Changing Your Corporate Culture — One Meeting at a Time

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It’s not unusual for us to meet leaders who have little patience for the topic of corporate “culture.”  That’s understandable.  Business executives, by and large, are practical people, who like dealing with concrete facts and data that can drive measurable results – today vs. tomorrow.

 “Culture,” on the other hand, is abstract, “fuzzy,” – “tough to get a handle on,” as the expression goes.  And experts will even tell you that changing the culture of your company for the better may take years.

If that’s how the prospect if tackling culture change strikes you, we’d like to offer a different perspective.  It’s one that will allow you to “get a handle on” improving your corporate culture in a very actionable, practical way, little-by-little, every day.

Meetings as “Cultural Microcosms”

It’s a perfectly true statement to say that each of the meetings that take place across your company is a microcosm of your corporate culture.  In this context, we’re very fond of Peter Block’s assertion that “The only culture I have the obligation to change is the culture in the room where I am right now.”  If culture is, as commonly defined, “how we do things around here,” then limiting the scope of the “here” suddenly makes the task much more concrete, focused and doable.

You can set aside, for now, “changing the world,” and just concentrate on changing “how you do things” in a given work session.  The broader implication of this, of course, is that if you do this in enough meetings, you’ll, in fact, begin to change the culture of your entire company, “room” by “room.”

Values and Cultural Norms

The easiest way to do this is to be clear and intentional about the “values” you want to see inform all the meetings and work sessions that take place in your company.  Then, in a very concrete way, be sure you articulate these values at every meeting.

In our consulting work, we do this without fail in every work session or executive offsite we facilitate, and it never fails to improve performance.  We usually call this “setting groundrules.”  But make no mistake, these are “cultural norms” that we are agreeing on to govern behavior during an important group session.

Below are a just a few concrete examples to illustrate what we mean.

Egalitarianism of Ideas

In your company, are people typically heard or ignored based on where they sit on the “corporate ladder?”  Few cultural norms are as stifling to creativity and innovation as this one.  So we gladly borrow Jack Welch’s famous dictum that it’s “the value of the idea, not the status of the contributor” that counts.  And whether an idea comes from the CEO or a first-line manager, we make sure that idea gets a fair hearing. This has nothing to do with just “being nice;” it’s about ensuring idea flow.  It also reflects the fact that folks lower in the organization and closer to a given problem often know more about it than the people who live in the executive suite.

Focus for Productivity

We set several “groundrules” here.  We’ve all experienced, especially in larger meetings, how focus can quickly vanish when side-conversations break out.  Our solution here is the “one meeting rule,” meaning, one meeting in the room at a time.  And we enforce it!

Next is the “work together/breaktogether” groundrule by which we get agreement that breaks in the action will be formal and as a group.

Another “must,” especially in this age of ever-present electronic devices, is the “laptops/phones on ‘off/vibrate’” rule.  You simply can’t have a focused, productive session if people are processing emails or taking calls at will.  You must always allow for emergencies, of course, but emergencies are the exception – not the rule.

 Bias for Action

How many meetings end without a clear, actionable path forward?  To avoid this, we always insist on identifying actionable outcomes, “next steps,” that are tied to defined individuals, “owners,” who commit to execute by clearly-defined “delivery” dates.  So, in effect, every meeting answers this implicit question:  “What will we be doing differently or in addition, as a result of this meeting?”

Candor and Authenticity

These are perhaps the most difficult values to inculcate into your meetings or company culture.  The business environment is, perhaps, one of the most conservative environments you can find yourself in.  Add to that the fact that your livelihood depends upon the sum total of everything you do and say day-to-day in your business life, and you have a situation in which it often takes real courage to speak your mind.  As a leader of a company or of a meeting, though, you can signal that candor and authenticity are not only allowed but encouraged here, and, in doing so, you can make a big difference “in the room where you are right now.”

Our way of doing this never fails to resonate with meeting goers.  First, we simply say, “Have you ever asked yourself why the meeting is never the meeting?”  This initially draws puzzled looks.  Then we remind folks of how common it is for people to talk about critical,  but sometimes difficult, issues offline” during meeting breaks, in the rest room, or driving home after, yet never even raise any of these same issues during the meeting itself.

Immediately, we get knowing looks and smiles acknowledging just how prevalent this “syndrome” is.  To counter it we always propose the following “contract:”  “For the duration of the session all participants have the right to ‘call’ each other for bringing up ideas outside the session that should be surfaced inside.”  Invariably groups are intrigued by this idea and welcome it as a strategy for making sure that not just the “safe” and “easy” issues get addressed.

A Recipe for Healthy Organizational Culture

If you look back at the italicized headers above, we think you’ll agree that they represent a set values that, in aggregate, could be the cornerstone for a very healthy organizational culture:  egalitarianism of ideas, mental focus and productivity, a bias for actionable impact, and the insistence on the importance of addressing tough, critical issues candidly and forthrightly.

Our point here is that you can start small and, ultimately, make these values prevalent throughout your entire company.  In fact, this is precisely what Jack Welsh did so successfully in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s with a process called “Work-Out” at General Electric.  Working to transform GE from a largely top-down, command-and-control culture to “a large company that acts like a small one,” GE staged literally hundreds of meetings of “internal experts,” guided by facilitators like us, who managed “Work-Out” sessions according to the desired new-culture values.  The result was what Fortune Magazine called “the most successful corporate transformation in American business history.”

So feel free to adopt some of our suggestions yourself and identify others that may be even better suited to your company and the change you’re trying to bring about.  Sooner than you think you may find you’ve been successful in changing “the way we do things around here” for the benefit of your entire business and everybody in it!