Of course culture can be “fixed”

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Over the last week I have been catching up on reading and I was intrigued by this headline You Can’t Fix Culture, Just Focus On Your Business And The Rest Will Follow because it was the headline on the front cover of the April 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review.   Having helped numerous organisations shape, reshape, and change their culture my immediate reaction was of course culture can be “fixed” so to speak.  Having captured my attention I was keen to read the article[1].

In their preamble the authors stated that when organisations get into trouble, fixing the culture is usually the prescription however, based on interviews with a number of current and former CEOs who have led major transformations, they go on to say that culture isn’t something you fix. In their view culture change is what results after you’ve put in place new processes or structures to tackle tough business challenges.  They detail their interviews with Doug Baker CEO of Ecolab, Richard Anderson CEO of Delta Airlines, Alan Mulally former CEO of Ford, and Dan Vasella former CEO of Novartis; each of whom had significant challenges.  To summarise a couple of the situations:

  • Doug Baker
    • Challenge – Stay connected with customer while tripling revenue.
    • Change Levers – Encouraged more frontline decision making, instituted a more meritocratic reward system.
    • Culture Change – Shift from father-knows-best management to a collaborative and independent workforce.
  • Richard Anderson
    • Challenge – quick integration of a giant acquisition during a downturn.
    • Change Levers – Shared executive power, built more direct relationships with employees, and focused on accommodating their workplace development and compensation needs.
    • Culture Change – Shift from adversarial management-employee relationship to mutual loyalty and trust.

I think the picture is clear about the extent of challenges each faced; the challenges the other two CEO’s faced were of the same magnitude.

I agree with authors that organisations are complex systems.  However my view is in each instance each CEO and their respective teams used known culture change levers that could be placed in one of five core groups: Mission and Philosophy, Structure, Systems, Leadership, and Symbols. Symbols are events or decisions to which people assign meaning and are created when particular events are viewed by people as examples of a larger pattern of events: the important point to note on symbols is that much of the time the meaning is implicit.

The change each CEO achieved is, without question, very impressive; the point the authors failed to connect in their article is that in each instance the outcomes that were delivered explicitly began with the CEO and their executive leadership groups making a clear decision to pull levers that instituted changes to the way things were being done and so, whether they were aware of it or not, from the very beginning of taking on the challenge each leader had begun to reshape and change their organisation’s culture.  I venture to say had these four CEO’s not taken accountability for choosing the change levers that they did and driving change from the outset, the culture change would have been slower and less effective and the outcomes would have been quite different.

Whether in a crisis or not, culture change in any organisation, irrespective of size, is shaped and led by the leaders at the top of the organisation.


Viventé Australia enables leaders and managers develop the bond between people and performance, creating a powerful advantage: the synergy between people, leadership, management, and culture, produces performance that allows your business to achieve its best.

[1] Culture is not the Culprit. Page 96, HBR, April 2016