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From the Sponsor’s Desk: Cultivating Culture

A recent article by Jay W. Lorsch and Emily McTague in the Harvard Business Review suggests that placing major emphasis on changing an organization’s culture is putting the cart before the horse.

In the article, entitled Culture is Not the Culprit, Lorsch and McTague suggest that “cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges like reworking an outdated strategy or business model. The culture evolves as you do that important work.”

But what should you do if your organization already has a great culture and you simply want to reinforce and expand those essential beliefs, values, and behaviours? Focus on improving strategy execution, process performance and organizational agility to build the culture? Or, recognize and enhance the existing culture to entrench and improve organizational performance?

In this post, we’ll look at the approach one organization took to build their organizational capability. It focused explicitly on leveraging their widely recognized cultural attributes. It cultivated culture!


Thanks to M.A. for the details on this case.

The Situation

This automotive services organization had an open, collaborative and supportive, some would even say fun, work environment. There were lots of smiles and lots of engaged discussions on how to best solve their customers’ needs. Among the 200 plus full and part time staff, everyone knew each other’s first names, from the president on down. Their voluntary staff turnover was ridiculously low, usually due to a spouse moving out of town. New employees were introduced to the entire store over the course of their first day, with customers joining in the celebration. The company’s profit sharing plan allowed everyone to participate in their shared success.

The Service Manager, let’s call him Andrew, was a big booster of the organization’s culture. It made it easy for him and his staff to come to work every day. But he was concerned. The company was undergoing a significant expansion and would be increasing staffing levels by as much as twenty-five percent over the next eighteen months. He wanted to find ways of ensuring the culture was extended to and embraced by the new employees. Doing so would ensure the expansion would yield the planned returns for everyone, old and new alike.

One idea Andrew had was to capture “heroic” actions performed by staff for their customers. He witnessed first-hand “above and beyond the call of duty actions” by his staff. He heard regularly of similar performances from staff in other parts of the organization. He thought if he could record these occurrences as they happened and play them back to staff on a regular basis, the culture would be revealed and reinforced.

Related Article: From the Sponsor’s Desk – Measuring Key Stakeholder Satisfaction

Andrew reviewed the idea with his General Manager and President. They liked the idea enough to agree on a trial and proceed from there, either to abandon, implement or expand the initiative based on the results.

The Goal

Capture and share instances of heroic employee effort on behalf of their customers to demonstrate, sustain and reinforce the company’s cultural beliefs, values and behaviours going forward. The specific metrics agreed to included employee awareness (% staff who reviewed the stories), employee support (degree to which staff found the stories worthwhile) and comments and suggestions to increase the effectiveness of the effort. The initial trial was to run for three months.

The Project

The GM agreed to arrange some assistance from the Advertising Department to document and package the stories for publication in the monthly newsletter. They also helped prepare the announcement regarding the launch of the program trial.

The GM introduced the program to his department heads and asked them to submit possible stories to Advertising for consideration. Andrew was familiar with a number of events in his own organization that he thought would make good reading for the first month’s publication and selected three to start:

  • A customer booked an appointment to have snow tires installed. The tires he ordered were the most expensive, top-of-the-line tires available. When the customer arrived to have the tires installed, the service advisor asked him why he had chosen those specific tires and what type of driving conditions he normally encountered. Based on the customer’s response, the service advisor suggested another tire that would suit his needs just as well and save him hundreds of dollars in the process.

The customer was surprised that a company would actually suggest a lower priced product. But, after he thought it over, he decided to go with the recommended tire. A week after the appointment, the customer called the Andrew to say how thrilled he was with his new tires and what a pleasant surprise it was to encounter a service advisor who was more interested in his needs than company profits. He declared himself a customer for life.

  • A customer arrived with his daughter’s car to have a persistent leak from the back end investigated. The customer’s daughter was attending college in town, and the customer had given her the fifteen-year-old family car to get around. When the mechanic put the car on the hoist, he found a leaking gas tank. He also found a rusting structure holding the tank in place, rusting suspension and brake components and a badly rusting frame. He suggested to the service advisor that the car should be towed to the wreckers.

The service advisor informed the customer of the mechanic’s findings. Of course, the customer was aghast. He asked if there wasn’t some short term fix they could perform to get the car back on the road for the remaining five months of the school year. He argued that he didn’t have the cash do buy another car for his daughter with all the costs of sending her to school out of town. Apparently he lived more than a hundred miles away. The service advisor was sympathetic and conferred with the mechanic, but he was adamant. The car was a safety hazard and could not be repaired in any fashion to make it safe. The service advisor offered to have the car towed to the wrecker and a taxi for the customer to get back to his daughter’s residence where he had left his own car. The customer reluctantly agreed.

Later that day, the customer called the GM to express his gratitude for their professional assistance. Apparently, when the customer gave the bad news to his daughter about her car, she wasn’t disappointed in the least. None of her friends had cars. They all used the public transit system. She planned to do the same. The customer was most appreciative of the honest advice and impressed that the company had turned down a quick profit from replacing the gas tank in the interests of his daughter’s safety. He vowed to bring his own car in for service when he visited town to see his daughter. And he did!

