Earlier this year I worked with an organization that wanted to create a culture of employee development.
This was a big change from the way they historically developed their staff.
Their culture at the time was very operationally focused. It revolved around meeting highly demanding client expectations and EBITDA targets. Cultural norms had developed over time that protected this focus. Any business activity that stood to disrupt the focus died a quick death—prior attempts at employee development never had a chance.
Eventually, the lack of attention to people development started to take a toll on employee morale, retention, and recruiting, which in turn had a negative impact on operating effectiveness.
The younger segment of their workforce could no longer abide an organizational culture that ignored people development. Turnover increased, it became more and more difficult to recruit, and word was out that this organization was not a great place to start a career.
With pressure on EBITDA and individual bonuses, lack of intra organizational trust was compounding the problem. Self-interests thwarted the will and collaboration to address the systemic cultural issues.
Senior management thankfully recognized that something needed to be done. Through some organizational soul searching they realized they were not doing a great job developing their people and it was having an impact on growth and the bottom line.
The company leaders agreed that the upcoming New Year would be the year to develop a culture of development and coaching.
The team charged with implementing this new culture quickly realized the work required to change years of operational norms, management practices, and habits. Unless the management and employees supported, trusted, and embraced a development culture, any efforts and investments would not stick long term. The current norms were strong and familiar, and the concern that senior leaders might backtrack if progress was not made was a real possibility.
The implementing team debated whether the cultural change needed to be top down
Some believed senior leaders needed to model the culture transformation they approved.
Other team members felt that putting success in the hands of a group of senior leaders, who, while they may believe in the cause, might not implement the strategy well, seemed unwise.
On top of that, the team feared that anything looking like a “program” or “initiative” risked being killed by corporate antibodies—resistors to change—that would consciously or subconsciously protect the familiar status quo.
Influencing Acceptance of a Program—Without Yet Having a Program
The team then struck gold. They stopped trying to craft a textbook change management process. The organization was not ready for such an imposing undertaking. The risk of failing to effect a change was too high. There was even more fundamental groundwork that needed to be laid before the organization was ready to change. The team needed to build supportive coalitions for their change initiative. They wisely opted to use more subtle influencing strategies to prepare the organizational soil for the seeds of change.
The implementation team settled on an overall strategy of working with the willing to nurture small successes and to build positive momentum. They used the following seven influencing strategies to bring the organization to a tipping point of acceptance and minimal resistance so a more concentrated change effort could succeed:
1 – Identify Key Stakeholders, Stakeholder Groups, Opinion Leaders, and Decision Makers
The team determined the key stakeholders who would eventually need to buy-in to develop a successful cultural change. They also recognized that stakeholder groups, such as finance or operations, would be likely to think alike within their groups.
Then the team determined which opinion leaders people respected and listened to. Who held the most influence over the group? Who were the people who would make decisions about funding and supporting a development culture?
2 – Map the goals to the interests, motivations, and values of key stakeholders
Next, the team did their homework. They mapped out how the idea of a development culture linked to the needs, desires, and aspirations of stakeholders and stakeholder groups.
This included goals that impacted EBIDTA, such as:
- How the idea of a development culture supported and assured strategic and financial objectives.
- How the ideas aligned with existing organizational beliefs and values
- How a development culture could accelerate process improvement and customer satisfaction
3 – Speak in a way stakeholders will listen
Finally, the team recognized that each stakeholder had a preferred way to receive communication. Some would want the bottom line; others would want to see the big picture; and even others would demand facts and data to support the idea.
Aligning the presentation of the development culture with stakeholder interests and motivation while tailoring the messaging to stakeholders preferred communication style would increase trust in the message bearer.
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This exercise also began to paint a picture of who would be more resistant to the idea of a development culture, who might be more compliant, and who might advocate for it.
Armed with this information, the team could create more individual, pinpoint influencing efforts for the stakeholders and stakeholder groups that really needed to become part of the choir of support.
Create First Followers: Getting Opinion Leaders to Work for You
From the stakeholder mapping, the team identified opinion leaders whom they knew would be not only be supportive, but also be willing to advocate for a development culture. They selected individuals from different strata in the organization to accelerate acceptance and balance the buy in over time.
The team encourage the opinion leaders to socialize the idea (not the solution) of a development culture with others plant the seeds of change while obtaining important feedback to better understand needs and concerns.
The team kept the opinion leaders in the loop so they could provide feedback from their socialization efforts, including buy-in for change and points of resistance.
Form Supportive Coalitions
Once opinion leaders began delivering the signals of change, interest in the idea of a development culture grew.
The team brought supportive peers and the opinion leaders together to form coalitions to further rally behind their ideas.
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They educated the coalitions on their stakeholder mapping of interests and motivation and tested their assumptions about stakeholder resistance, compliance, and advocacy. They encouraged this growing base of support to further socialize the idea of a development culture by providing them with visuals, tools, and talking points.
Involve Others in Developing a Solution
With confidence building from the support of opinion leaders and newly forming coalitions, the team decided to take an important next step. They consulted with supportive stakeholders and stakeholder groups for input on framing solution options for designing a development culture.
In doing this, they helped stakeholders see themselves as part of a growing movement with a shared vision of what could be. These stakeholders begin to believe that the solution options were largely their idea.
Now there were more than a handful of diehard opinion leaders and supporters. There was a crowd. And a crowd was news!
Eliminate the Status Quo
The organization was at the tipping point. The necessary support had evolved through subtle influencing strategies rather than a big band approach. Opinion leaders, coalitions, and supportive stakeholders now believed that the risk/cost of not doing something was greater than the risk/cost of taking the action of establishing a culture of development.
The team now had a compelling business case. The organizational ground was prepared to plant the remaining seeds of change. Influencers of decision makers were brought into the coalitions and educated on the need for a development culture. Their support was solicited, and their input on how to best influence decision makers was welcomed.
With the input and influencers of decision makers working their magic, senior leaders and the organization were now ready to embrace the remaining work of cultural transformation.
Leaders with a penchant for delivering results quickly are often seduced by a change management process that is formal, committee-led, and milestone driven.
Not all organizations are prepared to successfully undertake such a process. Their organizational soil is not prepared for the seeds of change. Cultural norms and management practices are too deeply rooted and tend to kill anything new and positive that attempt to grow.
Many organizations need a preparatory stage that is achieved through subtle influencing strategies before they are ready for a more structured, sustained cultural transformation.