Set your cultural aspiration with these four steps

The new CEO of a major multinational organization inherited a crumbling empire. Declining performance. Unsuccessful product launches. Leader infighting. A complete lack of strategic direction.

He could have jumped straight into market analysis or strategic planning to transform the organization. But he took an unconventional approach. The CEO’s first move was to reach out and listen to hundreds of people at all levels of the organization to set a new, organization-wide aspiration addressing both business performance and culture.

How a cultural aspiration supports better performance

Why is it so important for the aspiration to be the priority in a transformation? In short, an aspiration is the foundation and catalyst for everything else that follows. Research from the book “Beyond Performance 2.0” found organizations that align on a clear aspiration across both performance and culture increase the odds of their transformation’s success by 300 percent.

Many books have been written about setting a strategic business performance aspiration, but how do you approach setting a cultural aspiration? Organizations can follow a four-step process. The first two steps are about developing an objective, science-driven perspective on the culture that will make the biggest difference to business performance. The last two steps are about translating data-driven insights into the language of that organization.

  1. Align the organization with a successful cultural recipe. Leaders can select from a set of cultural “recipes”—the combination of complementary behaviors that have an outsized impact on building a performance culture. Our research found that the highest-performing organizations align with one of four recipes: leadership factory, market shaper, execution edge and knowledge core. Senior executives can orchestrate an organization-wide conversation around the recipe that best fits their organization’s industry and organizational strategy.
  2. Prioritize critical behaviors. Once aligned on a cultural recipe, leaders should select 6-10 behaviors to emphasize. Our research identified four management “power practices”—personal ownership, role clarity, strategic clarity and competitive insights—that are particularly important because they have a multiplier effect on the culture. Executives should both fix the broken practices and build on the core behavioral strengths of the organization.
  3. Agree on the cultural themes. The selected practices can then be grouped into cultural themes that embody the organization’s mission, vision, values and purpose. These themes guide the decision-making process of employees at all levels—from the CEO to the front line. The organizations that do this will often have fewer themes—some as few as three. These themes reflect and signal the management’s core commitments, which will help galvanize the whole workforce to build the organization’s culture.
  4. Set behavioral expectations for everyone. The last step is about translating the prioritized behaviors into a language that employees at all levels of the organization can understand and relate to through either a leadership or competency model—usually with no more than 15 behavioral competencies. This leadership model becomes the articulation of cultural aspiration specific to that organization. Leaders can then select a few behaviors—around 3-5—to focus on each year. We will discuss how to change these specific behaviors in subsequent posts.

When organizations follow this process successfully, their cultural aspiration is anchored in the performance objectives, based on data science, and written in a language that excites the entire organization.

For the multinational organization, the initial focus on setting a cultural aspiration has paid off handsomely. Performance improvements have continued steadily for the past five years, and its stock price has tripled. Most importantly, the aspiration has excited and engaged staff across the enterprise, unlocking creativity and innovation.

For more on leading successful large-scale change programs, see our book, “Beyond Performance 2.0.”

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice