Company culture can make a huge difference. Consider Southwest Airlines for instance. They started with a clear goal of making air travel affordable for those who previously could not afford it, whilst offering unsurpassed customer service. To the surprise of traditional airlines Southwest grew dramatically and not only captured their target market, but also made significant inroads into traditional airlines’ market share.
Several established airlines sought to copy Southwest’s business model, but they consistently failed. Why? Because they tried to copy what Southwest achieved without first capturing the culture that made what Southwest did possible.
Is your workforce ready to embrace Digital?
The lack of a company culture that supports digital transformation is the second key element that we touched on briefly in our previous article, “Why Isn’t Our Digital Transformation Progressing Faster?”. In that article we revealed the six key barriers and enablers that we have uncovered in our years of helping companies achieve true digital transformation. Surprisingly to leaders who are seeing their efforts at digital transformation stutter and stall, the challenges that usually slow transformation are not technology, but people issues.
Culture (which drives mindset and behaviors) plays a key role in successful digital transformation. Gartner recognizes this in a recent report: “For any transformation to be successful, people need to buy into your vision,” said Aashish Gupta, research analyst at Gartner. “The culture aspect and the technology demand equal attention from the application leader, because culture will form the backbone of all change initiatives for their digital business transformation. Staff trapped in a ‘fixed’ mindset may slow down or, worse, derail the digital business transformation initiatives of the company” (Gartner 2018) . Yet, many business transformation leaders focus on technology, with culture an afterthought. How can leaders prepare their workforce to embrace Digital Transformation?
Sense of Purpose
At the center of an organization’s mindset and behaviors sits its shared sense of purpose. The organization must have a clear company mission and vision – AND employees need to clearly understand it.
Leaders need to ask themselves how company business strategy is currently being communicated to employees. The previous post on the leadership team’s crucial role in digital transformation stressed the importance of leadership developing a common understanding of what digital transformation will look like and what the consequences of not achieving that vision will be. Once that shared vision has been formed, the next step is to determine how that shared vision will be communicated to employees and how to get the entire workforce’s buy-in.
Note how Southwest Airlines (Makovsky 2013) accomplished this. The three core values they sought to communicate could easily have been put into traditional business-speak as “take initiative, offer outstanding customer service and enjoy your work.” Instead, though, they went with “a warrior spirit, a servant’s heart and fun-loving attitude,” a far less vague and far more visceral triumvirate of values that employees could not only tuck away in their minds intellectually, but also serve as a challenge to live out with each customer interaction.
Granted, communicating shared values is not as simplistic as choosing emotionally charged words. But this example clearly shows the need to move beyond traditional approaches as you strive to align employees to a new culture that actually means something to them. The same principle applies to digital transformation.
Changing organizational culture does not mean starting over from scratch. You already have some core values that are long-standing and here to stay, in areas such as ethics, integrity and a focus on safety for example. So which values should an organization promote to support its digital transformation vision?
Mondelez International Inc., the global snack food spinoff of Kraft Foods Inc., recognized this challenge and that it involves constantly reinventing the core, constantly repurposing what they did before – and the recognition that their space moves so fast that they cannot sit and wait to see which direction it goes. B. Bonin Bough, former senior vice president, chief media and e-commerce officer for Mondelez , said: “We [non-tech companies] have to begin to bring that attitude into our businesses. And so we have to, in a lot of respects, shift culture [and] cultural mindset” (cited in Kane et al 2015) .
Your values thus need to clearly support your organization’s vision for its digital transformation, and their purpose and meaning must be clearly understood by employees. Common examples include areas such as innovation, growth mindset and customer-centricity, but there is no one-size-fits-all. Each organization must define its own values that support its overall purpose and digital transformation vision.
Then there is culture as a value in itself. This manifests itself in the perception that leaders, supervisors and employees have of the importance of culture.
For example, company culture at Zappos is far more than a default that developed over time (Heathfield, 2017). Zappos consciously decided what it wants company culture to look like and reinforces that vision from its decidedly nontraditional recruitment process through initial training through the career paths that they create. In fact, so focused are they on maintaining their desired company culture that ensuring that all new employees properly fit into that culture is the first step in screening potential new employees.
What is your organization doing to ensure that your vision for company culture is grown and maintained? Is any individual, or team, in your organization responsible for culture? Has this important task been offloaded to HR or have you set up a dedicated team that reports directly to leadership?
Taking action to change mindsets and behaviors
Once you have defined your values and culture and have leadership buy-in, what can you do to spread your desired culture throughout the organization? Changing an organization’s culture is daunting. Many organizations don’t even try.
Don’t expect traditional training programs, “retreats” and superficial communication efforts to get the job done. A culture change for digital transformation requires a targeted program, with the following elements:
- Walk the talk: Our series of articles started with That also means your leadership team needs to craft and visibly demonstrate those mindsets and behaviors in their own actions.
- Actively build trust: People follow the lead of those they trust. Realize, however, that communication efforts can be a double-edged sword. If communication is one-sided, it can destroy trust quickly. It requires two-way conversation and actions that support what has been communicated. This also requires that leaders trust their employees – thus demonstrating a level of trust across the company.
- Use Design Thinking to involve your people: Design Thinking is an effective methodology to develop new values or new processes while directly involving those that are targeted; your people. This involvement creates a level of buy-in that top down communication cannot achieve.
- Focus on intrinsic motivation: Extrinsic motivators (monetary rewards, bonuses, etc.) can achieve a short-term impact, but meaningful intrinsic motivators can cement lasting changes with individuals. Such motivators connect them to the greater purpose of the transformation and company. Identifying these motivators is an art, but they result in possibly the greatest impact on sustained behavior change.
- Align performance management: Reconsider how performance management in your organization aligns to the organization you want to be. Are you recognizing collaborative efforts at least as much as individual achievements? Is taking a risk and failing being taken as an opportunity to learn from the failure? Rather than saving feedback for year-end, engage employees in constructive feedback that is frequent and geared to help employees perform better throughout the year.
An effective program with these elements tailored to the values your team develops can change mindsets and behaviors as well as drive – and accelerate – your organization’s digital transformation.
The role of leadership does not end with developing the vision of your organization’s digital transformation. It requires buy-in and understanding of that vision across the organization, supported by a common sense of purpose so that the culture itself is transformed to align with the values that will underpin your digital transformation.
This can be a daunting task but, with determination and a targeted program, it is achievable. It is a natural outgrowth of leadership finding a shared vision and then communicating – and living out – that vision in a sincere and authentic manner.
Changing mindsets and behaviors across the organization to enable digital transformation is one of the six key issues that determine the speed and success of organizations’ digital transformation. See those six issues discussed briefly in our article, “Why Isn’t Our Digital Transformation Progressing Faster?” and join us in the coming weeks as we examine the remaining four in greater depth.
To find out how you can accelerate your organization’s Digital Transformation,
contact us for a free consultation with nepf.
 Ken Makovsky, Behind The Southwest Airlines Culture, Forbes, November 21, 2013, Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenmakovsky/2013/11/21/behind-the-southwest-airlines-culture/#5373f9753798
 Gerald C. Kane, Doug Palmer, Anh Nguyen Phillips and David Kiron, Is Your Business Ready for a Digital Future, MIT Sloane Management Review, June 16, 2015, Available: https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/is-your-business-ready-for-a-digital-future/
 Susan Heathfield, Find out the Ways Zappos Reinforces Its Company Culture, The Balance Careers, September 9, 2017, Available: https://www.thebalance.com/zappos-company-culture-1918813