Seven Lessons Learned About Culture Change

I’d like to share with you some of my experiences in changing the culture at our company, Datron World Communications Inc. I’ll be the first to admit, when we started the process in late 2004 the only thing we knew for sure was we needed to change the “why” and “how” we did business. I wanted to create a servant-led organization.

In the first several years, we focused on our mission, purpose, and values. We also developed training for all of our employees in servant leadership. About two-thirds through the development phase of our servant leadership training program, we learned some interesting data about the time it takes to change a culture. We found a study that looked at the effectiveness of leadership training. The study concluded it took five years for companies to see significant results from leadership training.

Additionally, the study showed it would take almost eight years to change a company culture. We had embarked on changing our culture but had no idea it would take that long.

When I joined the company in 1997, the division was spread out in five different buildings in Escondido, California. I discovered after my first year that each building had a different culture. It wasn’t until I purchased the company that we could seriously address the culture.
In December 2004, we took the first step and redefined the mission, purpose, and values of the company. We asked ourselves, what is the common purpose we can all focus on? We decided on the following:

Purpose – Positively impact the lives of others today and in the future

Mission – To be a profitable, self-sustaining communications company

We combined these into one statement –To be a profitable, self-sustaining communications company that positively impacts the lives of others today and in the future.

Then we defined how we would conduct ourselves (our core values) to accomplish our mission and purpose.

The common bond we have within Datron is the desire to serve others and that’s what drives our culture of servant leadership. We are servant leaders, focused on how we get the results, not the results themselves. I learned during the first several years of the project that culture change takes on a life of its own and isn’t a smooth, forward moving process. Here are several lessons learned from our journey over the past 14 years.

  1. A servant leadership culture isn’t a good fit for everyone. Some very smart people will not make the journey with you no matter how much you invest in their growth and development. When someone decides to leave you and the organization due to the new culture, that’s okay.
  2. You will experience what I call “little foxes”. These are people that act and talk in support of the culture change in public, but in private will do things that hinder your efforts to change the culture.
  3. There will be times when you’ll have to slow down, reflect and rethink your culture change objectives and initiatives during that eight year period. There are bumps along the way you will need to address in a dignified and timely manner. Address them sooner rather than later.
  4. You and your leaders will go through ups and downs. Make sure you have a small inner circle of people that can help you through your own leadership transformation.
  5. The most difficult thing you will face is the requirement to get financial results from your organization at the same time you’re asking people to change. As CEO I still had the responsibility to make payroll every two weeks.
  6. Your competitors will not understand you or why you’re gaining market share.
  7. The journey, with all its ups and downs, is worth every second. I would do it again without hesitation.

Not only will your people and organization be impacted through the process but those you care for the most in life, those closest to you, will see the positive change in your mindset and behavior. Keep moving forward and make sure you, your people, and your organization have a mindset of service in all they do; all for the sake of others.

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