10.01.2017

From our CEO: How to win over culture skeptics (including your CEO)

What should you do if your management team doesn’t believe in the power of people and culture? Is it really worth trying to convince them to do so?

In a perfect world, you would leave that organization and go and find a company that does believe in people and culture. But we live in the real world, and that is not always a viable option. So what should you do?

Start by identifying your champion

The reality is, few companies exist where nobody believes in the power of people and culture. However, in some “old-school” companies, you may encounter a good degree of skepticism, most likely because senior executives think people and culture is something soft and fluffy.

Perhaps they think that you’re talking about making people happy all of the time with therapeutic drumming, chocolate biscuits and yoga mats. They almost certainly think that people and culture has little to do with the fundamentals of running the business.

Of course, that’s not what culture is about. Culture is about sitting down and saying, “What’s the thing that we care enough about that we're all willing to move mountains to make it happen?”

Your job is to find a champion who will help the management team as a whole see the big picture and value to the organization. Ideally, that person will be the CEO.

Find out what excites your champion

The first step is to find your anchor. You need to start with a story that person is already passionate about. Having a clear understanding of what really matters to your CEO – whether it’s growing a particular product or service, launching a particular division, or how senior leaders feel – is your first step.

Recently I was going over survey results with a client. We had a skeptical and utterly disinterested CEO in the room. His ears pricked up, however, when I asked about a particular group in the demographic spread. It was a new division he had been instrumental in acquiring and saw as critical for the future of the company.

“Do you realize,” I asked him, “that not one of the people in this newly-acquired company see themselves here in two years’ time?”

That certainly had his attention. He had just shelled out many millions of dollars to acquire this business. Naturally he wanted to know why these people were planning to leave and what he could do about it.

We launched into a productive discussion about how the data worked, and you can guarantee that he believed at that point, and wanted to do something about it.

The power of the null hypothesis to engage senior executives

Rather than talking about doing something, often it is more powerful to talk about doing nothing.

With the right data in hand, it’s relatively easy to paint a picture of what will happen if you take no action. In the case above, it was far more powerful to talk to the CEO about the consequences if no action was taken (and all the people from his newly purchased division departed).

The real power of the null hypothesis lies in reinforcing that by doing nothing, they are still making a choice that they need to be accountable to.

Remember: You’re having a business strategy conversation

If you are fighting an uphill battle to get the management team to take people and culture seriously, the CEO is the most powerful ally to have on side.

The key is to start the discussion in language that they understand. Show them that you are not having an employee engagement conversation, you’re actually having a business strategy conversation. That’s a conversation that even the most cynical and bottom-line focused CEO is interested in having.

Didier Elzinga is a People Geek and CEO/Co-Founder of Culture Amp. You can follow Didier on MediumTwitter or LinkedIn.

About Culture Amp

We've brought together experts in technology, data science and organizational psychology to ensure you can get the clarity you need, when you need it. Measuring employee engagement, experience and 360° feedback is simple using Culture Amp.

Learn more