Is Your Culture Transformation Journey Going Nowhere Fast?

While in Europe a few years ago I asked a group of business leaders if they had the right culture. Someone laughingly responded that their company had purchased tickets to the opera. Today, the issue of culture is no longer a joke or afterthought; it is central to business success. Many companies have begun cultural transformation journeys. Unfortunately, most of these transformations begin with fanfare and promises but then fizzle to a disappointing end. They start with a declaration that culture matters but end up stuck in a cul-de-sac without a clear definition of the intended destination. Too often, culture is about the past and not the future — and about generic, not tailored, values.

For culture transformation to be effective, you must begin the change journey by defining the desired destination. Start by identifying what leaders want their firm to be known for by targeted customers in the future. This means that internal culture starts with a firm brand identity that goes beyond generic noble values.

In 2015, The New York Times wrote a scathing piece on the dysfunctions of the culture of Amazon that garnered a lot of attention. The article “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” cited employee abuses, which are obviously wrong in any setting, but then went on to criticize the culture as demanding, rigorous and driven.

When I teach any group and ask “Who has purchased from Amazon?” nearly everyone raises their hand. Many have even committed to Amazon Prime. Then, when I probe “Why?” the answers are consistent: easy to work with, accessible from anywhere, predictable delivery within a short time frame, low cost, and so forth. I then ask, if these are the reasons you (and millions of other customers) choose Amazon, what does Amazon have to do inside to realize these customer values? Quickly, participants realize that to meet their expectations, Amazon requires a culture of discipline, rigour, standardization and precision. Customers want Amazon to be predictable, so they need a culture consistent with those promises. Amazon has the right culture for their customers.

Likewise, Marriott’s commitment to customer service comes from an internal culture of high employee service. Disney’s theme park culture of guest experience requires an internal culture of employee experience. Apple’s public commitment to innovation draws on an internal culture of employee experimentation. Walmart’s “always low prices” identity leads to a culture of cost consciousness in all aspects of work.

A company I once worked with was doing an acquisition. They wanted to examine the potential acquisition’s culture and so looked up their scores on Glassdoor (a website which allows employees to anonymously rate their employers). Using this outside view of reputation, they found a large gap between their scores and the scores of the potential acquisition. This led to a forthright discussion about culture that changed the purchase price.

Culture matters, but the right culture matters more. Generic values (like integrity, trust and transparency) obviously are important, but the real differentiating values that set an organization apart turn customer promises into tailored internal cultural norms. The right culture turns a firm’s external brand into a set of internal thoughts and actions.

The right transformation journey should begin with what the firm wants to be known for by key customers in the future. Starting with customer promises and a firm brand provides a clear direction for the journey. Culture can then be measured against this desired destination, not just in terms of how employees behave but how customers behave relative to the brand promises.

Leaders can work with marketing and advertising professionals to firm up their brand and then collaborate with HR to turn this external identity into a set of organizational policies and employee practices.

The following diagram outlines this logic:


Product Brand

Firm Brand

Organizational Culture

Leadership Brand

Employee Brand


With this alignment, employees are connected to customers and customer promises to employee expectations.

Hopefully, any future culture journey you embark on will have a direction based on brand values, as these journeys will be more likely to deliver and endure over time.

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Written By

Dr. David (Dave) O. Ulrich, PhD, is Rensis Likert Collegiate Professor of Business Administration and Director, Human Resource Executive Program, University of Michigan. He is also a Partner, the RBL Group.


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