What to do when your CEO resists culture change

Getting the CEO to embrace culture change can be a nightmare if he or she isn’t open to it. Here are some ideas for bringing leadership around.

What do you do when the CEO is the bad apple ruining your organization’s culture?

This is a tough question, and though I don’t have a silver bullet answer, I can share some practical wisdom from my experience working with CEOs who did not see the value of culture. In some instances the CEO eventually came around and worked to lift the culture to another level. In other cases we didn’t get past the slide deck.

Traditional wisdom advises you to build a compelling case that shows culture’s return on investment. That makes sense. Present the facts showing the need for change and what the benefits are, and quantify the business value. This is the way to go if your executive is rational and logical. However, in some circumstances the rational approach doesn’t work:

  • The CEO’s objection reflects a deeper, more hardwired belief that culture is a “featherweight” amongst other business functions.
  • The CEO is after incontrovertible proof that culture change can work in your organization. Alas, a great “fit for purpose” culture doesn’t arrive in a flat pack with an Allen key; it’s a customized process of change. Even with ample evidence, often what the CEO actually wants is a guarantee before investing, which isn’t possible.

Of course it’s disappointing when this happens. But don’t give up.

Working with CEOs resisting culture change

1. Understand your leaders—is skill or will interfering with their support?

  • If it’s skill, they’re likely motivated but need support to build their skill base to lead in this specific context. This is relatively easy to work with.
  • If it’s will, your job is harder, but not impossible. Lack of will or appetite effectively means the CEO does not want or cannot see any value in culture change. The most important thing in this case is to just engage (see below). Before doing that, however, you first need to understand the world from the CEO’s perspective. The test of whether you really understand where CEOs are coming from is how effectively you can describe your understanding of their perspective to their satisfaction, not yours.

2. Look to connect rather than “tell” or “sell.” Drop your agenda and detach from your ideal vision of what you think needs to happen. Start a conversation for no other reason than simply to connect. Find the common ground that makes sense to both of you and enables you to authentically and truly align:

  • One of the ways I have found to do this practically is to consciously “level up” as you converse. If the discussion is at the tactics level, for example, go up one level to goals. If the goals aren’t aligned, go up one level to outcomes, and from there to principles or values and so on. You’ll find something to agree on if you are both open to it. Watch closely, listen carefully and suspend judgement. Meet leaders where they are, not where you want them to be.
  • Start with you. Ask yourself how “How am I getting in my own way and theirs?” Treat the issues seriously, but hold them lightly. A bit of humor goes a long way in helping everyone get perspective.

3. Focus on the long game, and realize that the change process you are attached to might not be how it actually happens.

Cultural change is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires the collective will of all the people in the organization to accomplish properly. It takes a compelling vision, a clear process, solid commitment and patience. People process change at different speeds and in different ways, and not, unfortunately, on our timetable. (Learned that the hard way.) If the CEO is not enthusiastic then he or she just may not be ready. Switch your focus to ways in which you could facilitate readiness. The best way to do this is to broaden the CEO’s worldview by:

  • Inviting external credible speakers (thought leaders and other industry CEOs) to meet and speak.
  • Creating internal case studies. The CEO may not be ready, but one of his or her direct reports might be. Focus on creating an internal reference and proof point. Can you create a grassroots movement within the organization?

4. Remember that resistance can be a form of adaptation.

Although on the surface you may feel like you’re not getting anywhere, your leader might surprise you when you least expect it. Sometimes CEOs need a verbal wrestling match that helps them think out loud and process information before arriving at insight. They might sound critical, but in fact they are exploring options and ideas. Be patient and focus on staying with their thinking rather than winning the argument. Resist falling into a point-counterpoint conversation. (This is where leveling up is handy.)

You really can’t escape the “groan zone” in any change. The change isn’t what kills you, it’s the transition. It is messy, ambiguous and frustrating, no matter how well planned or how fantastic the theory might be. Rather than seeing this as a problem, expect it, prepare for it and understand that working through the groan zone is the transformation. This is where we learn new ways of working and increase our tolerance for ambiguity and difference.

The reality is that these strategies do not always work, and you might eventually need to decide if this is the right place for you. Before you get there, though, redirect your efforts in working with the CEO by focusing on the one thing you can control: your mindset and your choices.

Corinne Canter is a senior consultant with Human Synergistics Australia. She has more than 25 years of working with leaders to create high performing, toxic-free teams and workplace cultures. A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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