Transforming Toxic Cultures
By Kevin Haas
Helping clients turn-around toxic environments, build healthy cultures, create alignment, and improve results never gets old. One of my long-time clients was hired to fix a newly merged, large subsidiary. The business model was broken. The company had tried to be all things to each customer, promising a depth of customization that operations could not deliver.
Her challenge stepping into her role was replacing the culturally embedded destructive behaviors and mindsets that detracted from organizational results. She described it as “draining dysfunction and embedding a new collaborative, collegial culture, from the ground up.”
Once she finished her initial assessment she realized she had Frankenstein monster of mismatched parts. Legacy operational teams from the “old” companies fought over turf. Sales, IT and operations pointed fingers at each other as the cause of the dysfunction and poor performance. Turf battles were the norm and no-one took accountability.
Operational performance was so bad that customers were defecting at alarming rates and new customers were not considering the company because of the poor service and quality reputation. Sound familiar?
“This wasn’t my first toxic culture rodeo,” notes the client. “Earlier in my management career, I learned the hard way how not to rebuild teams. I learned that strong cultures and teamwork improves performance”.
Drain Away Toxicity to Re-engage Your Talented People
Toxic work environments are rife in business today. The specifics vary by industry and geography, but siloes and corrosive internal competition degrade productivity and profit in any organization. This dysfunction can be fixed. Great leaders can convert internal competition to collaboration and gain energetic commitment from employees rather than compliance.
My client took four steps to kickstart the evolution of her group’s toxic culture to a high-performing culture with radically improved results:
- Get strategic clarity around her direction
- Re-energize talent
- Develop a leadership and engagement strategy to thrive through the transition
- Take a top-down and bottom up approach to culture change
Gaining Strategic Clarity
During her first 90 days, she worked with an outside consulting firm that provided clear sense of the strategic business challenges and opportunities facing her industry. She identified and set strategic targets for her organization’s future. This multi-step initiative engaged the senior leaders and middle management. As a result, the leaders felt the strategic initiatives were theirs to own.
Early career mistakes and lessons taught her to manage, challenge, develop, and transition talent quickly to achieve results. She recognized that managing and transitioning talent needed to be completed in a humane way if she was going to achieve success. What she did:
- Brought in a few trusted lieutenants who behaviorally modeled the desired leadership traits.
- Engaged each leader outlining concrete action with specific coaching on expectations. Everyone knew what their targets were and how they were expected to lead the organization. Some leaders were moved, some promoted, others demoted into areas better suited for their skills and capabilities.
- Worked with Stop At Nothing to formalize training as a key vehicle to embed the leadership behaviors she wanted role-modeled and the culture she wanted to create.
- Let some people go, although fewer than anticipated once training started to re-engage and empower people.
Develop Leadership and Improve Engagement
Using her strategic vision as a foundation, she built her engagement, leadership and human development plan.
“Everyone has to understand where we need to go, and their role in that journey,” said my client. “And they need to learn the set of behaviors that will build the team spirit and collaboration.”
To support her efforts, she used Stop At Nothing’s High Impact Leadership Series (HILS) to build the leadership behaviors and values she deemed important. Combined with the Stop At Nothing TEAM sessions this provided a very clear roadmap for each leader to understand what the "new normal" was what was expected of them to be successful.
To bring the managers and staff along, she worked with Stop At Nothing to develop a customized PEAK Performance program. The PEAK program is designed to increase personal leadership abilities (accepting responsibility, improving communication, building trust and respect, etc.) to improve engagement within teams, and between work teams.
“The training not only gave people new interpersonal skill sets to drain away blame-throwing,” she adds. “It gave them a common language with which to address and resolve conflicts.”
Top Down, Middle Out and Bottom Up Cultural Approach
Improved leadership, better engagement and a common language massively improved organizational results. My client’s senior team collaborated and aligned to create transparent feedback culture.
Working together, I took the team through several intensive team sessions where we discussed all the issues that prevented open, honest and direct candor. This helped the team become more transparent with all the issues they faced, allowing them to make better decisions for the overall success of the organization. Rather than operating in distrusting siloes the executive team transformed themselves into a team that can openly talk and align. Additionally, each leader did team sessions with their work groups to cascade and support the transformation.
This one step, according to my client, “helps to weed out those who are on the bus building a healthy culture and those who aren’t. Having the right people, fully engaged and demonstrating strong leadership skills produces much stronger results.” Combined with the leadership development and the PEAK workshops, the entire team moved forward in a dramatic fashion.
Within 12 months, the company started to stabilize operational results. The market started noticing. Client defections slowed to a trickle and her division gained a double-digit increase in sales.
With continued focus and improvements, four years into this process the client has increased bottom line financial performance with a 10X increase in earnings. Using the 4 steps outlined above, along with targeted talent management, client retention and employee engagement is best in class and the company has doubled in size.