Change management is impossible when you don’t understand the organisational culture that already exists in your business. That’s why, as we’ve explored in our recent articles, it’s important to know what culture is, how to measure it and the key types of corporate culture.


But once you understand organisational culture, how do you begin to change it? Or how do you mobilise the culture you already have? In HBR’s Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, Boris Groysberg and others write, “The best leaders we have observed are fully aware of the multiple cultures within which they are embedded, can sense when change is required and can deftly influence the process.”

The McKinsey model describes four key “levers” that can be applied to affect cultural change. Here’s how you can make effective use of each one:

  1. Role models

“We don’t need to convince large numbers of people to change; instead, we need to connect with kindred spirits. Through these relationships, we will develop the new knowledge, practices, courage and commitment that lead to broad-based change.” – Margaret Wheatley, Organisational Behaviourist

As we explored in Leaders as culture carriers – why the problem starts with you, all organisational culture change needs to begin with leaders.

Crucially, the way in which leaders model culture is not through telling others what the culture is or should be. If a leader says they value creativity and innovation, but by their actions they continue to micro-manage and disapprove of failed experiments – then very little creativity and innovation will emerge.

Leaders communicate culture through the stories they tell, through how they spend their time and how they manage priorities. An organisation in which executives are siloed off in an office, will have a very different culture to an organisation in which executives spend their time in and amongst the different teams in their business. Similarly, if leaders only learn the names of their inner circle, they communicate an exclusivity, whereas if they take time to get to know a diverse selection of their team, they communicate an inclusivity.

  1. Personal conviction of a need to change

“Companies, like individuals, do not become exceptional by believing they are exceptional but by understanding the ways in which they aren’t exceptional.”  ― Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Often leaders falsely assume that the employees already understand why they are undertaking a culture change. These leaders may allude to the reasons, but many don’t take the time to explain them.

This can lead to a resentment forming within an organisation. The employees may outwardly abide by the practices associated with the new culture, but they often won’t take ownership of it. The result is that the old culture will remain dominant.

To communicate the need to change effectively, it helps for leaders to work with a burning platform: an external change that requires an internal change for the company. The external change could be a shift in the market, or the wider industry.

Once employees understand the burning platform – the external change – leaders can explain why a culture change is necessary to thrive in the new conditions. The current culture will need to be explained – why certain elements of the current culture should be cherished and why other elements are no longer fit for purpose. It’s essential to respect the current culture while communicating the necessity of change.

  1. Skills to change

“A lot has been written about…artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning, etc. Some describe a future where most of the work still done by human beings will require strong interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.” – Kathy Bernhard, KFB Leadership Solutions


To be effective, change management needs to be supported with training, mentoring and coaching. Otherwise all momentum gained from communicating the culture change will be lost.


When a team member believes that their increased efforts will make a difference to the company, they will be inspired to change. But if they believe their individual contribution is inconsequential, they will be resistant to change.

In the technological age, it is easier than ever to demonstrate to employees the impact of their personal efforts. There are apps to measure performance, software that can review incremental change and company intranets that can celebrate the achievements of individuals.

When combined with a program of skills training, formal/informal mentoring and external coaching, technology helps employees take ownership of the culture change. They won’t just learn the skills necessary, they’ll recognise the importance of them too.


  1. Supportive systems and processes

“Managers tend to be too risk averse: they focus on the costs of investing in bad ideas rather than the benefits of piloting good ones.” – Adam Grant, organisational psychologist. Originals

Supportive systems and processes enable a culture change to be sustainable. When structures are ignored, the leadership development will be stunted, and culture will revert back to its default when external pressures arise. No-one can become physically fit by going to the gym a few times, they have to structure their lives around an exercise regime.


For organisational culture change to be effective, we need to analyse the entire organisational structure of the company. Processes need to be reviewed, roles need to be reimagined. The autonomy of teams and individuals needs to be addressed – and each team’s relationship to the executive board. Sometimes even the physical office layout and design needs to be altered to reinforce a new culture.


It’s not only behavioural – processes and systems are made by people based on what they believe is right. These processes and systems have often been in place for a long time. So if you want to change culture and behaviour then the structures and systems and processes also need to change.


You are probably noticing that change management is an extensive, complicated process. It’s almost impossible to accomplish an organisational culture shift on your own.  We’ve found that leaders need help from practiced change managers, who can guide them through the process.

For more information, or to discuss your own development, please get in touch.