Leading the culture of change.

Written by: Amy Stephens


I have just been lucky enough to spend a week at the Mt Eliza campus of Melbourne Business School (also fondly referred to as ‘the college of knowledge’ by two of my fellow Directors, Simon Antonis and Roger Stephens, both proud MBS Alumni). I was participating in the General Management Program.

To say I was slightly shitting myself as I drove through the gates to the campus grounds is probably something you don’t need to visualize but it does help to paint the level of expectation placed on me, mainly, by me. I knew it would be intense. I knew it would be challenging. I knew a day would cover Business Strategy, another on Marketing Strategy, a day on Finance (this actually was my favourite day of all – a very unexpected experience), a day on People Strategy and then a final day on Leading and Implementing Change. I knew a lot of my experience would be depicted by the rest of the student cohort also attending the week. But I really had no idea just how profound a learning experience it would be.

On face value, I had next to nothing in common with the rest of the student group. I was the only ‘Advertising’ person there and, out of the other 29 students, I was the only one with a career or role focussed on Marketing Strategy. I was not only nervous about what value I could add to group discussions, but also what value I could realistically extract from those around me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was those who seemed to have nothing in common with, who taught me the most.

So what did I learn? I found it difficult to put this into words to be honest, but here is a summary of the key learnings I took from the week. (Note: I learnt way more than this.)

1. Make choices.

The worst mistake you can make as a leader is not to make a choice. Making a choice is hard. Making a clear choice is even harder. But the best performing companies are lead by those who made hard choices.

The key choices to make, which essentially form the basis of your business strategy and therefore, make all subsequent choices a lot easier are the following:

  • WHO is your customer? Be specific, don’t go for everybody.
  • WHAT are we selling or doing for that customer? Again, be specific. Don’t be everything for everybody.
  • HOW are we selling the what to the who? Ideally, you do this better or differently to your competition.

In order to be most effective, the three choices above should be clear and reinforce one another, effectively optimising the effort. Every single person in your company should be able to understand the questions above, and have the exact same answer to them if the choices you have made are clear, correct and committed to.

2. Be visible.

Said another way: ‘walk the floor.’ I’ve heard this one before but throughout the week, this was given new context. If you create a culture wherein your team see you frequently, have many ways to access you, and many ways to share things with you (be it problems, or positives), it will make them feel safe. When people feel safe to share things with you in both good times and in bad, when things do take a turn for the worse (which will inevitably happen at some stage), it won’t feel like a shock (or in some cases, a personal attack) that you’re currently walking toward their desk, or asking for their help, or letting them know that you have a problem. If you have shared with the team your business strategy (see point 1 on choices), and how they as an individual can assist to deliver that, and you both commit to your expectations of one another, they are more likely to feel like they want to help you, and be motivated by the challenges that come by.

3. Be a target.

One thing that hit hard for me was in one of the night sessions, where a CEO shared a very personal account of what it’s like at the top, trying to implement and lead change in extremely difficult situations. He mentioned how, when things are bad, the leader becomes a target. In fact, it’s part of the service that you provide in that role. I had never considered this before. It gave me a new perspective on how to handle tough situations and when making difficult decisions. Being a target for people to share their grief, unhappiness, loss, dissatisfaction and general disagreements with your choices, is something that you need to accept and be ok with. It is part of your responsibilities as a leader and ultimately, if done well, it will gain you respect.

4. Don’t focus on the burning platform.

When trying to lead people through tough times, or times where everything seems broken, correct your focus. If you focus on the burning platform, it’s the equivalent of trying to bail out a sinking ship, instead of plugging the holes. It’s not efficient and it ultimately won’t be effective either. Focus on what IS working instead. If you focus on what you do have (instead of what you don’t), what is working (instead of what isn’t), you are not only being solutions-oriented, but you’re leading your troops into new territory based on what’s working, instead of leading them down a path of failure.

In summary, leading change, will only be successful if you have a group of like-minded people, who all believe in the strategy for the change you want to see, and feel safe that you will lead them there.

To begin making the change happen, make culture happen.

Culture is the strategy. Culture is the change.