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Leading a Culture Shift Where You Work

Leading a Culture Shift

We see the evidence of leadership everywhere we go.

We see the presence of good leadership in some companies, and the absence of it in others. For instance, in convenience stores, there’s a measurable difference between QuikTrip and 7-11. In quick-service restaurants, there’s a huge difference between Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell. In theme parks, there’s a contrast between Disneyland and Six Flags. In department stores, there is a noticeable difference between Nordstrom (or even Macy’s) and Sears. The cultures are just…different.

So what makes the difference?


The way people see and serve others. The way these leaders teach their teams to value people. For some leaders, people are an afterthought. For others, people are everything. I walked into a QuikTrip store this morning and was immediately greeted, with eye contact and a smile, from the clerk, even though he was busy stocking products on the shelf. He actually noticed me, and when he greeted me it didn’t feel like he was a trained monkey who’d been told to do it.

In so many other convenience stores—that would never happen; or if it did, you could tell they did it begrudgingly. Without looking up, or with their back to the customer, they mumble some greeting. The customer often doesn’t respond because they’re not quite sure who the clerk is talking to. The act is perfunctory. Why? Because management is copying a competitor who “gets it,” and they’re attempting to emulate the same spirit. And failing miserably. It’s plastic. In so many places I patronize today, I feel as though I’m in their way.

In contrast, at Chick-fil-A, Operators and Team Leaders not only equip their staff to value people; they model the way, delivering food to the table, refreshing drinks and asking if there is anything else they can do for patrons. They’re engaged. The good news is, a culture change can happen anywhere: schools, non-profits, colleges, youth groups, companies…and even where you work.

I just read an article about Affinia Hotel staff who are trained to “read their guests and figure out what they need even before they ask, just by looking at them.” Everyone from housekeeping to management is tailoring his or her interaction with guests based on body language. In fact, a body-language expert trained employees over the summer on what cues to look for. “So many companies, when they talk about service, they program it to how many rings until you answer the phone,” says John Moser, chief brand and marketing officer for Affinia. “It’s very scripted. I think it’s better to give (staffers) some tools they can use to help identify what’s the right way to address somebody at a particular moment.”

Instead of telling staff how to behave, they equip them how to think. It’s less about behavior modification (which you can do for a pet), and more about “perspective transformation.” Team members gain a new perspective and can respond with an act that may not appear in their job description. Staff actually read and respond to their guests. They anticipate what their mood is, how they may be feeling and what they need from the hotel. Employees are instructed to mirror a guest’s volume and rhythm of speech to put them at ease. Staff learn that if a guest is constantly touching their face, it’s likely a sign they’re anxious from a long day of travel or meetings. Grabbing their chin or ear or continually rubbing their head are cues to get them to their room quickly or make them feel comfortable. This kind of training can lead to true service that comes across to guests as extravagant and sacrificial. It’s a very different kind of leadership–it goes beyond Here’s the behavior I want you to imitate.

So How Do We Lead This Way?

If we’re going to transform our teams, we must change the way we equip them. We must build a new DNA, a new culture on the team. This requires organic, not merely programmatic, changes. Let me offer suggestions on some shifts leaders must make:

1. Teach team members how to think and perceive the world.

This sounds huge, but it can start small. Just begin to talk about how to look at people and goals. Talk about perspective. Illustrate how to think, not just what to think. If you can change the way staff think, you can change the way they act.

2. Model the way and embody the values.

Organizational culture changes when executive-level leaders set examples for what they want from their teams. Don Meyer and Associates proved this when they found that a company’s culture changes when leaders attach actions to their core values.

3. Establish wide boundaries for team members.

Obviously, this kind of change can be taken to an extreme; staff can spend enormous amounts of money to please a customer. Set some liberal parameters, but do set them. You provide security to team members when they know what’s out of bounds.

4. Visit other organizations that “get it.”

Once you begin to make these changes in perspective, take a field trip to a company or organization that already embraces the kind of culture you wish to see in yours. Ask team members to take notes and reflect on them once you return.

