How to Change a Company’s Culture


Every organization has a culture.

And many organizations want to change that culture for a range of reasons.

Some want to make an organizational culture more dynamic, so that it will appeal to the people the company needs to hire. Others may see refreshing the culture as a strategic step to inspire those who work at the company today to do more work for tomorrow. Others may consider ways to reinvent culture on the inside in order to excite customers on the outside. And yet others may decide to rethink culture for the same reasons they change wallpaper: Because it’s there.

No matter the reason, if you hear the question, “Can you help our organization change its culture?” ask yourself and the organization seven essential questions. And then proceed with caution.

How does the organization define culture?

After many years working on culture with many companies, I have heard many definitions. For some organizations, culture becomes code for the social life that workers expect to experience, while for others, culture focuses on the contributions that leaders expect from team members. For some, culture details an organization’s DNA—that special quality that differentiates the workplace from others, that ultimate outcome for all the choices that people inside an organization make, every day, as they lead and work. And for others, culture is an outcome of how people work.

The less precise an organization’s definition of culture, the weaker its commitment to confront necessary change may be.

Why does the organization want to focus on culture?

Before you get too excited about the potential to work on a company’s culture, ask yourself and the organization, “Why now?” After all, culture is not a new topic, nor a new business strategy. Many think culture has been eating strategy for breakfast for years. So ask yourself: What now prompts the organization to take a look at its culture?

Could new leadership have an idea about how it wants people to work? Is HR concerned about the organization’s ability to recruit and retain the people it needs? Or is marketing uncertain about how to align employer and customer brands? As excited as you may be about the work, you want to know why this work is considered necessary now. And if the expectations for success are within reach.

What is the organization’s cultural history?

Before committing to help an organization change its culture, learn everything you can about how the culture came to be in the first place. Where did this culture come from? Do a little fact-checking. Could this culture be, perhaps, the result of a series of mergers or acquisitions? If so, what cultural souvenirs did past owners leave along the way? What cultural scars have past leaders embedded in the organization’s DNA? What behaviors, once considered acceptable, are now frowned upon? What specific leadership habits—such as a tendency to “command and control” or the temptation to “micromanage”—did people in the organization inherit?

Unless new leaders are willing to confront what got the culture from there to here, you may be challenged to lead them from here to there.

How do leaders picture the culture they want?

Before jumping on the culture express, picture the destination. What culture do people want to work in? And how detailed can the organization draw this picture? Unless a leader can specify what he or she wants the culture of the organization to be, you may find yourself guessing about what interventions to recommend.

Ask as many questions as you need to generate the depth of answers that will give you specifics about what people see. Leaders, especially those fascinated with culture, can fall into sharing general descriptions. And the work requires rigor in how it’s described and how its change is implemented and measured.

What picture do workers paint of today and tomorrow?

Before signing on the dotted line, confirm that leaders will give you the license to diagnose the culture in detail. Carefully conduct the qualitative and quantitative research you need to diagnose what people need from the experience to meet the expectations. What you learn can frame what you need to learn from people who work inside the organization. What do they think and want? How they observe and connect with the leaders who want to change the culture? Because cultures do not change; leaders change, and cultures follow. Which is why a picture painted in detail by workers is essential to creating culture change that lasts. Otherwise, the journey may only become a boondoggle for leaders.

How willing is the organization to take a transparent look at how people work?

Before moving forward, confirm that leaders are willing to take this work any place it needs to travel. The answers about culture can’t be found in what leaders want the organization to become. They only surface if we, as communicators passionate about culture, diagnose what lies at the heart of how people work, and what must change in how people work, are led and managed, as well as how they are recognized and rewarded. How workers react to what they experience every day will shape the culture they want to work in and contribute to—which may or may not be the same culture that leaders hope to create.

How can I bring value to this culture journey?

Before you say “yes” to culture, we must be honest with ourselves about what we can contribute to fulfill the organization’s needs. Can we really offer what the organization needs? Culture change requires more than simply communicating about culture; it requires us to deeply dig into the depths of how the organization works, and why, and what all these organizational habits add up to create. And, if change is in the air, what specifically about how people work needs to change to create culture that workers or leaders, or both, wish to create?

Mark Schumann

Forty years ago, Mark Schumann started working with CEOs to shape corporate cultures. That work led to a 26-year career with the consulting firm Towers Perrin—where his clients included Southwest Airlines, ExxonMobil, American Express, Kimberly-Clark—followed by working as a certified executive coach with top leaders at such organizations as IBM and Delta Air Lines. Schumann also leads the teaching of communication in the Zicklin Business School at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York. In early 2018, he joined Sabre Corp. in a new role as vice president of culture, again working with a CEO to shape a corporate culture. Schumann is an IABC Fellow, a 17-time Gold Quill winner, a past chair of IABC, and the co-author of Brand from the Inside and Brand for Talent.


  1. Thoughtful article. When asked to “change the culture” I also like to ask who are the biggest influencers in the culture. Often, in the absence of good, intentional internal communication well planned and executed, a handful of employees who work the rumor mill have the most significant influence on the culture. When planning culture change initiatives, I like to identify people at all levels who are generally influential in positive ways and groom them with the right information. The way one IT manager who visits many offices answers coworkers’ offhand remarks about the future of the company could possibly turn the ship in the right direction. Imagine if each member of your organization’s senior leadership team “adopted” one influential (read: chatty) person to have coffee with once a month. Imagine further that these leaders were trained to listen, to demonstrate empathy, and to pepper the conversation with key messages for those influencers to pass on to others.

  2. An insightful piece. The most important take from this piece for me is that whilst leaders can try and push for a particular culture in an organisation, it is actually the employees who live and breathe the culture that ends up enacting it. Whether a Leader chooses to recognise this and work with their employees to create a culture that both parties are happy with and are committed to, or just chooses to plow through with their own ideal vision on culture, defines whether a change in culture will happen and how effective it will be.
    “How workers react to what they experience every day will shape the culture they want to work in and contribute to—which may or may not be the same culture that leaders hope to create.”

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