It’s Not HR’s Job To Fix The Culture

It’s Not HR’s Job To Fix The Culture

This article is a part of the All Things Talent Magazine (July 2018 Edition) – An Initiative By |

Culture change is more likely to succeed when line managers and HR are both taking up the appropriate roles during the transformation process.

Earlier in my career as a management consultant, I was working in the HR team of a global building company, let’s call it ConstructCo. While the firm had enjoyed a period of rapid growth it had found itself in serious financial trouble and now languished in a slump that threatened its very existence. The leadership team desperately needed to turn around ConstructCo’s fortunes and I had been recruited as a culture advisor to help stem the tide of company losses and the steep decline in share prices.

Good luck with the culture change

I was meeting with members of ConstructCo’s executive team as part of my induction to the firm and had just spent an hour with Rob, the company’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) who had described the company’s history and the ongoing issues with performance. Construction managers had let standards slip and were not managing their budgets, which was contributing to the company’s losses. It was clear to Rob that the organization needed to create a higher performing and more commercial culture if it was going to survive in a more competitive and lower margin world. In the CFO’s mind, the case for culture change was clear and compelling.

“Line managers must step into their change role to lead the culture shifts in their areas of the business.”

As we shook hands at the end of the meeting Rob’s parting words to me were ‘good luck with the culture change’. At that moment I realized that the CFO believed it was my role (alone) to deal with the cultural issues and bring about the company’s transformation. I sat back down with Rob to explore this assumption and how he saw the role of HR in the change agenda at ConstructCo.

HR has been seen as ‘owners’ of the culture

In my conversation with Rob I discovered that, in the past, HR had been seen as the ‘owners’ of the culture within ConstructCo. When the firm’s share price started to slide, the HR department had been called in and given the task of creating a more performance-focused company. The team stepped into this role with enthusiasm and designed a series of interventions aimed at creating the desired culture shift. Despite their efforts, a change was happening at a glacial pace.

The CEO shut down the culture change ‘project’

Rob described what had happened at ConstructCo and that the more HR stepped into the change leadership roles, the more the line managers seemed to disengage. The HR team reacted by ramping up its change efforts with more workshops, more events and more communications.

Line managers began to feel like the change was disconnected from the business imperatives and being ‘done to’ them, so they took a further step back. The CEO heard the noise about the change being ‘removed from the business realities’. He saw employees attending workshops but very little real shifts across the organization and made the decision to shut down the change ‘project’.

Rob described how the HR team was left with a dent in its credibility having ultimately failed to deliver on its promise to create a shift to a higher performing culture. There were 3 key lessons that would be important to consider in any future change efforts at the company that can apply to any culture change endeavour:

1. Culture change must always be line-led

Culture change must always be line-led. Quite simply, if the leaders don’t take up their change role then the transformation efforts will fail. The first step we took at ConstructCo was to explore with the executive team how they saw their role (and that of HR) in relation to the cultural transformation. The leaders agreed that they needed to step into their change leadership role in order to transform the firm and realized the assumption that HR ‘owned’ the culture transformation process, had prevented them from making a shift to a more performance-focused company in the past.

2. Culture change cannot be ‘done to’ line managers

Change that is ‘done to’ people will not work. The learning was that any future change would need to be owned by the line managers in order to be successful.

3. HR must step into its advisory role during culture change

The simple fact is that HR cannot lead culture change from its role in the organization. The role of HR during culture change is to provide expert advice, training and supporting tools to enable line managers to lead and manage the transformation.

“By working together line managers and HR can accelerate culture change.”

Three questions to explore in relation to your change agenda

Here are 3 key considerations to help you to accelerate your culture change efforts:

1. Examine how your leaders are taking up their role.

Are line managers across your organization taking up their change leadership role? How can you put the onus on line managers to bring about the change you are seeking? Remember that culture change must invariably be leader-led.

2. Examine what role your HR team is taking up in relation to the change.

Are your HR team members taking up their advisory role or stepping into an inappropriate change leadership role? Remember that change that is done to line managers will not succeed.

3. Determine what skills your HR team members need.

How equipped are your HR team members to take up their change advisory role? What skills do they need to develop in order to support line managers in leading and managing this complex, adaptive change? Culture change is more likely to succeed when line managers and HR are both taking up the appropriate roles during the transformation process. By working together, like in the Con – structCo example, the change benefits can be delivered faster and with less noise across the organization.


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