By Tim Hayes [

Over the course of nearly 20 years in corporate and government communications, and 10 years as an independent consultant, I’ve been in the room many times when the Big Idea gets hatched.

“We need to change the culture of this organization!”  “We’re going to do things differently around here to serve our customers better!”  “Our employees will embrace this change and behave differently from now on!”

All noble, even necessary, ideals.  Fortunes are made and lost on how well those lofty goals are met.  Yet without one key ingredient, you might as well declare, “We’re flying to the moon tomorrow in a magic Yugo!” because the level of credibility and sustainability would be just about the same.

Culture change – asking employees to think and act in sometimes radically different ways forevermore – is hard.  People don’t like to think about it, let alone be told they’ve got to do it, starting on Monday.  As one curmudgeonly friend of mine (a longtime veteran at a former employer that shall remain nameless) used to say, when a new Employee Program Du Jour would roll around:  “This too shall pass.”

I was in my early 30s then, and even at that relatively tender professional age, I found his eye-rolling, sigh-laden, wizened sense of resignation, summed up in that simple sentence, alarmingly cynical and negative.  What hurt, though, was the fact that either my co-workers in Corporate Communications – or worse, I – had helped develop the very messages being met with such scoffing resistance.  What hurt more was that he was, all too often, correct.

Yet I also have seen culture change actually embraced and executed well within organizations.  It can work, and when it does it creates profound and positive improvement.  Employee satisfaction rises, which paves the way for greater customer satisfaction, which leads to increased loyalty, higher sales and revenues, stronger financial performance, and a complete win for all parties involved.  A rising tide indeed lifts all boats. But again, when it comes to these types of initiatives, one key ingredient must be perpetually present, personally promoted, and powerfully perceived.

All the expert communications support available won’t cut it without this single ingredient.  There are precious few ways to force this ingredient to present itself – it must come organically to have any real or lasting impact.

So, what is this essential ingredient?  It is the belief, commitment, involvement, and engagement – truly held, honestly promoted, credibly demonstrated, and enthusiastically shared – by the very top leaders of the organization.  Employees can smell a lack of sincerity a mile away, and while they may have an “Employee of the Month” smile pasted across their faces, on the inside they’re thinking, “This too shall pass.”

Where I’ve seen culture change take root and lead to growth and success, leaders have done their jobs and provided leadership.  They have spent the mental energy to realize that their organizations can – and should, and must – do better.  They are the ones who spearhead the charge, gathering research and documentation to understand the situation and then pushing and prodding their teams to help identify fresh ways to make it better.  They carry the message forward, with purpose, confidence, and clarity.  They lead the change by living the change.  They tolerate no B.S., especially from the person they see in the mirror.

To be leader requires having followers.  To gather followers, one must offer a clear vision and be willing to actively participate in its execution.  Expertly developed communication, driven by clear and consistent messaging delivered in ways that employees accept, provides the undergirding to a leader’s culture change initiative. 

But the initiative’s ultimate success or failure – whether it too shall pass, or whether it shall remain and truly become embedded in the culture of the organization – rests with how strongly employees believe that their leaders believe what’s being said.

Copyright 2010 Tim Hayes Consulting