next at SuprValu?

Mike realized that a new IT system would not bring about the change he was seeking unless it was accompanied by a shift in the deeply embedded “siloed’ behavior at SuprValu. The CEO stepped into his change role and repositioned the ‘IT project’ to an adaptive shift that would be led collectively by the leadership team at SuprValu. Mike put the onus on his team to work together with him to successfully deliver a more complex product range to shoppers, both in-store and online. Six months later Mike was seeing the early signs of progress. He had begun to break the ‘siloed’ pattern of operating in his team and this had a ripple effect across the whole organisation. Employees across SuprValu were working together to improve the shopping experience, shoppers were returning to the stores and revenue was trending upwards.

A Reminder as you Reflect on your Change Agenda

What are the deeply embedded patterns you need to shift in your workplace? How are your leaders taking up their change role across the business? The key point to remember is that leaders have enormous power to transform the culture simply by taking up their change role and shifting their behavior.



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Executive General Manager of Human Resources at Dulux Group, Australia

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