HRBPTT – Cultural Change: Making the Shift

HR Business Partner Think Tank logoThese are the thoughts and takeaways from the latest HR Business Partner Think Tank (HRBPTT) held on Thursday 26th September 2013 hosted by News UK’s Milly Hume (HR Business Partner – Technology) titled ‘Cultural Change: Making the Shift’.

The following summary has been prepared to reflect a segment of the discussion held amongst senior HR and Resourcing professionals from leading national and international businesses. Specific company details, experiences and examples have been omitted from this summary as all discussions are held under the Chatham House Rule.

For a strategy to be successful, an organisation needs to be totally aligned, with everyone united in achieving the goals. Often it becomes apparent that the current organisational culture is not going to support a new strategic direction and inevitably, the leadership team will look to the HR Business Partners to drive a change in culture.

At this HR Business Partner Think Tank we considered the following questions:

  • How long does it take to change a culture?
  • What levers can you pull to accelerate the pace of change?
  • How do you align a culture with strategy?
  • How can you influence leaders and change deep-set behaviours?
  • Should you recruit new talent, or promote from within for crucial future roles?

What exactly do we mean by ‘cultural change’?

Primarily we are referring to the change in behaviours or mind-set of the entire company. In order to make a positive change this has to include everyone and become the norm.

The culture of an organisation is difficult to articulate – it is more something that you can walk in and ‘sense’, and it tells the story of the business. Some people best understand it as “the way we get things done around here”.

However, it is naïve to assume that the culture of an organisation can be the same throughout. Often, there will be ‘pockets’ that differ quite rapidly, so a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the most effective. Break it down, and understand each group or area before you try to change anything!

Be careful using the word ‘change’ – people often assume it will be radical! Sometimes a culture just needs to be ‘refined’ or ‘refocused’ by continuing what you do well, and developing the things you don’t.

The ‘cultural iceberg’ model was discussed, whereby the ‘visible’ 10% (appearance, language, behaviours, etc.) can be changed quite easily, but the underlying 90% which is more difficult to observe (perceptions, expectations, beliefs, etc.) is more of a challenge to change.

How long does it take to change a culture?

Cultural changes don’t ‘finish’, they should ebb and flow and constantly adapt with industry changes. Sometimes the language that we use (i.e. change programme) signifies that there will be a start and an end, but actually it is more about a journey (pardon the cheesy X Factor terminology!)

The pace of change will depend on the memory of the business and the strength of the culture – some are more malleable than others! Some people will embrace change and be ready to embark on it, and others may be more reluctant. These people will usually wait for everyone else to change first, but they need to understand that they are part of it too!

What levers can you pull to accelerate the pace of change?

Whilst you can try and realign expectations and set new physical objectives it is difficult to speed up changes in mindset.

HR must be strong and live by the new values in order to drive and champion the change. Stand firm – you are the biggest change agents, so ensure that your HR BPs are supported throughout.

If there is a situation where you lose a large percentage of the workforce, use this to drive change! Sometimes a burning platform can be instrumental in moving things forward.

Use opportunities like office moves to drive change too. Create new spaces and different ways of working to re-energise your workforce.

There isn’t a single plan that you should impose – especially for companies with several brands within them.

How do you measure the progress of change – Is it tangible or emotional?

Employee engagement surveys are good for creating a snapshot at a particular time. Monitoring annual reviews can also be good over longer periods of time. With any evaluation, a mixture of hard and soft evidence should be considered – i.e. retention, turnover, etc. along with surveys or review feedback.

How do you align a culture with strategy?

Executive Roadshows work well. Invite people from various brands or departments to come and meet with an Executive and ask any questions they may have! Surprisingly, some parts of an organisation have no idea what their strategy is, so it is important that this is communicated from the top down.

Leaders typically set the tone with a top-down approach so it is fundamental that they buy into the change and are involved in designing the new behaviours and values. If there is any uncertainty, leadership development programmes may be beneficial in getting clear definitions in place.

