How Leaders Can Build a Change-Friendly Culture

Guest post by Lisa Jackson and Gerry Schmidt:

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.
 – Charles Darwin

Organizations today are caught in a leadership perfect storm. The forces of internet transparency, rapid technology and young generations demanding empowerment are challenging organizations of all sizes across every industry to sail differently. Yes change is a constant … but it has bigger waves and smaller waves. Currently, we are about 25 years into a 50-year cycle of massive transformation. At the end of this cycle, every part of our society will be unrecognizable. *History tells us this is the 8th mass transformational era since the dawn of writing. This particular stage is unprecedented in its global scale and speed. No industry or economic power is immune.

In such an era, existing power structures crumble like the levees in New Orleans. What flows forth are new, transparent, and ways of thinking and leading in a global society. Leaders who can harness people together in shared power, collaboration, and transparency will help their organizations avoid extinction.

What is required of leaders to make this transition?

Think Sherpa. Leaders today need to focus less on traditional methods of strategy and more on preparing people for a very different kind of technical climb: Achieving and sustaining competitive advantage amidst short life cycles. The climb requires more than good equipment. It’s mental as much as physical. A storm or unpredictable conditions can strike at any moment. Leaders must exhibit fearlessness to show people how to expect, notice and respond to anything.

There are 5 characteristics leaders must strengthen to build a culture that embraces change:

1) Clarity. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a clear, visible goal. Such clarity is typically absent for people, and yet is the single most important criteria for building a change-friendly culture. When every person in the company can recite “What is our goal?” (an inspiring version of “How we define success”) it creates unity and alignment. Defining success in financial terms doesn’t inspire anyone beyond the top few people in the company. Use language like “Be the best _______________.” Clarity stops the feeding frenzy on change programs. It provides clear guidance to start saying “no” to most initiatives and “Yes” to what will create competitive advantage and move you towards the vision.

[Our success] comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much – Steve Jobs

2) Role Models. “Be the change you want to see.” Nelson Mandela’s wisdom is essential in a change-friendly culture. There’s no substitute for being a role model for what you are asking people to do, because people believe what you do more than what you say. Leaders who tout values of “empowerment” or “collaboration” and default to barking orders in high-stress situations undermine people’s desire to change. People don’t resist change – they resist being changed. In a change-friendly culture, leaders demonstrate how programs and initiatives are part of the same path to the vision. As well, they initiate “inviting conversations” about change versus a feeling of “mandatory draft.” Asking good questions and providing outlets to discuss change are important tools in this era of leadership.

3) Right-Sizing Empowerment. Workplace engagement is the heartbeat of your business. But true engagement is not a program … it’s simply what human beings DO. You can’t get it by copying infamous Gen Y party tricks and concierge benefits. Think about this for a moment: What engages you fully? When you become lost in what you’re doing, passionate about it, in the “flow” – what’s true? If you’re like most of us, you chose it, you see an opportunity to learn or grow, it connects you to something bigger and more meaningful, you have some autonomy. Are those qualities mirrored in how teams are set up and decisions are made in your company? These are the basic conditions for engagement. Anything else is window dressing.

4) Bias to Act for the Customer. There is a lot of rhetoric on innovation and its companion, risk-taking. The type of risk that works in a change-friendly culture is “decisive experimentation.” Stop talking and start learning by taking small steps toward the right things (see #1). Change-friendly cultures have socialized ways of working that encourage and reward smart experimentation that is tethered directly to their customer (internal or external). Try it … course-correct … adjust … expand. In a change-friendly culture every part of the company is in this cycle (Accounting, HR, Customer Support, Product Development). Every team knows who it serves and has a bias to act on the customer’s behalf.

5) Procreate DNA. Your company culture – grounded in clear values – is a stabilizing force during change, like climbing ropes. What can people hold onto and count on, that never changes and keeps them anchored to the familiar and comforting? A crucial factor in helping people embrace change is knowing what is stable. Cultures that are change-friendly are systematic in passing on the DNA of their culture. “Know thyself” and talk about it. To build a positive workplace culture, you must name it, celebrate it, and pass it onto new generations through leaders.

Lisa Jackson and Gerry Schmidt are corporate culture experts and authors of the book “Transforming Corporate Culture: 9 Natural Truths for Being Fit to Compete.” They offer a proven method to teach leaders how to evolve their corporate cultures to perform better, innovate faster, and show they truly care about people in an unprecedented era of rapid change and transformation.
Visit them on the web at or follow them on Twitter at

*Navigating the Badlands: Thriving in a Decade of Radical Transformation, Mary O’Hara Deveraux, © 2004.