The Courage to Lead Culture Change

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Peter Drucker

Creating change is an act of courage.

In this month’s issue of Fortune magazine, former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz is quoted saying to incumbent CEO Marissa Mayer, faced with the daunting task of rebuilding Yahoo, “I really wish her well. Changing culture is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. It’s very, very hard to affect culture.”

Culture, and in particular an organization’s culture, is built on collective traditions, norms, long-standing values and shared history. And where do these cultural artifacts come from? Our own individual traditions, norms and values. It’s who we are, though much of it goes unstated and even unrecognized — so many of these assumptions and beliefs are not even known to us on a conscious level. Yet they become the fabric of our lives.

If you’re a leader trying to create a more flexible, innovative organization, ultimately you need to change the behavior of the people in your organization. Which is a huge challenge. It’s not easy to change people. Especially if those people are afraid of or resist the opportunity to change.

Why do we fear change? Because, by the very nature of being human, we are constantly striving for comfort and safety. Survival is our priority, not putting ourselves at risk, out there on the edge.

And yet, we live in a time where all organizations must intentionally evolve and change if they’re going to survive.

If you are leading culture change, you are up against all of that. You’re pushing the edges, tearing down barriers, forging new territory. And mostly, it’s a thankless role to play. So how does one survive being a catalyst for organizational change?

Be prepared to face your biggest obstacle: your ego.


Let go of the need to be liked.

Almost every leader I’ve coached through a culture change initiative has had their share of battering and bruising. And if you’re a leader who likes people to like you, it’s even harder. Because they won’t. Very few people will thank you for creating chaos in their lives, asking them to transform who they are, what they think, what they believe, how they function and where their desk is located.

Claire Nuer, founder of Learning as Leadership, once told me “If you want to pursue your most important goals, you need to let go of everyone loving you and accept that they’re going to reject you.” That was one of the most helpful pieces of advice I have ever received.

When I get stuck in the process of trying to create something new, I usually realize I’m seeking approval and not getting it. I have the choice in that moment to choose “So what if they don’t love me? In the end they might actually thank me.”


Take the long-term view.

You may not get credit in this job, and maybe not even in this lifetime. You need to become what Claire called a “Cathedral Builder.” Be prepared to build things that you may never see completed in your lifetime. Think the end of war, world peace. No doubt Martin Luther King, Jr and Ghandi got frustrated that things weren’t happening fast enough and getting the results they wanted. But they were catalysts for change that far surpassed their lifetimes.

Change is a process, an ongoing endeavor that you probably didn’t start and will most likely not finish. And it’s much easier if you’re willing to:


Let go of the outcome.

Our ego hates this. Our ego wants the result now. It wants us to succeed and get the credit for our hard work now. Not ten years from now when people look back and say, “Wow, Mary really pushed us to make changes, and it was pretty painful at the time, and we probably didn’t make her feel very appreciated, but, hey! Look at us now!” And ultimately, isn’t that what creating true transformational change is all about?

If you had all the courage you needed, what kind of culture change would you long to make in your organization?

  1. So great to see Claire and LAL acknowledged by none other than Peter Drucker. It takes character to deconstruct the ego to build a cathedral!

  2. Laurel O'Sullivan says:

    Wow Laura, this couldn’t have been a more timely article for me. Its just what I needed to hear. Our organization is in the middle of tremendous flux, trying to change strategy and culture at the same time and I am feeling bruised. This was a really helpful reminder….one that will probably be the hardest thing professionally I’ve tried to do. So appreciate the wisdom from you and the LAL team!

    1. Laura Gates says:

      Glad you find it helpful Laurel. I know one of the main things in this process is not to feel alone, although it can be a lonely effort! There are many out there trying to create change!

  3. Bobbi Owens says:

    So true, and well stated. This is a compelling justification to expend valuable resources for executive coaching.

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