It’s up to the boss to change a company’s culture!

Changing a company’s culture is one of the most difficult leadership challenges a CEO or business owner is ever likely to face.

24th July 2014, Irish Independent Article by John Harty

Why? Because a company’s culture is made up of an interwoven set of goals, processes, values, communications practices and attitudes that ultimately determine the way the company functions.

When it’s working, an organisation’s culture is an immense source of value, enabling and enhancing its employees and thus fostering ongoing high performance. When it’s off, the culture can be a drag on productivity and emotional commitment, undermining long-term success.

The best CEOs and business owners understand that cultures are multidimensional, slow to change, and troublesome to control-and thus influencing them requires care and thoughtful engagement.

Unfortunately, when faced with a real life cultural challenge far too many forget this principle.

Instead, they revert to conventional managerial tactics, but with greater zeal.

They turn up the volume on the inspirational messages. They raise the bar and set stretch goals with new statements of the vision, mission, values, and purpose of the company. They bear down on costs and chastise employees for complacency. While in the short term this may appear to bring about change, that change is somewhat superficial and it will not be long before the business reverts back to its default culture.

A better starting point is a realistic identification of the culture’s current status.

Every company’s practices and beliefs have developed over time for a whole host of reasons – some good, some bad and some to deal with the challenges of the past.


In general, they tend to be firmly entrenched in mind-sets and habits and so it is essential to understand the current situation and have the conviction to see the vision through when dealing with cultural issues.

The appointment of a new CEO may be necessitated by the failure of the past incumbent; perhaps the current CEO has accepted a new position with another organisation; or it might simply be that the current CEO plans to retire soon.

Whatever the reason, the incoming CEO will be responsible for implementing the company’s vision and establishing a culture that works towards it. To do this, the right candidate will need the necessary skills, qualities and experience to steer the business toward success in the future. Every business owner and CEO has a different way of running the business’s affairs but the one thing they all have in common is that they are the most high-profile, visible person in the business.

This fact alone makes them an essential cog in promoting cultural change within an organisation.

As the front of the company, all eyes – both inside and outside the business – are set firmly on the CEO or business owner. The action and attitude they take to their work acts as a benchmark for every member of staff to base his or her own efforts upon. This position creates the perfect opportunity for the CEO to set standards that drive the qualities which they feel are most essential to the success of the company and the achievement of their vision.

Embodying the core values of the company through their daily activities, as well as their communications, allows CEOs and business owners to garner the support of their executive and management teams. Their behaviour is impersonated and replicated and, slowly but surely, it begins to trickle down through the various departments of the business and becomes a deep-set element of the company’s culture.

Bringing about cultural change represents a huge challenge for businesses of all sizes.

To resonate with employees it has to relate at a rational and emotional level. While additional measures and processes will be required to achieve long lasting cultural change, effectively using your highly visible position as the head of the company to promote the new behaviours that will shape your business’s new culture is the biggest and most important step.

John Harty is managing 
director at Harty International, a leading executive search firm.

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John Harty is a Senior Client Partner based in the Korn Ferry Dublin Office. Operating internationally, he is a core member of the firm’s Global Financial Services practice and leads Financial Services in Ireland.