Culture: By Design or Default

By S. Chris Edmonds of the Ken Blanchard Companies

Mark was the president of a catalog printing & distributing plant outside of Minneapolis, MN. The plant’s parent company had completed an engagement survey and Mark’s catalog group had scored the worst of eight company plants. Mark gathered his senior leaders and they discussed what they could do to improve employee work passion. After a half-day of discussions, the realized they didn’t really know what to do. They decided to start with leadership training, since they knew some of their leaders were not effectively leading their teams.

Mark’s training director reached out to Blanchard. My sales colleague and I worked with Mark to help him understand that training wasn’t the answer. Building leadership skills is great, but if the culture doesn’t support the program’s models or behavior, leaders will set them aside quickly – and nothing will change.Mark and his team realized that their plant’s culture had NOT been intentionally designed – it had emerged by default.

The group decided to embark on Blanchard’s proven culture change process.Blanchard’s research revealed that high performing, values-aligned organizations have a foundation of clear performance expectations, behaviorally defined values, and accountability for demonstrating both. Our process helps senior leaders identify gaps that exist in their organization’s current culture and take steps to turn their “desired culture” into reality.Over the last decade, we’ve seen consistent positive results when the four phases described below are followed – and inconsistent results when they are not.

  1. Discovery – Honest discovery creates a snapshot of the current organizational culture. Interviews with senior leaders help clarify expected performance outcomes, the degree of values clarity, the degree of employee passion that exists, and what accountability systems are in place to ensure that people meet performance expectations and that their behavior matches the organization’s desired values.Interview analysis compares the current organization’s cultural elements with the best practices of high performing, values-aligned cultures and highlights key gaps.
  2. Immersion – Senior leaders are then “immersed” in a process kickoff workshop, where they learn the elements of the culture change process, identify consensus issues to address, and decide whether to move forward with the initiative. Typically senior leaders find that they must formalize the organization’s purpose and values, decide to manage both performance AND values with greater discipline, and hold all staff accountable for demonstrating espoused values. In addition, a proactive communications plan is mapped out. As senior leaders focus on these action steps over the following months, additional orientation sessions cascade throughout the management hierarchy. In these sessions, managers assess how their functional teams operate compared to best practices.
  3. Alignment – This next phase allows the reengineering of organizational structures and systems to be consistent with the desired culture. All staff members must understand what’s expected of them in terms of specific performance and valued behaviors.The senior leadership team identifies key metrics for the culture change initiative and shares them with organization members. Metrics often include performance gains, efficiency, growth, and employee work passion. These metrics are measured and published regularly.Systems “tweaks” occur to ensure that staff members are delivering on performance expectations and are demonstrating desired values.Accountability systems are created and tested. The most effective tool for values accountability is a custom values survey that measures, every six months, demonstration of the organization’s defined valued behaviors from the employee’s perspective. Senior leadership team members then analyze the results for gaps in values alignment and develop tactical plans for addressing the gaps quickly. The final element of creating alignment is orienting frontline staff to the culture change process. Typically intact teams experience modular sessions lasting 1-2 hours each. These sessions allow frontline teams to clarify and formalize their team’s purpose and to refine the organization’s values into team norms that are relevant to their work and customers.
  4. Refinement – The culture refinement process is ongoing – it’s a senior leadership team project that never ends! Senior leaders must continue to refine systems and policies—and at times even “reorient” managers and staff members—to reinforce the desired behavior and values. Survey data analysis and monitoring of key metrics continues, ideally featuring grand celebrations of accomplishments. The senior leadership team may discover the need for further skill building for leaders and team members, building self-directed work teams, etc. to keep the culture change alive and well. New employees are oriented to the newly clarified purpose, values, and performance expectations.

Mark’s senior leaders wholeheartedly embraced the culture change process and generated remarkable results across their plant. Within 18 months:* Profitability increased 36%* Employee engagement improved 20% (within six months!)* Employee retention improved 17%We’d love to help you create a work environment that demonstrates high performance, trust & respect across the workforce, and better employee work passion than you have ever experienced.


S. Chris Edmonds is a speaker, author, and senior consultant with the Ken Blanchard Companies. Chris is Blanchard’s “corporate culture guru” – he speaks and writes regularly about the positive impact of high performance, values-aligned organizations. Chris’ culture blog is at and his main page at Blanchard can be found at Read his culture & leadership tweets

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