5. Cultivate small communities to tell stories.

Organizations that make this jump often divide their staff into small teams or communities, to hold stand-up meetings once a week and tell stories about how they were able to achieve the new objectives. Interaction and storytelling are contagious.

6. Align your budget, values and objectives to reflect the new reality.

We’ve all heard this before: What gets rewarded gets repeated. Be sure that your financial goals, your core values and your quarterly objectives all reflect this new culture you’re putting in place. Alignment brings energy to staff members.

Here’s to a new breed of leaders in your organization!

Any other ideas for leading a culture shift?

I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Interested in leading a culture shift where you work?

Join us for the 2014 National Leadership Forum.

June 19-20 – Atlanta, GA


  1. Tim on April 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    you really need a printer friendly version of these posts!

    • Tim Elmore on April 10, 2012 at 9:05 am

      Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll add it to the list of improvements we are making to the blog. In the meantime, try out 

  2. David L.Craun on April 9, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    I enjoyed your presentation at the Royal Rangers LEAD confeence in Dallas. 
     Keep up the good work.  Leadership culture change requires an adjustment in how we use our energy.  Initiators find the energy to focus their efforts on what is important to the organization.  Misplaced focus of energy accounts for so much of what is lacking in positive culture change.

    • Tim Elmore on April 10, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I enjoyed the Royal Rangers conference, too – you are doing great work to raise up next generation leaders! 

  3. John Craik on April 9, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    Keep up the theme> revolutsionise the work place, by learning how to serve the client, and make their visit a memorable experience.
    John Craik

  4. Rob T on April 9, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    i like #1, and I guess it all would be started well in the hiring stages, whenever possible.  some people do not seem to inherently embody the characteristics needed in people industries.

    • Tim Elmore on April 13, 2012 at 10:44 am

      Yes – the earlier the better, right?!

  5. Tim Waisanen on April 10, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    Love the practical insight. In a ministry application…too many ministry leaders are focused on the WHAT instead of the HOW. Trying to get people to act the way we want them or  “WHAT” we think their behavior should be like vs.  “How” they should love the people they are leading unconditionally and then watch how they follow that model of unconditional love.

    • Tim Elmore on April 13, 2012 at 10:45 am

      That is a great distinction. Important to keep it at the forefront.

  6. aroma on April 11, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    mmmmm….Great thoughts! Transformational Leadership is what we desparately need today… i like your idea #1 most…however, would love to learn more about ‘how’ to ‘change’ the way people think. I guess , its not the ‘one size fits all’ process, since we have to take the culture part into consideration..or am i wrong??  

    • Tim Elmore on April 13, 2012 at 10:48 am

      I don’t know that I have a silver bullet answer for this one. Creating / changing a culture is an ongoing process. Being intentional about opportunities to share the thought process behind values is essential. It may seem like small steps but over time produces great results. Look for chances to invite them into the process.

  7. Christine Miyoko on April 14, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    A classmate of mine worked for the Hilton and said they use a leadership and empowerment strategy by having lower level emplyees be manager for a day. She also said emplyees were given the power to make bigger decisions without consulting their superviser. These decisions were then used as learning experiences for the whole team. Employees felt empowered, appreciated, engaged, and respected, and it also provided insight into who might make a great leader. My point is that they had boundaries but at the same time the Hilton allowed boundary crossing as long as it could be used as a learning experience or as long as it enhanced customer satisfaction.

    • Tim Elmore on April 16, 2012 at 1:24 pm

      That is a great idea! Thanks for sharing. I imagine that takes a very intentional effort on the part of Hilton to encourage this but the leadership culture they create makes it worth it.

  8. Suzherdt on April 17, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    I firmly believe you must BE the change you want to see.  We need to embody it, not just say it.  It’s an example of the proverbial “walk the walk if you’re willing to talk the talk”.  Be willing to share, to encourage, and to not expect or depict “perfection”.  Celebrate the humanity of it all!

    • Tim Elmore on April 18, 2012 at 11:04 am

      So true! Thanks for adding to the conversation!

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Leading a Culture Shift Where You Work