Pointing out what an organisation’s habits and working methods should be is one thing but making changes to their culture or their ‘business core’ is quite another. Management must first reflect upon what business changes mean to themselves, both as leaders and as humans. Change work always starts with YOU, the sender.

For this reflection, we’re going to begin with a two-year assignment we took on. It was for a large global industrial company that we were asked to help in becoming more customer oriented.

Our assignment was about shifting the perspective from ‘When we’ve delivered what we said we would, we’ve kept our customer promise’ to ‘When the customer feels that what we’ve delivered really creates value, we’ve kept our customer promise’.

Delivering based on customer needs and experiences from all the interactions with you as a supplier is far more comprehensive than delivering on time to the right quality. To be able to deliver at this level, you need an in-depth understanding of the customer’s business, what drives it, and how the customer perceives you as their supplier.

In the first case, the analysis is simple: did we deliver what we said we would, and with the right quality? In the second case, the level of ambition is raised, and the delivery is measured from the perspective of all ‘perceived benefits’ of using you as their supplier.

To be fair, they were really good at optimising their production resources. Our client had an admirable level of service, and they delivered according to specification. Most importantly, they were better than their competitors.

But they understood that their future growth was not a given. A lot was about to change, with new and innovative competitors, and more low-cost producers taking an increasing share of the market. They realised that the world, and their customers – and indeed the worlds of their customers – were changing rapidly.

In order to remain relevant and maintain their position during this time of change, while increasing their margins, some decisions had been made. The general consensus was: “We need to understand our customers better and deliver products and services that satisfy all of their business needs – and not just those of new machinery”.

In this particular case, it was about our clients’ customers having to adapt their products to new patterns of consumption and policy directives while, at the same time, adjusting volumes to newly arrived end-consumers in a way that was never seen before.

Analysis of the results from customer surveys showed that our client actually had the leading position in the market, which was good news. But the analysis also clearly showed that no supplier in the industry had taken the position of ‘proactive business partner’. No company really stood out in such a way that would make customers more loyal, and willing to pay more for goods and services. So, strategically speaking, this was the position that our client wanted to take.

This is where we came in.

To understand how to organise the change work that would lead to this position, we started, as always, with a target group analysis and an analysis of the client’s strategic conditions. We conducted several interviews with staff and managers from different functional and geographical parts of the organisation. We also conducted structured workshops with the management team. And all of this resulted in a change communication strategy that focused on the organisation itself.

Our experience tells us that it all starts at home. We’ve seen far too many attempts to ‘reorient’ organisations through simple changes in their public profile and external communication. The issue is that the actual identity of a company, who they actually are, must be consistent with what’s communicated to the market – or who they’re claiming to be.

The identity of a company is largely governed by the behaviour of its employees, which, in turn, is guided by their knowledge, motivators, mandates and supporting structures. A differing identity overwhelms and undermines advertisers’ attempts to tell another more flattering story. In other words, to maintain credibility, a company has to be what it claims to be.

In this case, we realised that it wasn’t just about learning more about the customer to be able to automatically make wise and useful decisions for them. No, they were aiming for a bigger, much more fundamental, change than that.

Together with the management team, we realised that this was to be a full-blown cultural journey. Ultimately, it was about what the company’s leaders and employees themselves valued in everyday life, inside the organisation.

Everything they did – all control systems, organisational structures, processes, goals, KPI’s and so on – were focused on sales and delivering. Their culture and their passion, shaped over the years, could be summed up in a short and sweet ‘we always deliver’. That was the starting point.

The goal of the new strategy was: ‘We should be number one in the customer’s eyes’. But to achieve this ‘number one’ position, we needed to qualify it, to define it. What did we mean?

From structured interviews with their customers and conversations with the company’s most experienced people, especially those with the most customer contact, we managed to gather some useful insight.

We determined that customers would perceive our client as a ‘leader’ if they deliver what they promised (as before); if they took the time to acquire knowledge about the customer’s world; and if they went even further on all levels and customer touch points by adopting and embracing a proactive and curious approach towards the customers.

On the sales side, this meant understanding a customer’s long-term ambitions and then working proactively to offer follow-up advice and new value-creating services. On the delivery side, it meant staff members (of all levels) being entrusted and empowered to respond independently to the customer’s same-level employees’ needs and expectations. Basically, it meant to set a new industry standard and exceed customer expectations in every interaction.

The idea was to weave our client’s image of reality all the way through the supply chain: from procurement, to manufacturing, to delivery and commissioning.

As we described our findings of the situation and presented the change communication strategy to the management team, we got nods of approval from all. “That sounds exactly right. This is certainly not a quick-fix situation; it’s a journey that will take time – probably a few years.”

Within the strategy, we also highlighted some things that we should start with in the coming year. First things first: With our experience, we know that there are some foundational steps that need to be taken before taking bigger, more significant steps.

