The Right Culture

cultureMy brother Aaron was a Peace Corps volunteer living in a Bulgarian village so remote that one of the main forms of transportation were horse-drawn wagons. He tells a great story about how when he first arrived, most of the villagers had never met an American and were convinced he was a spy. In fact, it took him his entire first year to gain their trust to see he was not a spy, but rather someone who was volunteering to assist their community.

Was he there during the height of the Cold War? Nope — 2003-2005.

Similar to the events now playing out in Crimea, he also talks about how 10 years after gaining their freedom from authoritarian rule, many Bulgarians actually voted to move away from democracy back to communism.

I use these examples to show just how hard it is to change a culture, an important topic for leaders, especially those that aren’t happy with what their current one is like.

So how long does it take?

My friend Don MacPherson, President of Modern Survey, an employee engagement firm, blogged about this recently and said to transform it in the wrong direction, it takes about 15 minutes. However, to transform it positively, it takes about three years for medium to large organizations and one to three years for smaller organizations.

At this point, most leaders become heartbroken because we want to fix it NOW and it is hard to imagine continuing to deal with a culture you aren’t happy with for years to come.

I was that leader and can say from personal experience Don is spot on; as a small organization it took us a couple years to improve our culture to what we have today, which is the best it has ever been. It wasn’t easy, but here’s what happened:

First, we defined what we wanted our culture to look like by identifying 4 core values we felt embodied the type of people we wanted on the team. You can’t manufacture culture; people make it and if you have the right people you’ll have the right culture (and of course the opposite is also true).

We then hired, fired and reviewed our team based on these core values. Those that weren’t a fit for the culture we wanted either realized it and left, or we set them free to pursue opportunities that were a better fit for them.

We also made ourselves aware of the key drivers of employee engagement and worked to incorporate them when appropriate.

No one likes change and in an unhealthy culture, change is met with extra skepticism because there is a general lack of trust. Despite this, it is crucial for the key leaders to stay the course that first year and model behaviors for the rest of the organization to follow.

The second year, after seeing it isn’t going to go away, many employees will gravitate toward the new culture or will begin to leave. As Don says, this is the ideal situation and if folks aren’t going to be on board with the improved culture, the sooner you can set them free, the better for the entire organization. And it may take a third year for cultural norms to continue to be reinforced.

It isn’t easy and it doesn’t happen overnight, but the rewards are a fun and engaged team of people working together to accomplish great things. A terrific culture also acts like a magnet to attract more top notch folks to join in the fun.

The sooner you get started on improving it, the sooner you’ll get to start seeing those results.

Email me with the secret password CULTURE in the subject line and I’ll send you more information on how to identify the core values in your people that will define the culture you’d like to see.

Chris Wills About Chris Wills

Father Time, or Chris Wills, is passionate about helping other leaders learn and grow and free up time they didn’t think they had. He is the Founder of Student Paths, an organization that better prepares students for their future in college, career and life readiness. You can reach Chris at:

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