How HR Directors Can Convince Leaders the Culture Must Change

By Heather Campbell

What if you could wave a magic wand and instantly convince leaders in your organisation that culture change needs to happen?  What if they’d take this on board as their responsibility rather than leaving it up to HR?

Imagine how good it would be if leaders across the business were queueing at your desk to share the latest progress with culture change. Or if your phone was ringing off the hook with leaders seeking your opinion on ways to progress to the next exciting goal.

Chances are your experience of finding leaders who engage this enthusiastically with culture change has a lot in common with finding a needle in a haystack.

So, I’m afraid I’m going to bring you back to reality – that way I can share with you four fail-safe actions to really grab leaders’ attention and get them convinced the culture must change, and that it’s their job to lead it.  Implementing one of these will help to get things moving – implementing all four is nearly as good as that magic wand.

1. Don’t move until the Chief Exec is on board

This is obvious, right?  Yes it is, and yet I repeatedly see culture change kicked off without the Chief Executive really being on board.

Proceeding without approval from the top is like trying to push a huge truck up a hill while the driver sleeps at the wheel.  You wouldn’t do that would you?  If you had to get the truck to the top of the hill, you’d waken the driver and get him or her to drive it.  And you wouldn’t start to push it up in the hope that the driver would waken up at some point along the way.

So why do it with culture change? No matter how much senior leaders might think you are a fantastic person and respect your HR role, when it comes down to it they’ll prioritise whatever the Chief Executive is focusing on.

2. Link culture change to annual bonus

If leaders in your organisation get an annual bonus, link a substantial percentage of it to implementing culture change in their area of the business.  They will move mountains – or at least the most stubborn old cultural habits – if you do.

It might be that this means there’s less bonus left to link to other goals such as increasing productivity or creating an environment where innovation can flourish.

That’s okay. Changing the culture will ultimately lead to the achievement of these goals anyway, and have longer-term sustainability – so you’re simply directing leaders’ energy and activity in a more valuable direction.

3. Report on progress by individual department

Even the most laid-back leader gets surprisingly energised when progress in their part of the business is openly measured against that of their peers.  Competition is a great motivator.

And this will work even more effectively if you report progress across the whole organisation rather than keeping it confidential amongst leaders.

So don’t be afraid to get a bit of competition going in terms of who is making the most progress and having the greatest business impact.

4. Talk about what matters to the leaders

You know how bored you get when you’re in a meeting and people are discussing something that has no relevance to you?

That’s how leaders in your organisation feel when HR professionals talk about culture change.  It’s a nebulous concept that has little meaning for these practical, results-focused individuals.

But that doesn’t mean they actually don’t care about organisation culture – they just don’t know they do, because you’re using language that doesn’t grab their attention.

Instead, use language that matters to them. This might be ‘how to get people to turn up on time’ or ‘how to get people thinking for themselves’.

Chances are that the culture change you’re leading is all about fixing problems like these.  So talk about the problems that leaders recognise, rather than the culture you know needs to change.


Getting business leaders energised around culture change is tough.  They have lots of other priorities and really don’t see that culture change is their responsibility.

To avoid culture change in your organisation sitting on the shoulders of the HR team, there are four specific steps you can take.  They’ll get leaders to pay attention and, more importantly, get them taking action too.  Implementing one of these will get results, but if you implement all four you’ll find leaders’ commitment to the change required rockets:

  • Don’t move until the Chief Exec is on board
  • Link culture change to annual bonus
  • Report on progress by individual department
  • Talk about what matters to leaders


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