Culture Change: How To Make It Happen

Changing culture is one of the most asked questions I get when I’m on the road teaching about leadership. It typically goes something like this: I definitely want a different culture than the one I have. My current one is more like a soap opera than a business. How do I change it? 

It’s a little difficult and takes longer than an hour with a few commercial breaks. (Although, there may be some drama, crying and certainly the possibility that a long-lost, broke cousin who dropped out of high school will become CEO of your company within a couple of months. But hey, it might not happen!)

Loser cousin aside, here are a few things you have to do to change your culture:

  • Define your culture – What exactly are you looking for? Do you want a place with no gossip? Do you want your team members to be customer focused? Is the internal team the customer? Figure out exactly what you want to see day to day and write it down.
  • Cast a vision for your culture – Once you know what you want to change, you have to spend time casting it as a vision. Time … T.I.M.E.! It is not going to happen overnight. But you have to start somewhere, so begin by teaching your team. We have a no-gossip policy here, so we constantly remind our team members.  If there is an infraction, we give them a warning.  After the initial warning, they’re out like an ‘80’s Members Only jacket if they do it again. People need to hear what success looks like, so they can go in that direction. It won’t just happen by osmosis.
  • Implement your culture – Here is the most important part. You have to live, eat and breathe your new culture. You can’t tell everyone what you want, only for them to see you sitting around waiting for them to make it happen. They will take their lead from you, whether good or bad. Show them how it’s supposed to look. Make sure you are rewarding exactly what you want to see, and be sure there are consequences when that very culture isn’t lived out. Keep in mind, however, you’re possibly turning a battleship, so leniency may be needed in the early stages. But eventually, an example will need to be made to show you’re serious. Once you make that example, you have to live that way going forward, so do it carefully and prayerfully.

Execution here is key. And it can’t be left up to you. Your entire leadership needs to adopt this new way of “living” at the office. If they can’t get there, then guess what? They can’t stay there. As you get going, you’ll be surprised at how well people will either follow or buck the system. Reward the followers, get rid of the buckers.

Question: What does good or great culture look like to you? 



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Meet Chris LoCurto


Chris has a heart for changing lives by helping people discover the life and business they really want.

Decades of personal and leadership development experience, as well as running multi-million dollar businesses, has made him an expert in life and business coaching. personality types, and communication styles.

Growing up in a small logging town near Lake Tahoe, California, Chris learned a strong work ethic at home from his full-time working mom. He began his leadership and training career in the corporate world, starting but at E'TRADE.

36 thoughts on “Culture Change: How To Make It Happen”

  1. This is perfectly timed, Chris – thank you! At my nonprofit, we are in the midst of redefining our culture to one of sharing the hope and grace of God as we serve our clients. What great reminders to cast that vision and then model the culture every day. Great inspiration.

  2. Excellent post!
    How do you change the culture in a volunteer organization when there is no line-up to join up? It’s difficult to “boot the buckers” when the roster is already suffering losses.

    1. I led a team of volunteer moms that were teaching faith formation at a Catholic school. Simply put, we got rid of the buckers for sure! The stakes were too high in the program to have bad volunteers. They gave me a run for my money. Some of them created lots of conflict and they lived for gossip. One of their big issues was a critical opposition to the school’s theological vision. It was a major deal! We focused on attracting and inviting new volunteers, weeding out the bad ones and training the good ones. It’s very hard because they feel they’re not accountable since they’re not getting paid. I say if you have a project that rocks, keep building it and they (the good ones) will come.

    2. Ugh! That does suck when you don’t have a great roster. However, you can still lead the culture. You just have to force it. What you want, make it happen. Teach it over and over, and explain how important it is to the ministry.

  3. Chris,
    I can tell you without any doubt that since ELMS in S.A. there has been a drive for culture change and I agree eating, living breathing, demonstrating, teaching, discussing, and daily implementing. I have not had a day off since coming back and can say APATHY and LACK OF INDIVIDUAL discipline by team members can overcome the desire for culture change. This is as sad as it gets and I it has opened my eyes to why this country is in the shape it is in. What I have learned is that people without the desire to better themselves and or enrich their lives by having ownership and real participation in a positive work environment, truly believe they are owed something by someone else. I am truly saddened by what I see and can tell you with clarity people will take what suits them at the time and leave the rest on the table. I am starting to believe that just as freedom requires discipline, that some in the work place do not know or comprehend anything more than a job and pay day is on Friday and that is why I have to ask myself if I have made a serious mistake.
    You can not give freedom to those who don’t want it.
    You can not fight their fight for them.
    leading by pulling is a great concept but some people only understand direct, hard treatment and this is a reality.

