In a survey of top leaders by Booz and Company in 2013 84% of companies surveyed said culture was critical to success and yet the majority admitted their culture needed a major overhaul.

So, how do you transform a culture to meet your company’s needs today? How can you get employees or teams to behave the way you need them to in order to execute your strategies and enhance your performance as well as employee engagement and the customer experience?

We can do that only by improving the behaviors of people. That’s because culture is nothing more than the collective beliefs and habits of the people in an organization. That means we can transform cultures only by creating personal transformation in people. This becomes the challenging part, it is not easy to get adults to change their life-long habits and beliefs.

That was the challenge I personally faced more than 35 years ago as I set out to create a culture-shaping firm. The central question was; how do we change habits of already successful adults? How do we get a seasoned executive who is over-controlling and territorial to collaborate, delegate and coach? Over the almost 40 years of doing culture transformation work, I have learned what has worked when it comes to changing the behaviors of successful adults in a way that results in alignment of healthy behaviors throughout the whole organization, ultimately creating a total culture change.

So what has proven to work?

Think of someone you know who had major shifts in behavior almost overnight. The hamburger-and-fries-eating couch potatoes who start walking regularly and eating better probably had a health scare that got their attention. They had an aha! moment. No one arrives at a major life change intellectually. Change comes from an experience that gets people’s attention and causes them to stop and reflect and shift their mindset.

1) Unfreeze our underlying thoughts and beliefs
We call this key to change “unfreezing” because it challenges our underlying thought system, giving us the ability to choose a new way we want to be.

We call these aha! moments “inside out” learning, and have demonstrated that it is far more transformational than “outside in” learning. When we get that deeper insight and make a personal commitment to a new way of being, the changed behavior is much more likely to stick, especially when reinforced.

This insight-based learning is much more effective in shifting cultures than great communication programs, informational meetings or inspirational talks. People learn best when they personally experience something, as opposed to just hearing it, being told about it or reading about it.

2) Start at the top
Our other finding is this “inside out” learning approach works best when it is first done with those at the top of an organization. This is because of a phenomenon called, The Shadow of the Leader which states that an organization is heavily influenced by the leader’s behaviors and actions even if they have very little contact. So in order to make an effective change the first personal transformation needs to come from the top.

3) Help people make a personal connection to the change by understanding the reason for needed change

Another finding is that transformation efforts tend to work better when people understand why it is important to be changing the culture and what’s in it for them. It is human nature for us to be more committed to outcomes when we see the need . Because of that, employees should be clear on the benefit to them personally as well as the benefit to the organization.

4) Help people to connect to healthy values for work and life effectiveness by being at their best
There is one other secret to lasting change. The healthy values for an organization are also principles of life effectiveness for people. You don’t just change work behaviors, you change life behaviors. So, when people see that their insights are leading to better relationships at home as well as work, and a better quality of life, they want that to be a part of them. The behaviors needed in a healthy, high-performance culture also make great tools for people to live their lives. A winning culture includes collaboration, personal responsibility, learning and growing, respect, trust and many other important personal values.


About Dr. Larry Senn

Dr. Larry Senn pioneered the field of corporate culture and founded in 1978, Senn Delaney, the culture shaping unit of Heidrick & Struggles. A sought-after speaker, Senn has authored or co-authored several books, including two best-sellers. His newest is The Mood Elevator (August 2017), the follow up to his 2012 book, Up the Mood Elevator. You can learn more about Larry and his work at his website,