A bold vision to truly evolve your culture


CEO’s continue to publicly proclaim their efforts to manage significant and meaningful culture change. Some miss the mark and show their lack of understanding this critical topic. Others, like Satya Nadella of Microsoft, share a much clearer vision and appear like they truly “get it.”  What separates the visionary and capable culture champions from the vast majority of leaders that don’t understand the culture fundamentals?

Evolve the culture at your own peril
It can be a bold move to tackle the challenge of evolving your culture.  Some iconic leaders like Steve Jobs and Howard Schultz focused on leveraging many aspects of the core of their culture they helped create as part of a new strategy when they returned to the top job. Others like Mary Barra of General Motors and Satya Nadella of Microsoft made it clear that change was needed and crafted a new vision.

There have been some visible failures to drive change, like J.C. Penney and Siemens, where a lack of understanding the culture was highlighted as a major factor. Many acquisitions fail to deliver their intended results and culture clash is often identified as a problem.

Crafting an initial vision
John Kotter said that most leaders under-communicate the change vision by a factor of 10X (or even 100 or 100X). A leader’s vision will give insight into how much they understand the subject of culture and this understanding is critical to their success.

Mary Barra highlighted in her most recent testimony on the GM ignition switch crisis that “the way that you change culture is demonstrating the behavior, making sure people understand what is expected and calling them out when they don’t.” This dramatically over-simplified and inaccurate summary of what it truly takes to evolve a culture is unfortunately too common. She is obviously doing far more to change the GM culture but her journey is more difficult that it needs to be due to her lack of understanding culture and how it specifically evolves.

Satya Nadella clearly has a much deeper understanding of culture and has crafted a much greater vision for how culture specifically fits in his overall vision. He shared his vision in a letter to all employees that included many important points related to culture that are important for any vision for change:

  • Re-discovering our unique core: “At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.” He went on to clarify the “rich heritage and unique capability” of Microsoft.    A leader’s vision should show some respect for history and clarify the strengths that will be further leveraged as part of his vision. This vision should include a clear purpose for “why” the organization exists and what value it provides. The vision can’t be too far of a departure from the current culture unless it zeroes in on a specific initial phase or area of improvement.
  • A central theme or insight: “Productive people and organizations are the primary drivers of individual fulfilment and economic growth and we need to do everything to make the experiences and platforms that enable this ubiquitous. We will think of every user as a potential ‘dual user’ – people who will use technology for their work or school and also deeply use it in their personal digital life.”  “Microsoft will push into all corners of the globe to empower every individual as a dual user.”  Leaders often under-estimate the importance of clarity.  The vision will guide behavior and a central theme or common sense insight will often bring clarity to how the purpose, that unique “why,” will be supported
  • The product or service focus: The letter outlined three major areas of focus – digital work and life experiences, cloud OS, and device OS and hardware. He outlined some of the critical products and services in each category along with some of the future plans.  The clarity drumbeat must continue when it comes to the products and services you provide. Don’t assume everyone truly understands your organization and what you provide. I also found it interesting that he limited their extremely diverse offerings to three categories.  There is an interesting “power of three” aspect of communication.  You’ll have a much better chance of building clarity if you limit the definition of major strategies, priorities, products, or services to three.
  • The espoused culture:Our ambitions are bold and so must be our desire to change and evolve our culture. I truly believe that we spend far too much time at work for it not to drive personal meaning and satisfaction. Together we have the opportunity to create technology that impacts the planet. Nothing is off the table in how we think about shifting our culture to deliver on this core strategy.” He went on to explain three areas (remember the “power of three”) of expected behaviors: 1) obsessing over our customers is everybody’s job; 2) new training, learning, and experimentation; 3) find ways to simplify and move faster.  He emphasized the importance of “courage in the face of opportunity” and the importance of transforming as individuals and highlighted a series of questions each employee should “ask ourselves.”  He did an outstanding job covering important culture-related fundamentals: emphasizing individual behavior change, clarifying expected behaviors, focusing on individual “impact” and the connection to organizational impact, highlighting learning that will be required, improving how work is done, and seizing the “opportunity.”

One Critical Insight
New cultural attributes will only evolve and be sustained through results. A grand vision is dangerous if there isn’t an initial area of focus or some other first phase of improvement from a performance AND behavior standpoint. Progress is critical in order to build momentum. The “culture link” of a specific performance priority and an expected behavior that needs to be further reinforced or more consistently exhibited would dramatically increase the chance of building some initial momentum. The entire organization learns from an initial area of focus and is then prepared to leverage new behaviors across other priorities and the overall organization. Satya Nadella’s vision was outstanding but lacked clarifying this initial area of performance focus and he identified many areas of behavior change without clarifying an initial focus.

Mary Barra has been forced to focus on a specific performance area, safety, and even the specific expected behavior of “speaking up” but she lacked the broader vision and understanding about all the areas that need to be addressed for her initial focus to result in meaningful culture change.

Dealing with Adversity
I don’t know if Satya Nadella will be successful.  He recently communicated their intention to reduce 13,000 positions as part of a note to all employees titled “Starting to Evolve our Organization and Culture.” He appears to possess a caring and transparent leadership style that will serve him well with this transformation and unite their team to overcome many obstacles.

