How effective CEOs implement culture change

Rightly or wrongly, CEOs are judged on everything they do as well as everything they don’t do. They are on stage 24/7 and are continually critiqued on their voice, their tone, their turn of phrase, their body language, what they said, and didn’t say. While it is all part of the job description, being the one in charge has its burdens, is challenging and not for the feint hearted. All that judgement is a lot to deal with, so clarity of role and knowing what ‘effective’ looks like in action is important. Corinne Canter explains.

Over the course of a decade working for Human Synergistics, I have talked with many CEOs who have been successful at turning an organisation around culturally. They have all shared some common behaviours.

  1. Authorise and back the change. This includes everything from “walking the talk”, to being honest about their own challenges, to signing off on the resources required (time, staff and dollars) as well as visibly advocating for culture. They talk about it and make space in their daily routines to back the rhetoric with action.
  2. Explain clearly why change is needed in a way that makes They explain not just how it will help the organisation but also how it will help their people and their stakeholders. Effective CEOs communicate why it matters to each person in the organisation. In addition to rational reasons for change, they address emotional reasons, beneath the surface, as to why some might resist it.
  3. Emphasise growth/aspiration. The uncertain language of “change” can make it sound like everything we have ever done up to this point has been ‘bad’. Effective CEOs talk about the opportunity to grow. It’s the burning ambition instead of the burning platform. Growth is more inclusive and it offers a home for everyone while honouring past achievements.
  4. Demonstrate “3 Zone Consciousness”. While they are grounded in the present and have taken lessons from the past, effective CEOs are essentially about creating a better future. Helping their people to re- imagine the future.
  5. Create and capture sustainable value. While employees understand the need to do well for their company’s shareholders, few employees jump out of bed to ‘increase shareholder value’. Effective CEOs understand the need to create and capture value in a way that is socially responsible. People need their leader’s goals to be in service to something bigger than their own self- interest!
  6. Are open-minded and open- actioned. Effective CEOs seek and accept feedback (even when it hurts; maybe especially when it hurts). They involve others in developing their thoughts, and regulate their emotions so that they can rise above the heat of the moment to provide a measured and considered response.
  7. Are congruent and consistent. CEOs become trustworthy and credible when they say what they mean, and do what they say. They don’t try to talk their way out of bad or variable behaviour. Actions speak louder than words, and people listen to action.
  8. Admit their mistakes and are prepared to say “I got that wrong”. There is a humility in CEOs that are not falsely modest or political – it’s just owning up to the fact that they too are human and will not always get it right.
  9. Manage out leaders who don’t support the vision. Effective CEOs recognise and manage detractors. CEOs must be clear and unambiguous about their expectations and actively manage them. It may not be ‘one strike, you’re out’ however, if negativity persists CEOs must be prepared to manage-out staff if their behaviour and is at odds with the organisation’s values.
  10. Understand that they require willing advocates, not reluctant prisoners. The notion that people will do what they are told is only true to a point. Effective CEOs cannot demand discretionary effort, people will choose whether they want to gift it. When discretionary effort is provided, effective CEOs know that it needs to be respected and not taken for granted. These actions and commitments collectively provide the level of ‘psychological safety’ and stability required to help people choose to join the path of change – the path of difference over comfort. If CEOs can apply these principles to how they lead, it makes a tremendous impact. People don’t expect perfection, just congruence.

Corinne Canter works with leaders and their teams to increase organisational effectiveness and business performance. Her expertise has been gathered over more than 25 years of challenging executive leadership roles in operations and human resources. Corinne’s experience at operational and board levels and collaborative approach to change enables her to produce effective roadmaps that relieve organisational pressure points, enhance performance and drive sustainable results



Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.