handsome young african american businessman presenting figures at a meeting with team

The greatest stumbling block to transforming an organization’s culture is this: first, it’s not seen as a sale which it is, and worse, those selling it (leadership) are not salespeople-or more accurately, don’t see themselves as salespeople. The latter is especially tragic because they are businessmen and a businessman is a salesperson. It is assumed here that they do indeed see themselves as businessmen in the first place.

Contrary to popular belief, a company is not driven by strategy. Its day to day activities and long term fate lays squarely in its culture. But what is organizational culture? Edgar Schein, one of the most prominent theorists of organisational culture, referred to it in general terms as: “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” Shared thoughts and feelings make or break organisations.

Sales orientation

The late legendary author, Chinua Achebe in his runaway bestseller, Things Fall Apart, says: “When the centre cannot hold, things fall apart.” And the centre that holds “things” together in an organization is its shared thoughts, perceptions and feelings-

its culture. As powerful as culture is, it is subjective and amorphous, which makes it easy to overlook and onerously steer in a different direction. It’s not an easy sale-if one ever existed. It’s true that strategy, structure and systems are objective and tangible and as such, much easier to contend with. What is also true is that, in themselves, they will always fall short of attaining the desired goal. The catalyst to achieving this is a style of management with a sales orientation.

In the case of a drastic change in culture (say, a transformation) the product feature on sale may be the change but the product offering (why staff should buy) are the benefits of changing their mindset. We don’t buy the features of a shirt i.e. to cover our nakedness or because it’s blue and long-sleeved. No. We buy it because it makes us feel good; or, we will impress others with it because of the brand; or it is in vogue and we want to be seen as trendy; or, it exaggerates our well toned muscles or shapely bust; or, it matches our handbag or, some other emotional benefit but not because of its features.

Like average sellers, most organizations, sell the feature of the product. A report by Mc Kinsey & Company, “The inconvenient truth about change management: Why it isn’t working and what to do about it,”) captures this best when it says that, “… most financial institutions implementing … transformations tell one of two classic change stories to motivate their people. The first—which we might call “good to great”—portrays financial services as an increasingly competitive sector in which customers are demanding better and better service, thus requiring the organization to change in order to recapture its leadership position. The other classic story is the turnaround, which says that the institution is performing below industry standards and must transform itself to survive. Despite their apparent logic, these narratives lack the power to motivate real change. They primarily address the institution itself: how it can beat the competition, push performance to the next level, pursue industry leadership, and so on.” They look inwards toward themselves-they look to, and sell the features. Buy the shirt because it is X brand and we’ve taken time to make it. Regrettably, as nice sounding as the pitch is, it lacks the power, the oomph! to fully hit home.

Emotional benefits

And why? It’s a logical feature-based argument which is not very useful to buyers (the staff) who are driven to purchase, by emotional benefits. Ridiculous, you think? Read on. The report goes on to say that, “Research by leading social scientists shows that most people are motivated to change by influences coming from beyond the organization. These include the customer, society at large, the working team, and the interests of the individual employee. If the change … is focused only on the organization, it is unlikely to inspire heartfelt commitment to the transformation.” There you have it. The seller (employer) and buyer (employee) want different things.

Yes. Disturbing as this may sound, it’s true. Employees are not hugely motivated by their employer’s reasons for change. Much like the objectives of buyers and sellers are usually at polar opposites. Employees are more moved by what the change means to them. Hearing this, the average seller (employer) will quickly latch on to money e.g. bonuses, perks and increased salaries. In essence what he is doing is looking at price as the reason why the buyer (employee) should purchase the product. It’s cheap, it’s affordable; buy it, he seems to say. Yet, any progressive seller will tell you that price doesn’t sell-value does. Warren Buffet puts it well when he says that price is what you pay, value is what you get. And value to the employee many times, as we have just seen, is in sharp contrast to the employer’s and could go beyond the organization. And to show value, leadership must therefore sell. Yes, selling is not that isolated activity, those salespeople we have hired to do and we feel are doing a wanting job. No. Especially in the Information Age, selling has itself transformed. A Gallup poll found that people spend 40 percent of their time at work in non-sales selling—persuading, influencing, coaching, instructing and convincing. And people consider this non-sales selling to be crucial to their success. Listen to this adaptation from Dan Pink, in his book “To Sell Is Human”, “Selling is intended to convince another to part with resources (time, effort, attention, money) and as a result become better off, not deprived. Looked at in this broader sense, selling becomes about moving people, not merely moving products or services. As such, everyone is selling.” This includes the leaders in the organization. This is a paradigm shift for many leaders. And realizing, accepting and embracing this, is the first step to successfully selling the change; the desired transformation.

Buy or leave

Some leadership teams reading this may dismiss it as fluff, saying “shape up or ship out is our maxim.” Buy or leave. This is tragic especially in the case where you desire to transfer your culture to customer centricity-the irony of it is plain to see. The first customer is the very employee who will give the service-he is an extension of your personality, your culture. How you treat him will reflect on how he treats (your) income stream-your customers. It’s true though, that you can’t win them all; just like you can’t sell your product or service to everyone. The change will have those who will not embrace it and will wish to leave and that is fine; in any case, attrition happens even with a culture status quo. However, this does not exempt the sellers (leaders) from aiming for long-term sustainable cultural change through winning the hearts and minds of the existing buyers (staff). In any case, cross-selling to an existing buyer (which is what the leaders will be doing) makes more economic and long term sense than acquiring a new one.

Successful transformations aren’t an overnight affair; effectively executed, they can take months just to gain some traction and years to come full circle. And yet isn’t this long term thinking in an organization the centre that keeps things from falling apart, having been shaken by short-term tremors?



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