A client of mine is struggling to remain competitive in an industry where smaller, more agile competitors are nibbling away at their market share. They believe that their organizational culture needs to change in order to be successful.

In a recent phone call with the company’s top leaders I asked who was responsible for creating the organization’s culture. Crickets. Finally, the head of strategy said, “To be honest, we feel more like custodians of the culture than the creators.” Someone else on the call piped in, “Actually, we are more culture complainers than culture creators!” That didn’t sound good.

It is amazing to me how even the most senior executives appear mystified by their role in cultivating a culture that can adapt to its environment. They often talk about ‘transformation,’ but act in ways that maintain the status quo, like delegating culture change to their human resources departments.

It doesn’t have to be this way. To effectively lead culture change, senior executives would be wise to heed George Bernard Shaw’s admonition, “Those who can’t change their own minds cannot change anything.”

When words and deeds align

Another recent client runs a large manufacturing company that relies on enormous (and enormously hot) furnaces in its plants. When Jim was promoted to CEO from Chief Financial Officer, the company’s safety record was average compared to its industry peers. The company’s culture long emphasized profitable growth, which Jim was instrumental in shaping. Accidents were viewed as costly but unavoidable given the challenging conditions.

But as CEO Jim had to meet with families of workers who suffered terrible burns or other injuries. These meetings changed his thinking completely. He didn’t want to see those families in those circumstances any more. He came to believe that if the company’s culture embraced safety as a core value the benefits would be enormous. So he took employee safety on as his personal mission.

Jim started to obsess in public about worker safety. In ‘town hall’ meetings he detailed the company’s overall safety record and highlighted those plants that outperformed others. He often repeated, “I want you to return to your families at night in the same condition as when you arrived in the morning.”

Jim shined a light on any innovation that had an impact on safety, and ensured those innovations were adopted elsewhere. In his executive committee meetings plant safety was always the first topic; he could be quite direct about his feelings toward those who didn’t meet his standards.

At first, his executive team didn’t know how to respond to Jim’s mind-set shift. Everybody publicly supported his passion, while some privately doubted his conviction. Jim just kept emphasizing worker safety without specifying any grand strategy.

Only when his team recommended their own integrated ideas about worker safety did Jim know they were committed, at which time he fully supported their plans. His combination of ‘getting ahead’ of the topic in public while ‘getting behind’ his team in private paid off. The company is now in its 10th consecutive year of plant safety improvement, and recently won a prestigious medal awarded by the National Safety Council.

Contrast this with another client, who runs a large division of a financial services firm. Steven recognizes how much more complex and interdependent his industry is than 25 years ago when he started as a department head. Nowadays, emboldened regulators, new delivery platforms and fickle consumers are forcing the company to break down internal barriers and collaborate like never before. Steven ‘gets’ that the culture needs to change to support collaboration, and often talks about this in public.

When the audio doesn’t match the video

But it is a different story behind closed doors. I’ve seen Steven set his executives against each other, asking several to accomplish the same task. He plays favorites in meetings and frowns on dissent. He talks in generalities (“We need to collaborate”) but does nothing to reduce the friction. In short, Steven doesn’t ‘walk his talk,’ and no one has the courage to confront him.

Ironically, in the two most recent employee engagement surveys, employees viewed ‘lack of cross-organizational collaboration’ as the most significant barrier to success. Steven sponsored task forces to address the issue. But I wonder whether Steven will have the courage to change how he leads change. If not, won’t the next survey say the same thing?

Leaders can make significant sustainable culture change happen, whether in large organizations or in small departments. Unfortunately, its not easy to see how our own behavior often perpetuates the very thing we wish to change. The secret of leading culture change is that we must first change ourselves if we expect our organizations to change. With this self-awareness, we can transform ourselves from being ‘culture custodians’ into ‘culture creators.’