The power of a successful culture transformation

Culture is the lifeblood of an organisation. It reflects the values, beliefs, and behaviours that determine how people perform and interact with each other every day. In some organisations, culture is widely discussed and understood by all; in others, it is an unspoken set of rules and norms. Regardless of how it is communicated, corporate culture is credited as being fundamental to the success of any company.


Despite the important role that corporate culture plays, companies with a successful corporate culture are still few and far between. The most common mistake that leaders make when addressing culture is regarding it as an initiative or a project rather than something that needs to be shaped and reviewed consistently in line with the strategy. When do you stop shaping culture? Never.

The importance of building a positive corporate culture

The benefits of a positive corporate culture are well understood – improved employee engagement, work efficiency and effectiveness, greater alignment in strategy and execution that will lead to better financial performance. Over the years, these have been clearly demonstrated through successful culture transformation undertaken by organisations such as IBM, which saw a historic turnaround for a tech giant that was losing billions of dollars by the early 1990s. Closer to home, we can look at DBS’ award-winning digital transformation project that is rooted in a successful change in organisational culture.

In today’s digital age, a positive corporate culture is especially important as companies gear up to embrace change across all levels in order to survive and thrive. A study by Singapore Management University found that culture, not technology, determines transformation, with 87% of respondents agreed that culture created greater barriers to digital transformation than technology. In addition, while each transformation journey is unique, the research makes clear that common cultural attributes for organisations who are successful include openness, flexibility and agility.

The path to culture transformation

While you can purchase great strategies, systems, processes, capabilities (talent) and enough consultants to fill a building, you cannot buy culture. For most organisations, culture ‘happens to them’. Then there are the few and the elite leaders that are organisationally aware, have the clarity to name the existing culture they’ve created and have the courage to shape a culture that will deliver on the business imperatives – today and tomorrow.

Leading culture change requires two focuses: the system domain and the people domain. The system domain addresses the construct of the organisation. It is the system which promotes, inhibits and conditions particular behaviours that become ‘culture’ over time. The people domain addresses the values and mindset that flow through to behaviour, engagement, critical choices, discretionary energy and consequently, the results. A successful culture transformation requires leaders to address both domains in order to enable and drive their strategy.

In successfully shaping culture, leaders must first take an uncompromising look inward to understand how they are creating or ‘allowing’ the current culture and how it supports or hinders fulfillment of the business goals. This process can be summarised into three steps: assess the current culture and define the ideal culture based on a combination of quantitative and qualitative inputs, analyse the critical areas of misalignment between the current and desired cultures and outline desirable practices to get there, and finally, align the organisation’s business and talent strategy through custom programs to communicate change, engage talent, build new competencies, and develop leadership models.

Throughout this process, leaders must walk the talk and embody the desired behaviours and practices that are symbolic and give clarity to culture change. As Paul Cobban, Chief Operating Officer, Technology and Operations for DBS stated, “to drive transformation and innovation within a traditional bank like DBS, it was all about ‘culture and behaviour’ that starts at the top”. A symbolic step? They began by bringing their leaders into ‘hackathons’ with start-ups in replacement of the entire executive training budget.

A successful culture transformation is marked by how it is shaped from within and across the enterprise. A yardstick of success is when line leaders in the middle of the organisation can articulate how they drive cultural attributes within the organisation on a day-to-day basis using practical and measurable tactics. For example, organisations that have a true culture of trust don’t actively claim that “we are an organisation that has a culture of trust.” Rather, they are able to clearly communicate the three to five things that we ‘always’ do and ‘never’ do to protect trust.

Culture change requires courage, patience and persistence from the executive suite and buy-in from leaders at every level. It further requires clarity, alignment and a ‘personal why’ with all employees across the enterprise. Often, organisations understand the need to shape culture, but are too busy performing to take the time to transform. With the threat of total disruption present for all businesses today, a good question to answer is “can you afford not to shape your culture?”