The GM culture crisis has been a great live culture case study but I believe we’ll learn more about effective change from the Microsoft journey.  Satya Nadella recently spoke at their Worldwide Developer Conference and ended his talk with the subject of culture. If I was an employee at Microsoft it would be hard to disagree with his passion to “enable the employees at Microsoft to be able to bring their A game, do their best work, and find deeper meaning in what they do. And that’s the journey ahead of us. And it’s a continual journey.”  It sounds like the type of attitude any leader needs to take with his culture journey.

 Additional Author Note – I finalized this post and then one of Satya Nadella’s top leaders sent a note to employees explaining the major employee reductions.  It was criticized for a lack of sensitivity. It’s a good reminder that a leader must show they are competent AND they care for the vision to have any chance of being translated to meaningful change. It amazes me how some top leaders can shoot themselves in the foot after building some excellent momentum. It will be interesting to see if he responds and re-groups due to the widespread criticism about the communication.

What factors do you think are important aspects of a vision for the future, especially when there is a need to evolve the culture? What do you think about Satya Nadella’s vision?

Editor’s Note: read Tim’s most popular CultureU post: 8 Culture Change Secrets Most Leaders Don’t Understand

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Tim Kuppler is the founder of CultureUniversity.com and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®. He leads collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society.

Human Synergistics is home of the Organizational Culture Inventory, the most widely used and thoroughly researched culture assessment in the world, the 90 Day Ultimate Culture and Performance Quick Start Program, and the Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, the premier organizational culture event.

He authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm. He is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Inc.com.

His 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts. Email him to learn more about options to help you understand and evolve your culture with a direct and sustainable impact on performance.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • http://www.wiefling.com Kimberly Wiefling

    I’m delighted that you called out the “espoused culture”, as the ACTUAL culture of an organization cannot be declared into existence – even by the CEO. I strongly believe that the authentic organizational culture can best be discovered through the stories that people tell about their organizations – both the good and the bad. Creating an authentic cultural change must include a commitment to creating new stories that align with the new desired culture. Leaders must act in alignment with the new stories they want to have told in the future. Informing people about the elimination of 13,000 people in a memo is NOT the kind of story any CEO intent on positive organizational cultural transformation wants people telling.

    • Tim Kuppler

      Thank you Kimberly. I agree that stories people tell about their organization is one of the best ways to understand the culture. It’s a good point about those “new” stories. It’s ideal if they clearly support the purpose and show some nearly indisputable results.

  • Norman Jentner

    Whew! TIm! Many excellent points centered around the importance of “know what you are doing!”

    However, my good friend, you come across to me — based simply upon the information you presented — as potentially too harsh in some assertions concerning some corporate leaders.

    For example, Mary Barra’s “highlight” that “the way that you change culture is demonstrating the behavior, making sure people understand what is expected and calling them out when they don’t” strikes me as a darn good HIGHLIGHT — not a “dramatically over-simplified and inaccurate summary of what it truly takes to evolve a culture.”

    Perhaps this idea, alone, is unfortunately too common.

    And, yes, you do assert that “she is obviously doing far more to change the GM culture,” but then you assert that “her journey is more difficult than it needs to be due to her lack of understanding culture and how it specifically evolves.”

    Without more relevant facts, including results, I do not understand how you can jump to this conclusion.

    You then state that, “Satya Nadella clearly has a much deeper understanding of culture.” Apparently your “data” is his recent communication to employees (a different setting than a government hearing) in which he crafted “a much greater vision for how culture specifically fits in his overall vision.” You go on to describe his more detailed sharing of his vision, requiring much more than a one sentence highlight to do this.

    This is all fine, yet I fail to understand the source of some of your conclusions.

    My very best to you, Tim.

    • Tim Kuppler

      Hi Norman, I appreciate your perspective and rest assured I reviewed every minute of Mary Barra’s four appearances before Congress, the entire Volukas report and numerous interviews and articles about Mary Barra before making the short comments in this post. I also worked closely with GM for over a decade. I think she’ll make some great progress but outlined the issues related to the approach in another detailed CultureU post: http://www.cultureuniversity.com/gm-culture-crisis-case-study-a-tragedy-missed-opportunity/ She may make the connection to the broader culture of GM and how this work in the area of safety is an initial area of focus that the entire organization will learn from and apply to other areas but that hasn’t been widely communicated so far. Most of the work appears to be primarily top down and that could undermine the scope and impact of change.

      I also reviewed numerous interviews, articles and speeches by Satya Nadella. He is clarifying the broader vision and impact of individuals and teams. He’s been clearer about expected behaviors, the priorities moving forward and what the “new” Microsoft will need to look like.

      I think it’s interesting that GM was nearly forced to focus tremendous energy in one specific area (safety) which presents a great opportunity to focus, see results, learn and spread improvements to other areas. An approach many advocate.

      Microsoft has the clearer vision that covers behaviors and priorities but is not clear about an initial urgent area of focus where there will be the initial results and learning to build momentum.

      They may both succeed or they may both fail but they both appear to be overlooking a few things that could dramatically improve their chance of success.

      Thanks again for the comments. Tim

      • Norman Jentner

        Thank you, Tim. Very helpful. Well done. My best.