Culture is Hard Work

Mar 26, 2019 | Culture

“Your culture is your culture. Don’t try to be something you aren’t.”

This was an insight we heard recently while speaking with the CEO of a TSX 60 company who was discussing the challenges of changing the ethos within a large corporation. Changing culture takes a lot of coordination, a lot of work, a lot of finesse, and, frankly, a lot of time.

Before embarking on any cultural change or transition, it’s important to make sure your end state is an evolution of where you are today. We recently heard about another corporate environment that tried to adopt agile methodologies and design thinking in a culture that was extremely hierarchical and process driven. Unsurprisingly, trying to impose startup thinking in an entrenched corporate culture overnight didn’t work. They weren’t being true to their existing culture and were trying to change too much, too fast.

Another well-known example of a difficult culture change is the ‘original unicorn’ ride-hailing app, Uber.

You’ve probably heard how Uber has quickly transitioned from the cool kid of the startup space, to a ‘techbro’ culture, to a toxic, discriminatory workplace. These issues came to a head with the forced resignation of Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick in 2017. But a year later, their new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, was finding himself caught in – and likely perpetuating – the same culture that has plagued Uber. Khosrowshahi had brought in a new advisor to help fix internal issues, but this adviser also ended up the subject of multiple human resources and diversity complaints.

Faced with a culture that wasn’t changing, Khosrowshahi had a choice.

He could either accept Uber’s culture for what it was and continue to weather the storm. Or he could have tried to steer the ship a degree or two in another direction. Unfortunately, months after the original complaint, Khosrowshahi had done nothing to remove his new advisor, or rectify the complaints. And sure enough, turbulence within Uber’s leadership, and across the enterprise, has continued. Senior people continue to leave the company, internal complaints remain the norm, and employees continue to leak bad news stories to the press.

What happened?

Well, according to Khosrowshahi himself, the senior team took on too many external priorities while not spending enough time caring about what was happening inside the company.

Leaders have dozens of competing priorities. But culture always needs a front seat. By making deliberate, strategic choices about where and when to influence, enforce, and reinforce culture, you can steer the ship. Culture is something that can change, but it takes a lot of devotion, deliberate action, and consistency. This means setting aside time to have conversations, lots of them, to help guide people through this transition. It also means being clear about your values, and enforcing them when necessary, as this is what makes culture real, and changes behavior. Part of Uber’s problem? They didn’t fire the new advisor they brought in to fix things. Because that would have taken courage, and the maturity to admit that they had made a mistake – which is never easy.

CEOs are fooling themselves if they don’t think culture should be a standing item on their to-do list. Everyone looks to the CEO for the signals – both overt and implied – that indicate acceptable corporate behaviour. When it comes to culture, leaders have to lead from the front and persevere, understanding that step by step, day by day, the culture will change. If this sounds like a burden, it is. But never forget that your customers and employees are always watching, and it’s on you to live the values for which your organization stands.

By: Jesse Finn



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