Making the Case for Culture Transformation: Is Now the Right Time for my Organization?

How can you position your organization on the forefront of your industry and create a culture which invites the full self and full performance of your people?

In the sixth and final article of this series, revered Transformation Advisor Kyriacos “Theo” Theodosiou shares perspective garnered over four decades successfully guiding CEOs in navigating transformation – focusing on the business imperative of culture transformation in the post-pandemic environment. 

Moderator: We just heard from Deborah Proctor, former CEO of St. Joseph Health and THEO advisee, legendary in her ability to lead organizations through change. She emphasized leadership’s role in transforming the organization. Today, we’d like to focus on cultural transformation in the current post-pandemic environment, especially as we navigate economic uncertainty and other turbulence. Theo, is cultural transformation possible given the times we live in?

Theo: Culture transformation IS the context in which organizations function at the moment.  So, their own culture transformation is essential in order to survive, navigate, and even affect their external environment.  Boards and CEOs know this truth; they don’t always know how to transform or even evolve their organizational culture – but they know it is needed.  And to address the realities of the health care industry, I believe that in the next five years, the transformation of culture in organizations will become as ubiquitous as Quality and Safety is today.  

Moderator: Let’s remove the aspirational context and ethos. What does having a cultural strategy mean? Can you give us the tangible elements?

Theo: Let’s look at how culture transformation has been perceived. Everyone has heard the phrase, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” That statement is filled with risk. So, for the longest time, culture has lived on the list of challenges that must be overcome. This led to inaccurate thinking that implied your strategy is only important if it can survive the culture. We must change this mindset. Our culture is, first and foremost, an opportunity, a strength, and a strategy for lifting and enabling the organization. You're not solving a problem when you're working at transforming your culture. You're creating a new portal to a new future.

Moderator: So, it's not an intervention, it's an investment?

Theo: Yes, it's an investment, but it's more. It’s a destination. When the culture has been sealed correctly, the organization has characteristics that become an everyday strength. That culture lives out its values and is the firm’s biggest asset.  Whatever happens, the culture will ensure that the organization doesn’t lose its way and can find it again. 

Moderator: When we think about cultural transformation, how does it help attract, retain and, most importantly, optimize talent in this current post-pandemic landscape? What do we need to know from a leadership perspective?  

Theo: Let’s define the tectonic shift happening right now. It is a result of several forces and then accentuated and accelerated by the pandemic. I believe human beings in this country have changed their relationship with work. They have changed their expectations of how work is a part of their life. The expectation is that work now fits within their world. They don't just exit every personal aspect of their lives when they go to work. That's not acceptable. So, the tectonic shift entails the expectation. Employees are asking, “Am I fully invited –with my whole self –into the workspace?” If the answer is no, they will keep looking.   

Moderator: Yes, we’ve had more than two years of seeing our team members’ whole lives during virtual calls. We see peoples’ kids go by and we see their homes. It’s been a portal into the personal and professional, which have merged.

Theo: The “whole self” has been legitimized. And by the way, the virtual meetings have had a democratizing impact. Everyone has the same size box on that screen. It's not a group of people in a room, everyone staring at the CEO. The most influential person in the room is everyone staring forward, and everyone is expected to speak. This is a different perspective and a new way to form an organizational community where everyone is welcomed and feels that they belong. 

Moderator: So I'm a CEO of a 10,000-employee organization who understands the times and is ready to transition to a culture that fully invites people in as their authentic selves. How would I do this, and how do I engage my leadership and board?

Theo: Begin by leveraging your mission and your vision. This is the single element that everyone in the organization should have in common and can apply to their own selves. If the vision is really worthy and still challenging, it may mean that transformation is necessary to get you there. You're not going to get there just by keeping on. 

Let me introduce a metaphor to help with the cultural transformation process. Transformation is a commitment to climb to the top of a mountain. But it’s hard to immediately send teams from the valley to the mountain. You must build base camp, recruiting enough senior and junior people to have a critical mass, and then you begin to punch it.  And sometimes you’re not done yet. You must communicate to the next mountain range and build a base camp again. This idea of base camp is a powerful descriptor because it captures the construct of transformation readiness. You know you're ready to do something transformational, truly difficult, when you have all the things you need at base camp.  But you’re usually not finished. Once you reach the top of the mountain, that becomes your next base camp. There’s always another mountain to scale to achieve true transformation.

Moderator: So, when the culture is sealed at that base camp, you begin to look for the next base camp at a higher peak?

Theo: It’s a cascade. The base camp is not on the side of a hill. It’s on a plateau where there is a valley and foothills. You're not going to park at base camp, and it's not a destination point. You begin a series of steps. Perhaps for the next ascent, leadership invites their teams to climb.  These climb teams can succeed or fail, but leadership must have a solid base camp before every climb.

Moderator: Two-part question here. What types of organizations should truly consider engaging in a transformational journey, especially concerning culture? And what are the risks associated with those organizations that are not moving forward? 

Theo: Let me address the question of risk. The choice not to transform is often a loss of opportunity. Eventually, the right leaders come along to be the right guides. It's only a matter of time. We've had this phenomenon in health care where we were so defined by the tenure of different CEOs, and we would have three or four good years, followed by three or four difficult years. However, because of the nature of reimbursement, we have challenging years, one after the other. There hasn't been that time to pause anymore. The cycle has been disrupted, and the risks are greater when organizations are not moving. 

As for the other question, look at your present resources. If what you have doesn’t come anywhere near the potential of your organization, you are ripe for transformation. However, if you believe you can achieve great impact where you are, you are among those fortunate organizations to keep moving in the direction you planned. You have the right elements and can capitalize on them. However, you should also be mindful and ask how long that unique combination will last in today’s ever-changing environment.

Moderator: Thank you, Theo, for your insights and giving us so much to think about.

Kyriacos “Theo” Theodosiou is the Founder and CEO of THEO Transformation Advisory. THEO is a trusted Transformation Advisory firm partnering with enterprise leaders and entrepreneurs on the forefront of the Wellbeing movement. THEO’s uniquely human approach transforms your Talent, harnesses Culture as a strategic advantage, and guides the Enterprise across the entire transformational journey. THEO ensures organizations fulfill their Vision and meet their potential in time for it to matter.

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