Leader as change agent who brings about cultural shifts


To drive change, a leader must make her vision accessible to people in simple terms. She must outline the broad areas of business impact. Next, she must flow the vision to the top 2-3 goals that the organization must deliver.

And that’s just the beginning.

The change initiative is likely to fall flat unless the leader asks herself whether the organization’s “as-is” culture is what’s needed to deliver on the mission. The “as is” culture is probably what got the organization to where it is now. Chances are that the leader’s brand new vision requires a corresponding shift to a “to be” culture to get there.

Leaders tend to show a bias to action. We tend to forget that experiences forge beliefs about the culture of an organization. And this culture shapes action. A leader cannot hope to deliver on the new vision unless she first accomplishes a shift in the culture.

Example 1

Tan has set about a new vision for the company’s IT organization. The IT organization is widely perceived as successful and enjoys a good reputation for delivering dependable enterprise IT products. The company has recently made acquisitions of several smaller companies with agile and innovative IT teams. The signs point to the company re-engineering the business model with these acquisitions.

Tan has formed a new vision for the IT organization to keep up with the changing business landscape. He has taken inputs from his direct reports and key customers. He has articulated his vision in three shifts. From enterprise applications to services around enterprise data and analytics. From products based on business as done in North America to solutions engineered for globalization. From exclusiveness to inclusion of the company’s collaborators as partners.

Tan’s  vision has excited customers. It has energized the IT organization. But is the IT organization equipped with the culture to deliver?

The culture of the IT organization conflicts with the very shifts Tan has outlined and inhibits change. People are reluctant to let go of enterprise data. They cite weak governance as a reason not to share data, rather than put good governance in place to enable sharing. The software architects demand review of every data model and technology stack. They cling to the old enterprise architecture models that are too expensive for emerging regional businesses. Important regional business initiatives get derailed by bogeys like budget and opportunities are lost.

Tan needs to pay attention and shape the path to a new culture. In many ways, the “as is” culture is what has produced success to this point. Tan needs to acknowledge that, and stimulate a discussion that asks what the “to be” culture should look like. He needs to provide a safe place in which specific behaviors can be challenged and evaluated without turning into attacks on people. Once it is known what the “to be” culture looks, he needs to gain buy-in and reinforce it at every turn.

Example 2

Dam leads the R&D organization and is Tan’s peer. Like Tan, he too has noted the company’s massive investments in new capabilities lateral to the core business. He too has thought about the incipient shift in the company’s business model and drawn conclusions.

Dam has outlined his vision. He wants durable solutions from R&D that last for 30 years. He wants a focus on execution rigor, that he has spelled out as 90% on-time deliveries of products from programs, projects and processes.  And he wants a higher Net Present Value from the R&D organization’s key platforms.

Dam has recognized the need for a culture shift early on. He acknowledges that the “as is” culture of R&D is what has made it the engine of the company’s growth until now. He knows that the probability of succeeding in a new business environment is very low with this “as is” culture. His first step therefore, upon articulating his vision and gaining buy-in, is to stimulate a discussion on the “to be” culture.

From these discussions, the “to be” culture has emerged as:

  • Imagine Products
  • Dare to Decide
  • Embrace Change
  • Make the Link
  • Break Boundaries
  • Be Transparent

Dam’s work is not done. Perpetuating this culture is likely to require constant vigilance. Leaders must model this conduct. They must reinforce it in their teams. By paying attention to culture, Dam has significantly improved his odds of getting the R&D organization to where he wants it to be.


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