The Role of a Change Agent in Culture Change

Leading a culture change is a courageous undertaking.  It is fraught with challenges and resistance by those who believe they will lose something they value.  In this blog, we will summarize some of the essential initiatives and obstacles a change agent faces in creating culture change.

As we have emphasized in our previous blog, to be successful, there must be a compelling reason for change.  People need to feel the pain of the status quo. In other words, they must have come to the realization that things cannot stay the same and change is inevitable, thus creating the opportunity for change.

This does not mean that everyone willingly accepts proposed changes.  While they may agree with the need for change, they may not accept the change itself.  The main reasons for this are the losses they anticipate if change takes place. Let’s look at an example from the Tonawanda Engine Plant.  When Don Rust took over, there were supervisors who practiced what we call “bully management.” These supervisors intimidated those working for them, barked out orders, and threatened their workers with disciplinary action for not complying with their demands.  Bully managers were toxic to a positive culture change. In fact, they were a big reason why the plant was failing. Confronted with the challenge they posed, Don Rust made it very clear these supervisors needed to change their behavior or leave, clearing away one of the major obstacles for change.  

To engage in culture change, leaders must have passion.  They must believe in the culture they are trying to create and in the people they serve.  Yes, we did write “serve.” The culture changes we are talking about are employee centric, engaging workers to be partners in the change process.  This means listening to them, trusting their judgement and their support for the change effort, and showing them respect.

Culture change will require a changing of the operating rules of the organization.  Barriers that lead to “silos,” or groups that are isolated and rarely communicate with each other; status symbols like executive washrooms and dining rooms that separate management from the rank-and-file; and rules of engagement that hinder communication must be removed.  Here is an example. In the Tonawanda Engine Plant, pre-culture change, the chairman of the Shop Committee was not allowed to enter the plant manager’s office. Learning of this, Don Rust created a new rule. There would no longer be any restrictions to enter his office. This broke the ice and led to many of the positive changes in the plant.

Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 1.42.27 PM.png

Buy-in is essential for culture change.  Peter Schutz, former CEO of Porsche in the 1980s, offered this advice to engage employees: “Decide democratically and implement like a dictator.” What he meant was to get everyone on board first and then work the plan tirelessly.  Peter got results, bringing Porsche back from a low point to one of the best sports cars sold. There is little question that buy-in will increase energy and gain the cooperation of all involved. Commitment to action does not always mean agreement, but it does mean releasing energy to implement the plan.

Involving workers in the business is a leap of faith. Involving them in selling products is exceptional.   But this is what Don Rust did to engage workers. Business cards were printed for each worker, encouraging them to hand them out to friends and relatives. A special arrangement was made with a local Chevrolet dealership to offer VIP treatment to anyone purchasing a new car who was referred to the dealership and had in hand an employee business card.  It was not difficult for employees to connect the importance of making quality engines when they had become stakeholders in selling the product that contained their engines. Knowing they were referring people to buy a new car with engines produced at their plant led to a major initiative to improve engine quality. The sales program energized the workforce to do whatever it could to ensure high quality engines because it was in their interest to do so.  And when a car was sold through a worker referral, the worker received a jacket embroidered with “Chevrolet Sales Team” on the back. Workers wore these jackets with pride. And they produced the highest quality engines.