    1. Chrismapp72:

      I just had to reply to your post, since I’m more of a simple team member and don’t really have any authority in my position. I can tell you that while you may be correct about some people, often times you just have to figure out what inspires or drives people. Show them you care about them as an individual. This isn’t always easy, but it seems that you have a negative take on the situation. Especially if you are trying to fix a culture you originally created.

      It’s just like Entreleadership says, hire correctly, take care of them, set high and clear expectations and help the non-performers move on.

      You may be too emotionally invested and might need to take a step back?

      No matter what, good luck and God bless!

    2. Dang Chris!! Well put. It is crazy the entitlement mentality that there is in this country. I think you would love Andy Andrew’s book How Do You Kill 11 Million People. I think people are being sold a lie that someone else needs to take care of them. Ugh!!!

  4. Culture is so important, but often left to happen by itself. I totally agree that it MUST be intentional for optimum performance!

    I would really like to get your take on an organization that doesn’t have any desire to discuss culture from the very top and what someone lower on the food chain (Sales person) can do about it? Sorry for the run-on sentence!

    I believe that you would tell this hypothetical person that it may be time to move on? 😉

    Thanks again for the great content Chris!

  5. Love this post! I think this is SO critical in business, church, volunteer organizations, families, communities and so on…

    I’ve had the privilege of working with amazing leaders that were crystal clear on what type of culture they wanted to build. And you know what? The people that can’t handle it sometimes weed themselves out! They just can’t tolerate it and leave or make enough big mistakes to step on people’s toes until they’re walked out.

    I’ve seen culture that is so strong and embedded in the key players that they start monitoring it in their peers. Hey, my three-year old daughter has told my husband “we don’t wear shoes in the house because we get the floor dirty” or “we always give each other a blessing before we leave the house” or “you can’t eat donuts before supper because they’re not healthy for you”… You get the idea.

    A good organizational culture is like a good family environment. If you don’t have it, you can’t fake it.

  6. In some volunteer organizations I’m in, I’d love people to be more interested and take more ownership. Right now, it’s more like clock in, clock out.
    How do you cast a vision like that? I’m afraid it may end up looking like I’m nagging or harping. I fear that it may result in rolling eyes instead of in a change of culture.

    1. The most important thing is you have to cast a vision that is exciting. If you just hit the house keeping items, then you’re right, they will be rolling their eyes back in their head. Instead, show them a vision of something that is bigger than them. Show them why it’s so important that they are a part of it. Make it big.

  7. I guess a key here is knowing what kind of culture you want before your organization gets too big and full of people who don’t align with your desired culture. Its so hard to reverse that years later.

    1. Absolutely correct. It’s turning a dingy when you’re small and turning a battleship when you’re big. Both can be done but one is considerably easier. And yes Joel I did use dingy. 🙂

  8. Ricardo Butler

    Man you guys put out some good, clean cut stuff. I just order three books and I finished one of them. The first one is called Change Agent by Os Hillman. The second one is called 5 Levels of Leadership by John Maxwell, which I had to put on hold to do the leadership level assessment to continue the book. I usually don’t do the little helps in most books but the Lord lead me as the leader of both an international ministry and a online blogging business network to start doing these. I have plateaued for the last couple of months and so has both the ministry and the business. That means so has all those who are under my leadership. We’ve gotten lukewarm as Christ put it so bluntly. My mentor told me that I need to take a good hard look in the mirror and realize that I am the problem. So I start with me. Then I took John Maxwell’s assessment to all off my team and my family so they can give me honest iron sharpens iron feedback on how I am doing. I don’t want brown noses. I want the hard truth. A man did they give it too me! So after I get the rest of the assessments in, I will know where I am at, then go back into the book to start my process into winning and incarnating Christ-like attributes back into my character. And the third book I got was the EntreLeadership book. Man I have to tell you that book is in your face stuff. I’ve been listening to the podcast, which are powerful. But reading material has a heavier effect on my thought process then an audio. It sticks with me longer. Plus I get to highlight or write notes in the book, etc. So immediately I’ve been with the Lord’s help putting in practice what the Lord wants us to do like reevaluating the vision, re-casting the vision, making sure we all agree on what God wants us to do, then assigning people their parts according to the needs and their strengths withing our ministry, families, and business. These three are one to us. All principles practiced at home are taking to the business and the ministry (church) realm. Are word for 2012 is “Adamant”, because we are hardcore about changing our culture so that we can win and help others how to win!

    Thanks for the post! God bless!

  9. Chris – great message here …. we need to get this out to more people … sometimes it is like preaching to the choir ….. the people that are not listening to this need to be the ones doing it ….. thanks for taking the lead on equipping organizations and not for profits!

