I recently heard from my old friend and past boss Klaus Entenmann, Chairman of the Board of Daimler Financial Services. He sent me and a couple of my past colleagues an email to let us know the large-scale culture change we started in 2005 has become part of the lifestyle of the organization. Nine years after we had our first meeting to determine what would energize the culture, the company has incorporated those values and principles as its own. This culture is delivering results as proven by the fact that Daimler Financial Services is the first German company to make it into the top 25 Great Places to Work and are continuing year over year to produce strong and impressive business results.
This is the challenge of culture change. Often leaders are focused on an immediate need and as a result, read some new leadership book and then buy into the idea that changing the culture will fix that immediate need. In most cases, it doesn’t work that way. Culture is established over a long period of time. The rules of the new culture have to be established and then tested over and over again. If we say that we are now customer-focused, we have to have those hard moments when customer-focus is difficult. When we say we will only accept integrity, we have to have those moments where costly decisions are made in the name of protecting integrity. This is how we determine if the new value is real
With a short-term focus, these “values” end up being seen for what they are…great ideas, aspirational goals, and transitory. Leaders who are playing the long game and truly trying to change the way their organization lives and breathes understand this. They actually look for those opportunities to show their followers they mean exactly what they say and they are willing not only to invest in this new direction but to pay the price of their commitment.
The other lesson to gain from this is that culture change is enabled from the top. Sometimes it starts there, sometimes it starts at the grassroots level, but in either case, if the leadership of the organization does not commit, it just isn’t going to happen. In the case of Daimler Financial, a huge investment was made in bringing the senior leadership along into this new culture. For some, it was no longer a good fit and they moved on to other things. For others, it was exactly what they had envisioned when they first decided they wanted to become leaders.
Culture is hard to understand and to wrap your arms around. It’s that white space between decisions, it’s a belief system and it’s a set of rules that are unspoken but understood. Culture requires faith in your own leadership and in the abilities of your followers. And rather than a management function, creating the environment where a strong culture can evolve is pure leadership. To be a small part of a significant and lasting culture change is a unique experience but well worth the effort.
Does your culture create value? We would love to hear about it so please share!