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Inspiring Peak Performance

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Diverting Niagara with a Tea Cup

Four million cubic feet of water pour over the crest of Niagara Falls, on average, every minute of every day. That is a lot of water, but only a tiny fraction of the H2o that covers 70% of our planet. Mary and I have been to Niagara Falls on several occasions and always stand next to the crest. Each time I marvel at the speed, power, and sheer volume of water racing and tumbling down the lofty, wide, horseshoe-shaped cliffs that lands with a violent crash sending an explosion of foam and mist high into the air.

Changing an organization's culture can feel like trying to divert the Niagara River with a teacup in one hand and a fishing net in the other. Changing corporate culture is an extremely difficult, protracted process. It is not for the faint of heart or those who cannot let slings and barbs bounce off and fall harmlessly to the ground.

As a reminder, an organization's culture can be described as the deeply ingrained, unspoken truths about values and priorities—what really matters and what is really important. In many organizations culture has little to do with the platitudes posted on the lunchroom wall. It is the DNA that is passed on; the hidden knowledge that must be assimilated quickly if 'newbies' are to succeed. It is the imbedded, unique personality of the place that sends taproots deeper into the heart and soul of the organization and its members the longer it exists.

Culture is usually the reflection of a powerful and influential founder. The result can be natural or carefully cultivated. Just as water seeks a lower level so does a culture seem to settle over time. It takes great vigilance and diligence to keep the water lifted above its natural level. Some organizations pay great attention to promoting and maintaining a healthy, positive culture. We recently stayed at the Hyatt in Monterey, California and were struck by the positive, helpful, friendly attitude from all the staff—without exception. That didn't happen by accident.

What if an organization's culture reflects positive values, but it is stuck in a past that is not a fit for the future? For example, unquestioning obedience to authority could be seen as a positive cultural norm. But it won't produce the next Steve Jobs or, frankly, survive in 2012 and beyond. How can leaders change culture?

· Change has to come from the top down. This job cannot be delegated. Period!

· Evangelize. You have to preach and teach until you're sick of saying it. Then do it 100 more times.

· Model the new way. Organize your office and direct reports around the desired new cultural approach. If you want to value initiative, transfer responsibilities and authority; hold people accountable for results. Give them runway and resources and get out of the way. Publish stories about the effort.

· Reward the new behaviors. Notice, make public and reward efforts that signal a switch to the new way of thinking.

· Don't punish lapses, but use them as a teachable moment. Deeply engrained mindsets that have been behaved into over many years will take a long time to change. And they have been come by honestly. Patiently teach how the new way will be better in the long run. Some will not be able to get it you will have to take the next difficult step.

· Change people. This one is very tough, but absolutely necessary. Only an uncommonly committed old dog can learn new tricks. Most simply cannot. You will have think long and hard about how to help long-time, faithful employees transition to a new role. In some cases you will have to let them go. You must judiciously inject new blood with the new DNA into key positions. The longer you wait to do this the less successful your change initiative will be. The quicker and bolder your moves, the higher your chances for relatively quick success.

Only God can part Niagara Falls with a teacup. But you can improve your organization's culture. A healthy, positive, effective culture—a place where people grow into their full potential while accomplishing great works together—is CEO job one!

Steve McNeely, CPA, M.B.A. is the partner in charge of HR Consulting at McNeely and McNeely, CPAs. He can be reached at

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