The only challenge with a top-down approach is that despite buy-in from leaders, cultural change can fail because of what some people refer to as the ‘permafrost layer’! These are mid-managers who aren’t bought in and can be more resistant to the change.

A good way to combat this is to have change agents throughout the business (mid-managers with the right attitude!) to ensure that the change doesn’t stop at this level.

In order to truly drive cultural change, should you recruit new external talent, or promote from within?

The key thing here is to recruit for the future, not just the here-and-now. Whether you choose to promote internally or bring in someone ‘fresh’, there needs to be a balance on recruiting for skills/experience vs cultural fit. This will largely depend on the vacancy and should be considered on a case by case basis, but if it’s a crucial HR hire in helping to promote the new culture, then cultural fit should take priority over experience.

Recruiting people who demonstrate the ‘new culture’ will have a huge impact and help to shake things up and drive the change, but it is important that they are supported through this, otherwise you risk losing them!

On the otherhand, promoting internally sends a great message and shows that employees are valued and recognised. The main difference here (and one that sparked a lively debate!!) is that internal promotions are often hindered by the reward (or lack of it) – in particular the fact that a lot of companies will only allow a 10% increase in basic salary for internal promotions, despite being willing to pay much more for an external candidate who would be doing the exact same job. Are there other ways you can reward your talent? Should this 10% cap be removed to avoid losing your best employees?

If the inevitable happens and one of your best employees leaves, treat them well! They are now your best brand ambassadors, and in this day and age, it seems to be much more acceptable for people to leave a company, progress elsewhere and then return.

The Hot Seat!

At the end of the Think Tank, we ask if there are any particular challenges that a member is facing, and whether the group can offer any tangible advice. One question that was posed was:

“What are your experiences of successfully communicating change? How have you embedded successful comms strategies to engage people?”

“We introduced Yammer ( which is a secure site where people can say whatever they want about the business! Because it created such a buzz, it spread by word of mouth and was quickly being used by about a third of all our employees – which is a huge population! It was really easy to implement and test, and wasn’t forced upon people. Because of the hype, our Directors would log on every day and engage with people. There was initially some anxiety from the leadership team as they feared that they were losing control, but it is important for them to realise that these conversations would be happening online or offline, so wouldn’t they rather know about them and be able to resolve any issues? It’s great that anyone can speak up and have dialogue with leaders in such a natural and open way. I highly recommend Yammer!”

“We found that running a one day ‘summit’ worked quite well. Keep it to one day (a Friday is good), make a big deal of it and get people out of the office! Get people to visualise the change, give peer-to-peer coaching, then take them for a drink and make it fun! Back in the office on Monday, ensure something is done to follow up – create roadmaps, etc. Then get people to drive it.”

“With people who are resisting the change, try getting them together to brainstorm their thoughts and ideas moving forward. It is important to recognise that people will change differently, but ensure something is done to encourage them and address their concerns and get them on board.”

“If the company or a business area are having challenges, tell the employees! Be transparent with them and treat them like grownups! They will understand the need to change because of this.”

“Bring people together with a day out of the office, perhaps charity work (gardening?) Look at the outcomes and personality profiles, who worked best together, etc. Agree to re-evaluate in 6 months and see if people have been more collaborative since then.”


  • Cultural change won’t happen overnight and is sometimes never ending… There is no silver bullet and it’s a hard slog!
  • HR need to remain strong – work together to drive change, and support your change agents
  • Use Yammer to communicate with your employees in a less formal way and use this to get engagement back from the business
  • Remember your audience – not everyone will change at the same pace, or with the same level of buy-in
  • Understand your business before trying to apply a solution, and treat each segment differently – it is not a one-size-fits-all approach
  • Manage your alumni well, and treat them as brand ambassadors! You never know when they will return
  • Change requires a top-down approach, so make sure leaders are bought in!
  • Internal promotion reward structures need to be addressed in order to avoid losing top talent – why pay them less?!
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