I have been in the field of training, leadership, and organizational development for over 20 years. Through all these years, I have heard one message (and complaint) from practitioners, consultants, authors and gurus: for cultural change to succeed, top leadership must support it. It’s amazing. This message is so consistent. And there is so much evidence to prove it! Yet the issue persists as a key barrier to successful culture change.

As a previous blog post stated, leaders who want to create a cultural revolution—and make it stick—must get everyone involved. They must engage and empower everyone at every level. Strong leadership, especially on the people side, is essential. Yet it remains elusive. Why?

Responses commonly include:

• Building service culture is seen by leaders as “feel good” activity; nice to have but not essential to the business. Leaders will pursue this when they have the time, but it is not part of the core business.

• There are too many other serious business issues that take priority. These may be product, process or financial initiatives, and are often seen as having greater short-term importance to shareholders or stakeholders.

• Frequent changes in top leadership and organization structure make it difficult to commit and sustain a culture building strategy over time.

Let’s face it. Engaging, focusing and inspiring employees can be challenging. Role modeling new behaviors over a sustained period is hard work.

If you are a leader, what issues keep you from supporting a service culture change? What enables you to give your full support?

If you are an implementer of a service initiative, how have you successfully gained and sustained top leadership support?

12 replies
  1. Sarah Kelly
    Sarah Kelly says:

    Great article Ron, Leaders have a big job to do, and they need to be passionate about it. Difficult job, Kudos to those who get it right. Sarah

  2. Pratap Nambiar
    Pratap Nambiar says:

    Jeff, Leaders dont walk the walk because they dont really ‘believe’ what they preach. They are smart enough to know that it is the right thing to say, but then in their hearts they dont see the connection between building a service culture and enhancing shareholder value. Some of them dont know it in their minds as well in which case the challenge is even greater.

  3. David Lim
    David Lim says:

    Jeff, we did a “most underrated leadership skills’ global survey last year with 1000 respondents with at least a 3rd of them in the C-Office, The overwhelming winner was “Creating a Winning Culture” But you are right in that hard to pin down KPIs, and milestones can make achieving this quite tough when you have apparently so many more pressing hard business issues. One solution I have found is to work with ‘internal champions’ – who may not necessarily be the top potato. Eventually, their results and enthusiasm percolates up and down (elsewhere). Best of efforts to you- David Lim http://www.everestmotivation.com

  4. adlan
    adlan says:

    I guess because it will take quite some time to see results. The leaders may not have much time due to the organization’s policy or due to frequent changes in the organization structure by Top Leader. How can we implement this type of project or shortened the time for the people to blend in or readjust their behavior and thus getting the desired results faster?

  5. Naresh Vassudhev
    Naresh Vassudhev says:

    You nailed it Jeff. In fact, there is no leadership if that person has scant regard for building a service culture in an organization. Service culture should be the fabric of the organization – to be nurtured, fondly grown and firmly entwined. For this to happen, it has to flow top down.
    Thanks much.

  6. Saleem Bava
    Saleem Bava says:

    Ron, Great questions as always! I think a good leader is one who asks ‘wise questions’ to get ‘clever answers’ and who make positive decisions. A good leader is a person with self-confidence, who understands others feelings and emotions and remains calm to be free from stress.

  7. Sameh Moustafa
    Sameh Moustafa says:

    Actually am more to an implementer of service,,and didn’t gain the top management support unless there were a huge drop in our services due to manpower shortage,,,then the management had a different look to us as there were many complaints from cm and they were not used to…also when we started to be a productive area and generated actual pure profit for the organization….

  8. david
    david says:

    Hi Jeff
    I think you’re being too noce to so-called leaders! Pratap hits it on the head with his comment: ‘they dont really ‘believe’ what they preach. They are smart enough to know that it is the right thing to say, but then in their hearts they dont see the connection….’

    In effect, leaders aren’t OBSESSED with Service. It’s one of those ‘soft’ issues that involves people and relationships – and therefore not as important as so-called ‘hard’ issues like financial analysis or legal analysis!

    If you recall, by way of example, Jack Welch ‘obsessed’ for four years at GE during the ’90s just kick-starting the message of top Quality until it started to become embedded in the company’s culture.

    Putting something at the top of the agenda and then making sure it stays there…..now that’s Leadership! All the rest are simply playing at it!!

  9. Sunil Jacob
    Sunil Jacob says:

    Leadership Support comes from fellow humans. The question to ask is what does it take to change human behaviour at all levels…. belief, conviction, processes, incentives, role models, deterrents, monitoring and above all value systems…

    What makes it challenging is ….the number of people in an organisation with differing value systems. Not that we cannot arrive at a common minimum agreement but then it takes the whole lot of stuff i mentioned earlier to support that and turn it into success. But then it needs a serious committment from 100% of the team not just a few…

  10. Jeff Eilertsen
    Jeff Eilertsen says:

    @David Lim
    Thanks for the comments David. No doubt a CEO making service the top priority and sticking with it is a key to success. We have seen that very method work wonders in several very large organizations. It is Leadership indeed!

  11. Jeff Eilertsen
    Jeff Eilertsen says:

    Change and results can come faster if leaders take a full scale approach to service culture buidling. This means aligning the whole leadership team, embedding service into performance expectations, and educating and tracking application and outcomes of employees at all levels. And communicating constantly. See the recent blog about Revolutionary change.

  12. david
    david says:

    Hi Jeff

    I totally agree with your comments in response to adlan…..and with the points David Lim made…..about tracking performance, establishing KPIs etc.

    But again so-called leaders make it difficult for their people by sending wrong messages and setting up ‘behaviour traps’ where what is SAID to be important is different from what is recognised and rewarded.

    For example, typically the organisation says: “Let’s serve the customer well”……. but who gives the performance rating? The employee’s supervisor! Employees aren’t stupid, and so if it comes to a choice between their customers or their supervisor, guess who’s going to win!

    I think you can have all the empowerment in the world in an organisation and work hard on getting everyone involved. But if the systems don’t support the underlying principles of service, then the organisation won’t see any real benefit from all that activity.

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