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Photo Credit: Jack Kurzenknabe via Flickr

As a longtime fan of the National Football League (NFL) team the Buffalo Bills, I know how hard it can be to change the culture of an organization. The Bills have not made the NFL playoffs since 1999 and as a result have developed a “culture of losing” that has now spanned 18 years. In fact, this last year the franchise earned the embarrassing “honor” of having the longest playoff drought in the four major North American sports (football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey) leagues. Years of festering in the same toxic culture is an important reason why the organization has not advanced and remains in a consistent state of inconsistency. In order for the Bills to reach their full potential they will need a change in culture. The same is true with businesses and corporations that continue to operate in a culture of non-compliance.

Any shift in culture, whether it is a sports franchise or a Fortune 500 company, starts at the top. In order for change to occur, senior leadership, from the board of the directors to the CEO, must be “all-in” when it comes to fostering a new atmosphere of compliance and ethics. It is vital that the leadership owns the process of cultural change and clearly understands that a new atmosphere of compliance, ethics and integrity can lead to greater efficiency, better business opportunities, enhanced relationships with stakeholders, and an increase in the overall pedigree of the organization as one that does business the right way. A clear and consistent message of compliance should be communicated with the employees at all levels, while the board of directors plays the role of holding senior management accountable as they work to foster a new culture of compliance.

Communication is key to changing the culture of any organization. The importance of compliance must be embedded into the core message of the organization and, for the message to resonate with employees, senior leadership must act in accordance with the change they want to instill and therefore must set an example. For compliance to truly be embedded in employee thinking, senior leadership must communicate not only that the organization is working to change the culture but why they are moving towards a new compliance-oriented culture. Employees need to understand how compliance benefits them in order for them to truly “buy” into the process and know what is expected of them. This means understanding that senior management will not tolerate the covering-up of problems, especially those related to non-compliance. Systems need to be put into place to nurture an environment where employees not only feel safe but motivated to report any incidents. After all, no organization can undergo a successful change of culture without the full support of the employees.

Changing a culture does not happen overnight. Just ask the Bills, who have been stuck in the same losing culture for over a decade. The single biggest reason for the Bills’ drought has been the leadership. The owners were never really committed to change and instead focused more on convincing fans that next year the team would be better, rather than fixing the organization as a whole. Whether it is changing a culture of losing or non-compliance, strong leadership is paramount. It is the leadership that will have to instill in the employees the values of compliance and ethics, and this cannot be achieved without leaders who actually want to see change in their culture.

Amol Nadkarni is a Program Assistant for Global Programs at CIPE