I recently came across this Harvard Business Review blog article which looks at how leaders can influence the corporate culture. The article’s main points and guidelines are in line with my own article on the same topic entitled ‘Cultivating the Culture‘.

The author is Ron Ashkenas, a managing partner of Schaffer Consulting and a co-author of The GE Work-Out and The Boundaryless Organization. His latest book is Simply Effective.

You Can’t Dictate Culture, but You Can Influence It – by Ron Ashkenas

There’s an old joke about a CEO who attended a presentation on corporate culture and then asked his head of HR to “get me one of those things.” Of course it sounds ludicrous — but like most jokes, this story is based in truth. Many organizations treat the creation, maintenance, and periodic updating of their cultures in a cavalier manner. Either they pay lip service to the kind of culture they want, but don’t do much about it — or worse, ignore culture completely.

Most senior managers struggle with culture because it’s so difficult to define. Even less tangible than a “soft” concept, culture is more like a cloud: You know it’s there, but it’s nearly impossible to grasp. Wikipedia defines culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.” But how do you come to an agreement on those “shared” attitudes, values, goals, and practices? And even if you do, how do you get hundreds (or thousands) of people to think and act in the way you agreed upon?

The answer is that you don’t. Even after thousands of years of civilization, leaders still have trouble getting everyone to follow any basic precepts of behavior (think the Ten Commandments). In other words, culture is not a “goal” to be mandated, but the outcome of a collective set of behaviors.

Leaders however can influence those behaviors in several ways — and by so doing shape the culture of their firms. Whether you are a CEO or a department manager, here are three steps that you can take:

Convey your vision of a winning culture. If you want to be more than just the caretaker of an existing culture, then you need to define your aspirations. What will be different, and how will it make a difference for the success of your organization? More specifically what are the most critical behaviors that will characterize the culture you want to create? For example, Jack Welch used the mantra of “speed, simplicity, and self-confidence” as the beacon for his transformation of GE’s culture in the 1990’s — in stark contrast to the company’s analytical, bureaucratic, and hierarchical culture at the time. This aspirational vision sparked dialogue at every level of the company about what people needed to do to make GE successful — and to be personally successful at GE.

Demonstrate how new cultural behaviors can advance the business. Nothing reinforces new behaviors more than success. So once you define these behaviors, work with your team to apply them to a specific project that might need to be accelerated or improved. To do this, challenge your team to achieve a specific stretch goal in a short period of time, while explicitly trying to bring the new culture to life. For example, several years ago a financial institution set out to create a more collaborative, proactive, and externally focused culture. To demonstrate what this meant, one of the trading groups worked with a relationship team to find ways of improving cash flow for a specific client — while keeping the new cultural imperatives in mind. Their success encouraged other groups to try similar experiments, such that the new culture gradually became more of a reality across the company.

Put teeth into the new culture by integrating it into HR processes. People tend to do what’s measured and rewarded. So a third step for building a new culture is to use the desired behaviors as criteria for hiring, promoting, rewarding, and developing people. The real turning point for GE’s transformation came when Jack Welch publicly announced to his senior managers that he had fired two business leaders for not demonstrating the new behaviors of the company — despite having achieved exceptional financial results. This made it very clear that the culture was not just a soft concept — instead, it had tangible outcomes and consequences.

Shaping a corporate culture is one of the most difficult challenges for a leader. But if you want to get started, following these guidelines will probably be more effective than telling the HR director to go out and “get us one of those.”