  • A young woman brought her car in to have a “clunking” noise in the front end checked out. When the mechanic put the car on the hoist and did his investigation, he found severely worn suspension components that were on their very last legs. He passed the findings on to the service advisor to get approval for the needed repairs.

The service advisor informed the customer of the findings and gave her an estimate for the repairs. He mentioned the car wasn’t safe to drive in its current state. The customer groaned and put her head in her hands. She had recently been laid off and didn’t have the money to pay for something that expensive. The service advisor consulted with the mechanic about possible options. The mechanic volunteered to check out a couple of wrecking yards for the needed parts after his shift ended to see if he could save the customer some money. They explained the option to the customer, and she accepted. They sent her home in a cab.

The mechanic visited the wrecking yards on his way home and managed to find the needed parts in decent shape. He called the service advisor at home, and they agreed to charge the customer cost plus labour for the repairs. The service advisor called the customer that evening and gave her the good news. She was thrilled. The next day the mechanic completed the repairs, and the customer drove off in her car, now safe and sound. That afternoon she called the GM to express her gratitude for the friendly, professional service she had received. It was above and beyond expectations!

The Advertising staff assigned to the trial reviewed the submissions and accepted four for publication, including the three from the Service Manager. It was an automotive services company after all! A week later the monthly newsletter went out with the usual content, plus the stories, and great anticipation.

The Results

Two weeks after the newsletter went out, the Advertising staff conducted a survey to find out staff reaction. 212 management and staff were surveyed. 162 surveys were returned producing the following results:

  • % staff who reviewed the stories: 82% (133 of 162)
  • Degree to which staff found the stories worthwhile, out of the 133 who had reviewed the stories:


It was obvious from the results that, of those who had reviewed the stories, the vast majority, over 85%, found them worthwhile. That was great news. As well, there were a number of terrific suggestions, including:

  • Interview the customers involved and, if possible, put the stories in the customers’ words.
  • Recognize the employees involved including cash, service and/or merchandise bonuses.
  • To demonstrate the challenges as well as the successes, include stories where the staff was unable, in spite of trying their hardest, to satisfy a customer’s needs.
  • Make videos of the customers, their comments, and comments from the employees involved and put them on the company’s intranet.
  • Incorporate the stories into the formal and online training programs offered by the company.

These and other suggestions were included in the program over the following months. The customers involved in these stories were, almost universally, more than willing to talk about their experiences and what the services they received meant to them and their families. One of the downsides from the program was the sheer volume of incidents submitted to the Advertising staff for consideration, from two or three a week initially to over ten a day on occasion. The submission process was formalized a bit more, and a staff review committee was formed to manage the volume and assess and select the top candidates for recognition and further documentation. However, the president and GM made sure that they personally acknowledged every submission received and confirmed by the review committee.

Typically, there wasn’t a day that went by where you wouldn’t hear at least a couple of staff members chatting about the latest heroic exploit. Cultivating culture!

How Great Leaders Enhanced Their Corporate Culture

I really enjoyed writing about this case. Listening to M.A., the contributor, talk about the company, the often out-of-the-ordinary responses to customer needs, the program launch and trial and the results achieved left me with a perpetual smile. But there are some very significant lessons here for anyone involved in or leading change:

  • Recognize your assets, liabilities, and risks – This program wouldn’t have happened if Andrew hadn’t recognized the significant contribution culture made to corporate performance and the risks to that vital asset from the planned expansion.
  • Sponsorship – Chances are this program would have failed if Andrew had tried to run it on his own. By getting buy-in and support from the president and GM, he was able to get the other departments onside and engage support from Advertising to run it professionally.
  • Just try it! – Andrew had a concern and an idea. It wasn’t the final solution, but it was enough to get the president and GM to get on board. They saw enough value to give it a go and see what happened. The rest is history.
  • Collaborate! – This whole program was about recognizing and growing the pervasive collaborative culture to satisfy customers’ needs. The program and the organization succeeded by cultivating that culture.
  • Measure – Andrew, the president and the GM all understood measurement of the trial results was essential. Measurement not only provided the foundation for the go/no-go decision, but it also enabled the adaption and fine tuning that followed. They didn’t have a lot of metrics, but they had just enough meaningful indicators for what was needed.

We started this post with the view from Lorsch and McTague that cultural change evolves from fundamental changes to core strategies, processes, and practices. This post suggests that perhaps one can tackle cultural enhancement directly with equal success. It’s always nice to have options, isn’t it? So, if you find yourself in a similar situation, put these points on your checklist of things to do in future endeavours so you too can be a Great Leader. And remember, use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and Decision Framework best practices right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared your experiences for presentation in this blog. Everyone benefits. First-time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details, and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your insights. Thanks

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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