Stefanie Brandt-Tallqvist // November 27 2019

10 lessons of Culture Transformation

Building, driving and transforming company culture takes a long time and requires constant attention. I have worked with start-ups, mid-size companies and large publicly listed companies evaluating, sparring, improving and redesigning values and culture and I recently pulled these together into a list of 10 lessons I have learned that I shared at our recent Women In Tech breakfast. Here are my 10 lessons.

1. Buy a slow coffee machine

It is crucial for culture that people willingly and unwillingly bump into eachother. By creating these spaces for this people will naturally meet and start talking. Naturally, queuing up for a good cup of coffee is a great way to do this. In large organizations it can be beneficial to centralize “town squares” with food and drinks so people naturally meet and get the office vibe and energy created through these spaces.

Organizing small events on different themes, clubs and small coffee break activities naturally bring people with similar off-work interests together. For instance, wine tastings, table top game nights, doing crafts, cooking together, coffee break talks on subject interesting to you that you wish to share and so on. Family days are also a good way as it brings people with similar life situations together.

2. Going fast and slow, big and small

Culture transformation is like any other transformation. You need to have a vision of where to go, meaning your culture has to be aligned with strategy and the overall vision of the company. A strategy driven culture that is adaptable to change. In other words, that is the slow part I’m referring to. The strategically aligned processes usually requires bigger decisions and more planning. At the same time you want to make visible changes, even though smaller, they can have a great impact.

“Low hanging fruits” are usually easy to identify by just talking to people. Through the conversations you are also able to identify the pain points and biggest gaps from where we are today to where we want to go. By fixing the small and fast things while planning the bigger areas of transformation is the easiest way to get going and get traction.

3. Passive aggressive behavior

Ever seen an office full of angry notes? Amazing things happen when you trust your people to behave as they would at home.  You do get much further with honest feedback and humor than passive aggressive behavior. For example, you don’t put up angry notes in you own house for yourself do you? Passive aggressive behavior usually stems from insecurity or the feeling of not having power of your own work or work environment. Subsequently, this behavior can be detrimental to the culture in the long run and thus affect the overall company performance. To sum up, passive aggressive behavior needs to be addressed directly and firmly and get to the bottom of why this kind of behavior exists.

4. Not my circus, not my monkeys

A Polish proverb, one of my favorites. But remove the “not” and you get what culture is: My circus, my monkeys. That is to say, a company is like a circus. Every one has a specific role in the delivery of an amazing experience for the customer. They all take care of their own role but also make sure everyone else is in their right position once it’s showtime. We are all responsible for our own company culture and how we are perceived from an outsiders perspective. First and foremost, a company is made of people, and it is what you decide to bring to work that determines your part in creating culture.

It is not just the role of the leaders in the company, or the role of HR to upkeep the values and culture of the company. It’s everyones business. If you see diminishing behavior, point it out. If someone isn’t acting according to the values in the company, point it out. On the other hand give positive feedback to those who are value champions and celebrate actively achievements in your company.

5. Middle management holds the key

In larger organizations middle management holds the key to culture transformation. The top management is often too distant from the organization, while middle managers are the ones running the operations in their teams and units on a daily basis. The middle management that has their ear on the ground, sees and feels what their teams are feeling. They are the ones that need to lead by example on a daily basis. Organizations don’t change, people do, and if middle management start changing the way they work and act, that will the open the door for others to make the transition as well.

6. It takes time

Culture transformation is extremely excruciatingly slow work. There are no shortcuts if you want to build something that lasts. It takes much more time than you could ever expect, because you are changing the collective beliefs, routines, way of working and prejudices for a large group of people. Not all people are on the same “starting point”, some adapt faster than others, almost like the Rogers Bell Curve which means you will need to work simultaneously on several tracks, also knowing that everyone might not be willing to jump on the journey towards a new or improved culture. Further more it also requires change management and project management skills to make the transformation as smooth and fast as it can be.

7. Culture is what you tolerate

Sam Glazer talk about the fact that culture is what you tolerate in his blog. If the culture is tolerant of certain behavior it is extremely hard to change or demand changes in behavior of others.  For example, if you tolerate “jerks” at work you have a jerk tolerant culture. Even worse, if these jerks are constantly rewarded and promoted you have a jerk first culture. At the same time tolerating low performance or not rewarding high performance will also impact culture. Culture is ultimately how you hire, fire and promote. So think very carefully because that sets the stage for everyone else.

“Your company values are ultimately defined by your tolerance of performance and behavior.” -Sam Glazer

8. Board ownership

Culture and the values of the company has to be owned by the board. The facilitation can happen through the HR functions and internal communications but ownership has to be the board. The reason for this is that the board decides on what the top managers are rewarded for. Therefore, if culture and engagement is non-existant in the reward system and it’s profit only, that is what you will get. The same goes with areas like sustainability and inclusivity. Values and culture is what you value in others in the organization.

9. Customer centric values

What does the customer see when they look at you from the outside? What do they value? What is it that makes you different to your competitors in their eyes? How does you customers describe your people and the way you work?

Make sure your values are customer centric and understandable by the customer. The best way to create company values is to co-create them, not only with all layers of your staff but also with all layers of customers, existing, latent and future customers. Because, what good are the values if the customers can’t see or feel them or benefit from them?

10. Measure

You get what you measure. Culture seems like fluff and rainbows, but you can’t lead culture on a gut feeling. Often times the loudest people are not speaking for the entire staff, which is why you need to get an objective, data based view on engagement and culture. There are several metrics you can use, but choose one that can correlate easily to a customer metric, such as NPS or a happiness metric.

You need to measure for several reasons. One is you need to have proof for the skeptics that hasn’t gotten a buy in for the change. Secondly if you want to tie compensation to engagement and culture you need numbers on which you can calculate and you need to be able to show progress to staff.


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