Realizing Success: The Importance of Sub-Cultures

One of the most consistent themes in performance feedback for senior leaders relates to their personal influence and impact on organizational culture. Whether it’s to strengthen, modify or even transform a company’s culture (the shared values and assumptions that drive behaviour), there’s always keen interest by various stakeholders regarding progress in this arena. Board members, shareholders, staff and clients all have good reason to ensure that executives are leveraging culture to drive overall performance.

clear requirementsRecently, while gathering narrative 360 feedback for a CEO in the health care sector, I was struck by the radically different responses to a question regarding progress and accomplishments in leading a transformation of the company’s culture. Some respondents talked about real changes that had occurred in terms of enhanced patient focus, higher staff engagement and improved inter-department collaboration. Others, however, had a very different perspective – nothing much had changed.

Why the major difference in perspective within the same company? It turns out that the various functions, work units and teams had very different perceptions of the CEO’s influence based on their own unique sub-culture. If day-to-day experience showed even moderate progress towards the ‘new’ culture, then relatively high marks were given. Or if a particular sub-culture happened to be more closely reflected in that culture, then higher satisfaction was reported.

If, however, progress towards the new culture was slow or non-existent or the proposed culture was noticeably different from a team’s actual sub-culture, dissatisfaction increased as the gap became more apparent.

Clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach won’t lead to successful change. Senior leaders need to be focused and selective in their efforts to influence and leverage the various sub-cultures within their company. It’s worth considering these four key steps to help advance your company’s change agenda.

1.) Be Clear on ‘Desired’ verses ‘Required’ Qualities


When articulating the kind of culture required to realize your vision and strategic priorities, determine which attributes are absolutely necessary verses the ‘nice to haves.’ Try to avoid getting caught up in the ‘flavor-of-the-year’ approach to culture; instead focus on the attributes you need for your strategy and organization.

If, for example, the quality of your customer service varies considerably between operating locations, you’ll want to encourage greater consistency to meet benchmark standards. You’ll likely want to avoid offering greater autonomy to your staff, at least in the short term, despite the trend to enhanced employee discretion in addressing customer service issues.

Determine which attributes currently exist in your company and require dedicated nurturing as well as those that are new and require concerted effort to introduce and embed. Don’t forget to address aspects of your culture that are counterproductive to your strategy and must be either toned down or eliminated from the workplace.

2.) Identify and Understand Key Sub-Cultures

It’s more than likely that business units, functions and teams within your company will have their own subculture, unique to their location, job qualifications, type of work and membership. Spend time identifying groups that are critical to success in advancing your overall strategic agenda and determine the unique attributes of their sub-culture.

culture abstract

Your finance team, for example, will likely encourage risk avoidance and compliance to clearly defined guidelines and procedures, based on background, training and nature of the work. The sales team, however, may encourage something quite different, greater appetite for risk and working at the edge of, or even slightly outside, established expectations and norms.

Be aware of espoused culture for these groups (i.e., what we say we value and assume) verses implicit culture (i.e., what we actually value and the assumptions we operate from). Getting a sense of what motivates and drives your key sub-cultures can help you can tailor your efforts. Specific culture assessment tools (e.g., Denison Culture Survey, Organization Culture Inventory, Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument) can accelerate your understanding of the patterns appearing within your organization.

3.) Target Your Efforts

Obviously, one grand plan for your entire organization is not going to be enough to advance your culture agenda. You’ll need to identify specific steps to shift not only the overall organizational culture, but to also engage and leverage pivotal groups with sub-cultures that align with and support the desired future. Communicating the desired future in terms of key cultural attributes and engaging these same sub-groups in co-design efforts will help accelerate change in your organization.

You’ll also need to address key sub-cultures that demonstrate actions and behaviours running counter to what’s desired. Sometimes it’s enough to ignore the sub-culture, regardless, you’ll need to work with your leaders to confront and modify, reduce or eliminate the offending behaviours.

If one of your functional teams, for example, is routinely resistant or slow to adopt new technology, and you want a ‘quick uptake’ culture, you’ll need to establish some clear expectations with suitable consequences to advance your agenda.


Enable leaders across your organization to tailor specific solutions to the realities of their work units and teams. Encourage them to craft different approaches based on their knowledge of the work, key processes and their teams.

4.) Measure Progress and Recognize Early Wins

Be sure to establish measures that indicate progress on your culture change agenda beyond metrics tied specifically to your strategic direction. Highlight, for example, the specific behaviours or actions that will indicate progress towards your desired culture. Sources of feedback to determine progress could include feedback from focus groups, employee engagement surveys and cultural assessments.

Most importantly, when situations occur that clearly demonstrate how desired behaviours influence business success, even in day-to-day interactions, be sure to communicate these achievements to others in your team and organization.

Advancing your business strategy requires the existence of a strong, supportive culture that’s integrated across your company. Identifying, and leveraging key sub-cultures is critical to your company’s overall business success.

To learn more about gauging your leaders’ effectiveness in advancing culture change, contact me at [email protected] or 250-882-8830.

About The Author

Scott Borland, Founder & President of CYGNUS Management Consultants Inc, , is a recognized expert in helping executives host strategic conversations and obtain high impact feedback. He brings insightful perspective and proven strategies to strengthen the alignment between strategy and leadership behaviour. Scott has presented frequently at regional/national conferences and is a regular contributor to online journals/blogs. Follow Scott on Twitter or add him as a connection on LinkedIn.

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