Merge's Blog

Creating culture shift

Michael Kerr is my professional colleague (and a good friend) who helps companies create more inspiring workplace environments.  He’s a busy guy though; in fact the last time he guested on the Turning Managers into Leaders blog was four years ago in October 2010 when he wrote Subversive workplace humor can be a cover for some uncomfortable truths!  Fortunately he found time to return, not only today, but with a follow-up post later this week.  Thank you Mike!  Glad you’re here!

As I travel the world researching inspiring workplaces, a simple question I’ve put to more than 100 leaders is, “What has been the most important driver of your success, your business strategy or culture?”   A resounding 90% have answered, “Culture.”  As Kim Axelson, the passionate CEO of AFA JCDecaux (an outdoor advertising company that has received numerous accolades for its culture and business success) told me when we sat down together for three hours in his Copenhagen office: “The best business strategy in the world won’t survive in the long run without a strong culture to move it forward. For us, culture has been the key to success in every aspect of our business.”

That’s likely why the Human Capital Institute suggests that 70% of a leader’s time should be spent on nurturing a strong culture.  Your culture of course isn’t about what you do, it’s about how you do the things you do.  It’s your organization’s unique DNA.  It’s about the written and unwritten rules that guide how people behave in your workplace.  And it’s about answering some challenging questions such as:

  • Why do you exist and what do you want to be known for?
  • What do you want your legacy to be?
  • Are your strategic decisions both building and reflecting the kind of workplace you want to be known for?
  • What do the veteran employees tell the new hires about what it’s really like to work here?
  • Are the overwhelming majority of your employees proud enough of your organization to recommend it to their best friend or a family member as a great place to work?
  • Does your organization match the hype in your help wanted ads?

Truly inspiring leaders understand that in the race to attract and retain top talent and attract and retain customers, your culture is your number one competitive advantage.  Given the importance of culture, the most common question I get from organizations that have “lost their mojo” (which seems to be the most common complaint from many of my clients): “Is it really possible to change the entire culture of a large organization?  Isn’t that like trying to get a herd of cats to nail Jell-o to the wall of the Titanic?” (Yup, in some people’s minds it’s so challenging that it’s turned into a cliché super storm!)  Of course it’s challenging. Great cultures don’t happen by accident. You can’t buy your culture at Costco (even if you did it’d probably be too big) or Ikea (you’d have parts left over).   And you can’t fake a great culture — though judging from any cursory glance at the help wanted ads, many companies try!  Creating an inspiring, successful culture takes work.  It’s about being intentional and not thinking of your culture as an afterthought.  It’s about ensuring all your decisions–regardless of the nature of those decisions–both contribute to and reflect the type of culture you want to be known for.   And although it doesn’t happen overnight, many organizations have made dramatic shifts in their culture, and much faster than you might think. 

Well, what do you think?  What drives success – business strategy or culture?  Please share your thoughts by adding to the Comments link below.  And stay tuned – Mike will be back with a follow-up blog post later this week where he’ll give you five ways to help jump-start a cultural shift in your organization.

Michael Kerr is a Hall of Fame business speaker who is listed as one of Canada`s most in-demand speakers.  Michael travels the world researching, writing and speaking about inspiring workplace cultures and the role humor plays in driving outrageous results.  His newest book, due out January, 2015, is called “The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses are Laughing all the Way to the Bank.” Reach Mike at

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