CEOs and Boards – Discover How to Change Culture

Published on 30 May 2019

Culture can be governed, lead and managed, or it can just happen – it does not, not happen. Recent public relations events in several sporting and commercial organisations have identified the risks associated with not proactively investing in the development of effective culture. Culture is ultimately the responsibility of the board and the CEO.

The following case attempts to highlight the how of effective culture development.


Lifewise, Airedale Property Trust, and Methodist Mission Trust (the trusts) are three separate not-for-profit entities with one vision – connected, just, and inclusive communities.

In 2014 the ‘one vision’ was agreed but how to achieve this was less clear.

Senior leadership had become aware of the following challenges:

  • Staff understood their own service offering but were not connected to the wider vision of the organisation. Communication across services was limited. The trusts were experiencing silos across entities and across service provisions within the largest entity – Lifewise.
  • The existing policies, procedures and practices in the organisation were outdated, unwieldy, bureaucratic and not well aligned to the nature of the organisation, the desired culture, or the strategic direction.
  • Staff within the organisation had become accustomed to ‘traditional’ styles of people management that didn’t necessarily support innovation.
  • The systems discouraged empowered decision making and unconsciously fostered passivity, confusion and a lack of accountability.

The organisation needed to create an environment capable of sustaining performance under demanding conditions – culture change was required.

The Process

The CEOs were interested in benchmarking staff engagement. However, engagement data would not identify the causal factors of the challenges identified above. Senior leadership required causal factors data to understand how to best direct their individual and collective efforts towards a more effective culture.

The Group Human Resource Manager, Fiona Masson, recommended Human Synergistics to the CEOs. In partnership with Human Synergistics the trusts decided the data would come from a comprehensive staff survey called the Organisational Culture Inventory (OCI) and Organisational Effectiveness Inventory (OEI).

It would be the first time the organisation had undertaken a comprehensive staff survey. So, in preparation for the survey Human Synergistics administered senior leadership development. The common language used within the senior leadership development laid the foundational understanding to facilitate the culture change anticipated to follow the OCI and OEI survey. Outsourcing the senior leadership development also allowed Fiona and her team to maintain focus on other important elements of her strategic people plan.

Fiona and her team continued a significant programme of work overhauling and aligning HR policies, processes, guides and practices to the vision and values of the trusts. These core people management documents were designed to reinforce expectations of a constructive culture. A code of conduct reinforcing the organisation’s values and expected behaviours was developed and implemented. The documents were collated into a Manager’s Toolkit to enable easy access. Fiona and her team then put a lot of energy into developing the coaching capability of managers to facilitate effective behaviours across the organisation. The trusts were gearing up for an effective culture change.

The OCI and OEI was completed in 2015. The results were communicated through a series of energising, facilitated workshops. The workshops highlighted the need for transformational change, aligned thinking and engaged everyone in the culture change that was afoot. Fiona and her team then encouraged cross-functional groups to take ownership and drive specific pieces of work. It was exciting to see all the hard work come to fruition in teams and across the organisation.

The Solution and Key Outcomes

Fiona and her team prioritised the establishment of a more user-friendly and proactive performance management process. Immediate feedback following the implementation of this new performance management approach was that conversations between managers and staff had shifted to be more collaborative, more strategic, and more development orientated. Management and staff felt like they were on the same team, rather than pitted against each other, and this had a dramatic improvement in reporting relationships.

Improvements in people management policies, processes and procedures also had a notable impact on the culture by setting a constructive approach to leadership. Internal and external stakeholders responded positively to the approach. Airedale Property became one of the first organisations in New Zealand to receive Social Housing Accreditation from GlobalMark. GlobalMark noted the organisation had elevated its standards to a level of excellence that inspired confidence in approving their accreditation.

The work also developed a strong employment brand for Lifewise. The three trusts reduced voluntary turnover to 9.7% for 2017-2018, well below the national average of 14%, while also increasing full-time staffing levels by 10% year-on-year for three years. The trend is projected to continue in the year ahead based on demand and recognition by industry partners.

“We have increased our financial viability and grown our impact as innovators in our sector.” - Fiona Masson, Head of Human Resources.

The sentiment was realised in 2018 when re-test data highlighted significant improvements in the trust’s causal factors, culture and outcomes data:

Lifewise Casual Factors

The changes to the causal factors (above) improved the organisational culture (below). Basically, blue is more effective and red/green is less effective.

Lifewise OCI Culture

The outcomes that flowed from the culture improvements were significant.

Lifewise Casual Factors 2

Overall the improvements have resulted in a work environment where people appear and express greater happiness and productivity at work. The organisation has increased its financial viability and grown its reach and impact as innovators in the social services sector. It is in a position to continue to respond to the requirements of partnering organisations and the needs of the people it supports to continue to foster collective, just and inclusive communities.

Top Tips for Effective Culture Change

  1. Elicit buy-in from senior leadership
  2. Develop capability and align leadership thinking and behaviour for culture change
  3. Capture the appropriate data
  4. Invest time and energy into understanding the data
  5. Facilitate understanding and change of the appropriate causal factors
  6. Demonstrate and communicate return on investment by re-testing