Corporate cultures that inhibit strong long-term financial performance are not rare; they develop easily, even in firms that are full of reasonable and intelligent people” – Kotter and Heskett, Corporate Culture and Performance.

Unless you’ve spent the last 25 or so years living off the grid in Barrow, Alaska you’ve learned a little about how important culture is to organizational performance and how it eats strategy for lunch or is it breakfast? Either way – it’s kinda important.

The Elephant in the Room

Culture, as the old phrase about a certain body part goes, is something every organization has. The question we hear most often is, is it the right one? and if not – How do we “change” it? Lets focus on the word “change”. Culture is always changing – no matter what you do – always slowly morphing. The work of culture “change” is really about being intentional about that change and develop it in the direction that leads to organizational success. So just as we provide development programs for employees to shape the direction of their learning to best fit in the organization – so too do we need to develop our culture.

Determining the best cultural fit for your organization is a big piece of work and requires input from all parts of the organization – and is addressed in many of books on culture by Schein, Denison, Kotter, and others. Whatever your culture is, it needs to be two things: First, integrally aligned with your strategy and second, flexible enough to adjust to inevitable changes in that strategy.

That’s the easy part. The critical steps seem to some like the journey of Voltaire’s Candide (if you didn’t have to read this in high school English – just take my word for it – it ain’t pretty). My experience is that it is not complicated but it does require the highest levels of commitment, patience, and persistence.

And Then There Were Three

The two basic approaches to culture development are often debated – “top down” or “bottom up”. In my experience it is both plus one more: “middle out”.

Everyone seems to agree that culture development starts at the top. Whether it’s the CEO, President, or Executive Leadership Team, someone has to make the personal commitment to culture development, define the specifics of what needs to be built, and “launch” the effort. After it’s launched, their role becomes modeling the behaviors and actions desired, inviting others in the organization to help, and providing ongoing support and commitment. What they cannot do is tell everyone “how” to get there.

The challenge for the CEO and others at this level is to manage expectations (especially theirs) that this will not happen quickly. In most large organizations, tangible results likely won’t be seen until the end of the first year at the earliest. Too often the executive team and top HR leadership think in terms of annual initiatives and want to move on to the “next thing” – especially when the initial energy and enthusiasm of a “launch” are distant memories. What leaders at this level must do is maintain organizational commitment and focus.

The beauty of a bottom up approach is that a grass roots, or “viral”, change brings its own energy versus relying on a push from the top. As the founder of Viral Change, Leandro Herrero says, “…the ultimate real change is behavioural…cultural transformations are shaped by the behaviours of individuals and small groups, not by a top-down, push from management“. In other words – people change for their own reasons – not yours. For culture development to be sustainable over time and to build a permanent capacity for adaptability, engaging all employees on an individual level in providing the energy for culture development is critical. Once people believe in the vision, they will find a way to make things happen. If leadership can paint a clear and credible picture of the destination, your employees will figure out how to get there. Often, top leaders cannot paint a picture that is detailed enough for front line employees to figure out what it means for them in their specific role. This is where the “middle out” approach comes in.

Every employee survey and engagement survey I have ever seen have one result in common. When employees are asked who they trust most to be candid and truthful,  the answer always is “their immediate supervisor”. So, any culture development must have a very specific strategy for engaging front line and middle management that is separate and distinct from engaging the full organization.  All too often, culture change initiatives lump the front line and middle management together with the broader employee population when rolling things out. Sure, there may be an email and WebEx PowerPoint presentation the week before the broader announcement where they are told “we need your support and leadership on this”. But a “heads up” is not an engagement strategy – it’s a directive. And when employees ask their most trusted source for the “real scoop” – the most positive answer they will get is some variation of “I don’t know any more than you do, but it’s something we will need to get on board with regardless”.

At one point in writing this I was going to refer to middle management of leaders as the “clay layer” because – water trickles down from the top and doesn’t penetrate the soil below. This implies this group won’t change and can’t absorb new ideas and information. Not true. They need to be treated like the leaders they are being asked to be in this situation. Most likely the CEO didn’t come up with a strategic culture plan overnight and inform their executive team through an email and slide deck. You will need to make an effort with your middle layer, comparable to what you use with the executive level – and it will need to allow for dialogue, input, and further refinement – all before launch.

The unique and vital role of this group is that they are translators for the entire organization. By virtue of where they sit, middle leadership is expert in taking high level information from the executive level (strategy, financials, policy, etc.) and translating it into relevant and actionable information for individual contributors. 

In all but the most engaged and/or flat organizations employees refer to top leadership as “they”.  If your front line and middle leadership is uninvolved in such a way that they too think “they”when looking at their part in culture development, it will be a very difficult and slow process to get the grass roots commitment needed to turn the cultural vision into specific behaviors.


At Kinetic Insights, our PathFinders are skilled in helping leaders unleash the greatness in themselves and in their organizations. Call or email us for a quick discussion that just might put you and your team on the path to significant change.

Andrew Powell’s focus is customized team and organizational change consulting as well as executive coaching for growth-minded commercial organizations, government entities and non-profits.

Andy’s focus is customized team and organizational change consulting as well as executive coaching for growth-minded commercial organizations, government entities and non-profits. View full bio