The first step is always to build an explanatory model, along with the ‘big picture’ of what the future will look like. This has to be both engaging and credible for the people you want to take with you on the journey. This creative work needs to fully involve the people who you hope and believe will help lead the upcoming change journey.

So, our next step in this assignment was to design a change process that aimed to create the conditions for communicating and leading the company towards a new desired position in the future. This communication concept could then be implemented over several years, with the support of improving working methods, up-skilling, customer feedback routines, measurement methods and tools.

Since we know that water flows from top to bottom, we began this phase of our assignment by really getting everyone in the management team to see the same picture.

The strategy itself had already been agreed on by everyone in the management team. But now it was time to formulate the messages, to affirm that everyone truly grasped and was fully on board with both the meaning and the depth of each message.

It was time for a definitive commitment along the lines of: “Yes, I’m part of this. As one of the company’s highest representatives, I won’t just talk about this change and what I want people to think and do, but I will also work on my own change journey through this process.”

We did set the bar high, but we’ve also always appreciated that personal change can be difficult to take on. Basically, it’s all about insight and motivation, and this even applies to a company’s highest representative. But during the course of the assignment so far, we felt that we’d come a long way. All good.

The messages were being carefully shaped and formed in a working group with the company’s own communicators, then reworked and refined by the management team. Even the CEO commended us, so we were pretty sure that we had a good platform to stand on and move forward.

When we proposed to take the next step, which was about involving the rest of the formal leadership of the company, everything stopped. Now our client wavered. After all the work that was done—on the business strategy (their own) and the work we did together with the analysis of the climate of change in the organisation, the strategic conditions for change, not to mention the message platform they themselves were developing—things came to a grinding halt.

“We don’t know how to tell you this, but we don’t think we can follow through. It doesn’t feel that all of our issues have been analysed correctly.”

This was obviously a bitter pill to swallow. Had this been a short assignment in which we were given a brief and had a week to find a message, we would have understood that things could have gone wrong. But we’d been working with them for over 18 months. We’d had the management team with us, completely in accord, every step of the way.

But when the day came to plan for putting all our thoughts into action and for involving the operational managers, they stopped cold.

Our client’s perspective was suddenly not the same as ours. Their view was that “We can just tell our operational managers how it should go, and they can go ahead and do the right things”.

Here lay a fundamental clash between our own experience (as well as current research in the field) and the customer’s view of how to manage change.

Our clients, like many other large companies, are guided by the notion that change takes place from the top through directives. To let the operational managers in to help define the “how” felt uncomfortable and different. It challenged the very core of how the top guys were seeing themselves as managers: `We decide and tell; they comply´.

Well, this was our interpretation. We never got to know the real cause. The assignment was terminated without continuation. Together, after a number of meetings, we and our clients decided to go different ways. We agreed that we disagreed.

To summarise this trap, what have we learned?

  • The number one driver for change is the top sponsorship. It includes the management’s own change journey. If the manager walks over the yellow line in the workshop after the new Health & Safety policy has been launched, everything falls. There’s only so much change management and change communication can do if the changing managers don’t change themselves.
  • When faced with a change for which a company has taken the initiative themselves, they must first get a firm grip on the magnitude and extent of the change.
  • A company should always prepare for a journey that matches the scope of the change.
  • It’s about getting the basics right. Defining (or redefining) a company’s culture takes time, especially if you want to proceed cautiously to maintain productivity while developing the behaviours and attitudes of the employees. There’s never a quick-fix solution.
  • All of our accumulated experience – and the latest research in change management – says that the most successful changes gravitate around the operational managers. Change communication as support for operational managers is much more effective – and successful – than directives which go directly from top management to everyone at the same time.
    The operational managers are more in touch with the employees’ work/life situations than upper-management. So, to really succeed, a company must dare to leave its comfort zone and invite operational managers to help define how the change will go in practice.
  • If there’s a requirement for a quick change of the fundamentals, like the business idea or corporate culture, it will require radical measures. In order to really succeed with a quick change on that level, these measures must include changes at the management level. If a quick change is required, a company has to be prepared to lose in short-term productivity but win in the long-term. In this scenario, it’s quite easy to understand where some of the resistance will sit.
  • Finally, a fundamental change to culture and business direction within a company is an ownership issue. The big questions are: ‘What kind of company do we want to own? And who is most suited to lead this company?’

So, if someone says, “We need to change our corporate culture,” we’d like to raise a couple of thoughts:

As an initiator, have you seriously thought about sitting at the helm yourself – with all that this entails? Do you have the necessary patience, and are you prepared to make your own personal changes that are required for success?

If you feel that change is necessary and that the goal is to sanctify the funds, are you ready to make your own space available, if necessary, to succeed?