Driving Cultural Transformations 

I have had the opportunity to work in four Asian countries – one of them my own – and the main challenge I faced has always been the same. Do I act in full alignment with the new way of working or do I adjust to the way things are done around here?

My dilemma is specific to my role. For the last seventeen years, I have been in the HR profession which is largely perceived as the function that moderates the “community”. Harmony is the name of the game, especially in Asia where it is almost always expected that working environments have a “family” feel. Projects and deadlines are tackled with patience and tolerance and where one-hour meetings begin with twenty-minute small talks among meeting participants.

The reason for me being there was because the Senior Leaders or the Shareholders wanted to undergo a cultural transformation. Supposedly, to steer the company towards a more performance-driven way of work. The context  is quite clear: the world is evolving fast, and the customers’ preferences are evolving just as fast. Adaptability to new technologies, sales and service channels, and the speed of delivery is crucial for the survival of most companies. Of course, everyone realises that the success of adapting to the new world depends on the employees’ abilities to upgrade their skills and to put them to good use.

Actually how comfortable are we when we are undergoing cultural transformation? We hear often “the only thing constant is change” and yet most Senior Leaders and Shareholders are not ready to give up the family and community company set ups, in spite of their intent. This is where the contradiction starts and spreads throughout the organisation. This, in turn, has an impact on HR’s role and hence my own approach to work.

In over a decade of working with different cultures, here are my key takeaways:

  1. There will always be ambiguity, no matter how strongly the Senior Leaders declare their commitment to transformation programs;
  2. There are good days as well as bad ones. It is smart to play it by ear and to “strike when the iron is hot”;
  3. Keep at it. Consistency is crucial to gaining trust;
  4. Lack of respect is a deal breaker.

There will always be Ambiguity

There is a reason why cultural transformations, or any transformation for that matter, take time. Most of the time and effort is put into ensuring buy-ins, especially from the top. Buy-ins are elusive for many reasons: a “working” system is already in place, the public may speculate about the organisation’s strength and lose confidence, employees may be demotivated, resulting in lower productivity. There are many other reasons, but the recurring theme is that transformation rocks the boat, so to speak.

Fortunately,  everyone is somehow aware that there will be ups and downs when the transformation process begins. Unfortunately, many leaders change their stance when the situation heats up – for the sake of maintaining harmony. And this is understandable. After all, so much work had been done by the organization to get to this stable state. The question then becomes, what can make us bite the bullet? And if the leaders cannot get a consensus, who makes the call?

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of Senior Leaders and Shareholders clarifying what they expect from the cultural transformation and to solicit their understanding that the success of any transformation program largely depends on how committed the least-committed leaders are. In cases where the leaders tend to waver, it would benefit them to be constantly forced to see the consequences of not going through the transformation.

Where cultural transformation is concerned, it is also crucial for Senior Leaders and Shareholders to understand that some of their current trusted employees may not take crucial roles in the new organization.

Strike when the Iron is Hot

Apart from the possible lack of full buy-in and commitment from Senior Leaders, another issue that  can plague those responsible for cultural transformation is the “whirlwind” – the day-to-day urgent issues that the organisation deals with – as described in the book “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” written by McChesny, Covey and Huling.

In the midst of whirlwinds, many leaders choose to delay decision-making on issues that matter in the future – including those related to transformation. In such instances, those driving cultural transformation programs need to be patient but always ready to strike when such issues arise.

Consistency is Crucial to Gaining Trust

Once the transformation intent and program have been communicated to stakeholders, especially the employees, it is important that the same consistent set of key messages are shared on a regular basis. This is especially so for organisations that expect behavioural and habit changes which require daily observations, even daily call outs.

Personally, this has always been the most difficult challenge for me during cultural transformations. While I can easily craft sweeping statements on posters, screensavers, newsletters and CEO speeches about how a behavioural change is required of everyone, the reality is that it takes a lot of patience to keep saying these words of wisdom to employees on a daily basis. Even more, it takes guts to actually call out peers, even superiors, whose daily behaviours are not aligned.

Once again, it is important to keep at it consistently, so that employees are aware that the cultural transformation is a) indeed happening and is fully supported by the Senior Leaders; and  b) is good for the sustainability of the entire organisation.

And while you are at it, employees eventually get to ‘get’ you.

Lack of Respect is a Deal Breaker

Everyone wants respect. It is a basic need. Many a number of cultural transformations failed because of a total disregard for the existing corporate culture.

But the question is, what is respect? How do you manifest respect in your working culture?

There is really no right or wrong answer here, as corporate cultures are a culmination of behaviors by each and every one of the organisation’s employees. I have had a lot of misses and have received several pieces of advice about understanding the local culture more. I now do my best to keep my eyes and ears open – listening skills are so important!

In many Asian organisations, respect is manifested by the tone of your e-mail correspondences and your voice, as well as respect of hierarchies and age. In others, it can be about making a professional judgment and steering clear of personal judgment.

I have once worked in an organisation where the hallway suddenly cleared itself when any of the Directors walked by. Was that considered a sign of respect? Yes it was. Was that how the employees wanted to manifest their respect of their superiors? The answer was No.

In all honesty, I am none-the-wiser and am still learning. I find that there is no one blueprint that I can turn to for driving a successful cultural transformation. I do my best to learn the culture, and I adjust my pace depending on the Senior Leaders’ intent and the capacity of the employees I am leading. And I am keeping at it, with respect intact, because I know that at a certain point, the constant hammering that I make will someday form a formidable performance culture.

River Ho Rathore


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