Leadership of culture change

New Thinking 4 November 2018 Ben Hayman

For any organisation focused on transformation, it’s generally accepted that culture change is the biggest enabling or inhibiting factor. In a typical Agile transformation, for example, the people leading the adoption of the new ways of working talk about ‘being Agile’, not ‘doing Agile’. About new mindsets and, by extension, the need for appropriate culture.

Inside organisations moving away from a focus on IT to one on services for real people, you see product owners asking for faster, deeper change to operating models, roles and responsibilities so they’re set up for greatest success. Culture and mindset are at the heart of this.

To date however, the C-level accountability for follow through on the necessary changes to enable positive culture change has not been clearly set or led. It’s been passed as a baton between a few roles as the digital maturity of the organisation in question has shifted.

For a few years, CIOs and CTOs carried the torch for transformation so that the organisations could rewire to help them deliver the tech needed to support digital channels. Culture change was talked about in those times, but only as an enabling aspect of the IT operating shift needed to move toward delivering digital services, rather than applications.

The emergence of the CDO

As CEOs started to understand that digital was first and foremost about people and not IT, the position of the CDO emerged. The time of the CDO has been critical in the growth of what it means to ‘be a digital business’, making it clear that it’s about far more than apps and websites or social media. Organisations with CDOs in place have shown they are more able to put the soft skills of empathy and active listening at the centre of what the workforce will need if they are to behave as a digital organisation – with deep insight into their customers’ needs.

So, it’s all about culture but, to date, Digital Transformation hasn’t put the senior execs whose actual job it is to create the right conditions for talent to thrive at the centre of this. In fact, in many instances, due to the change originating from the technologists at the start, the functions of HR and P&C have been implicated as potentially resistant to change. Perceptions abound about the organisational immune system and the fact that business functions focused on current process and measurement will be uncomfortable with the new ways of working.

Leading people experiences

This view by some that HR can be part of the immune system comes from a logical but historical position. It’s understandable but not helpful today. It’s important to understand that HR has itself been through a fundamental shift as a practice since the emergence of the internet – from personnel management largely focused on back office to HR which saw people as a ‘resource’ needing governance and management through to a recent shift to leading people experiences and helping organisations understand and shape their culture. I think of this contemporary approach to ‘people within organisations’ as ‘talent leadership’.

Putting people at the centre

High-performance digital organisations typically get talent leadership right and fully understand that HR and P&C don’t need to feel like the organisational immune system inhibiting change but are precisely the senior leadership function to own the challenge. To be on point to create the conditions for the right kind of culture to develop and grow.

Culture change is at the centre of being an adaptive business. People and their interactions are that culture. A high-performance digital organisation must put people – and not technology – at the centre. A strategic talent leadership function with the CEO fully invested in creating the right conditions for culture will be a differentiator for organisations that survive and thrive. We see this more every day in NZ, even though not all P&C execs are formally in charge of transformation... yet.