  10. It’s hard to turn the battleship when you can’t steer the ship. At our facility, we can’t enforce the “no gossip” policy. We can only remind the team about our values: Trust, Dignity, Respect, Responsibility, and Excellence.

    Then, we can only ask which one of those values is demonstrated with gossip. We can’t write up or dismiss people for it…unfortunately.

      1. I’ve gone all the way to the top to inquire with the “Employee Relations Director” of the healthcare organization. In his role, he fields all complaints, accusations, disputes, terminations, reversal terminations, and lawsuits, large and small. He calls himself “The Principle”, and jokes that if you’re in his office, you’re probably in trouble. I jokingly tell him he’s our very own Pontius Pilate!

        He knows every line of policy in our system, and has said that gossip is a behavior issue that conflicts with the 5 values of our mission statement. It is hard to actually write someone up, or coach & councel them for being a jerk.
        All I can do to uphold the policy is to not participate in it myself. There is no written policy on gossip specifically like you have in your organization.

          1. We do our best, and I have a good team, but the gossip seems to be systemic. It is a hospital, after all. I only run Cat Scan (15 people), so it’s a difficult battle in a building with over 700 team members.

            I greatly admire your boss’ policy on this infraction!

    1. Dillanos_ScottH

      I’m very late to the game on this post but I think you have nailed it.  In the end all you car really do is define what your values are, live them out yourself, and ask others to do the same.  Culture by definition  really boils down to a group of people with shared values.  Ive worked for two companies with, not only amazing, but incredibly controlled cultures (Dillanos Coffee Roasters and Mindspring) These companies have three things in common and  you will find that it matches up with the rest of the worlds strong corporate cultures.  1. Sr. Leadership knows what their culture is at any moment through surveys, reviews, and old fashioned leadership.   They don’t tell what the culture is they ask, then adjust.  2. They clearly define values as well as what success in living them out actually looks like.  3.  They make an individuals success directly tied to their ability to take actions and decisions that are in alignment with the values. 
      If a team member cannot consistently act out “Trust, Dignity, Respect, Responsibility, and Excellence” they should be let go.  The position you are in is tough because it seems as if the hospital is 0 and 3

  11. I think you put a key to the development of a culture in one word: Time…It takes lots of time. You have to be willing to devote the time to it, or the results won’t happen. You have to clearly define your vision in order to be able to lead.

    I have to remind myself this. When I feel my team or my clients team are not following, struggling, discouraged, caught up in the old ways of operating…I have to review my vision so that I can help them see theirs. People are used to not having to change and be told their conduct is not allowed. We as a society have gotten away from the discipline needed in the office. It takes leadership that has courage to point out the wrong and change it so its right. It is not for the faint heart!

    Thanks for the reminders Chris on what type of culture do I want? and to take the time to create it!

  12. Organizational culture is one of the key elements for long term success of the organization. A good culture is one which nurtures professionalism (and not nepotism/ favoritism) from top to bootom of organization. A great culture will be thriving on meritocracy (and not patronizing ) in the organization. Also, an organization which strives to create a good culture will bat for diversity and equality in treatment for all.

  13. I think the key to this – as you said – is to be constantly executing. After defining the vision of the culture – there has to be execution by the leadership. And then hard choices have to be made – people are watching to see if culture change is really going to happen. As leaders, we WILL be tested on this!

  14. A previous job I worked seemed perfect….from the outside.
    Nice building, great benefits, etc.
    I worked there three years, and was completely miserable almost the entire time. Looking back now, I realize part of that was my fault because I let this particular person get to me.
    A specific co-worker went out of their way almost every single day to make digs at me or somehow make my life difficult. I tried to respond professionally by not really giving any kind of reaction, but to continue with my work. After working over a year, I finally approached my boss from the angle of wanting to do well at work and how to handle things appropriately. My boss said they would talk to the person. Things didn’t change. I accidentally found out my other co-workers went to my boss on my behalf because of the things they witnessed. After another year, I approached my boss again. My boss told me they could talk to my co-worker again, but there wasn’t much they could do outside of telling that person they would be let go if they continued. And my boss made it plain without directly telling me, that they would not be doing that. That’s when I knew it was time to move on.
    I know it can be difficult, but bosses need to be willing to do the hard thing, and approach a conflict and make it right. By avoiding conflict, a boss can do a lot of damage to their employees, the morale in the workplace, and even their business.
    I believe culture is very crucial. And I’m finally at a business that believes that too! 🙂

    1. You are so right Laura…thanks for sharing you personal story! I have been in those shoes before, and it is a VERY difficult one!!! I don’t regret walking out, though somehow at the time it doesn’t seem right.

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