A few years ago one of our national clients purchased their main competitor in a state capital city. At the time they had no State Manager and their competitor was a similarly sized business in that state who were doing well with strong leadership. They ended up recruiting the manager from their opposition to run the newly merged site. Effectively this made it feel more like a merger of equals than a “take over.”

The businesses were merged into the same site and all the roles were reselected. They did a great job of selecting the best candidate for each role and as things progressed it balanced out to a fairly even split of roles—roughly 50% of roles were filled by each side of the “merger.” Again this contributed to it feeling like a merger of equals rather than a take over.

As things progressed they started to notice they weren’t achieving the sales and performance they had hoped to achieve through the acquisition. Some challenges had emerged, mainly in the culture. People weren’t talking to each other, communication was poor, there was bitterness, resentment, and suspicion. It was challenging to say the least.

Their performance was suffering and something needed to be done.

Transforming the culture by giving it a name

They decided to tackle the cultural issues and have reached out to us for help. We assessed the site by interviewing people and listening to their stories. We then took the major “influencers” out of the site for a workshop. These were people in leadership roles as well as key people that had influence at the site.

Our goal was to define the culture needed to achieve the new business strategy. This definition doesn’t have to be long or complex, it just needs to be one word so that everyone involved can easily understand it.

We started with the strategy. It’s interesting how much more attentive people are when they know they have to think about the culture they will need to have to achieve the goal. It was a great conversation with lots of questions as people made a real effort to understand what the strategy would mean to them in their day to day lives.

After quite a bit of debate they chose to work towards an engaged culture.

They realised they weren’t even at the starting gate for either their strategy or their culture. There were people on this site that hadn’t even said hello to each other in 6 months! They had previously been mortal enemies as competitors and had carefully avoided each other as a “merged” entity. They knew this had to change and they chose a culture that would embrace the change that was needed.

Engaged.

This had a strong meaning for all of them. It meant they needed to connect, support each other, and start working together to achieve their strategy. They needed to do simple things like say hello to each other and find out what was happening in other parts of the business.

Most of all it meant they all needed to engage with the merged business strategy.

A way to start conversations

The intent of selecting a word like this is to stimulate conversations. We need people talking about how to behave in simple terms. I’ve had too many clients define their culture as “blue” (from the Human Synergistics Circumplex), or through values which no one can remember and are over complicated. Your culture will take shape when you can talk about it in simple terms.

Critics of this approach cite the challenge of trying to do too much with one word while others are concerned it’s too simple. Surely a word like “Engaged” can have multiple meanings which complicates things? Or one word simply doesn’t have enough meaning and is too simplistic. It won’t convey what we want it to convey.

The reality is different. Yes one word can have multiple meanings so this is an argument for keeping it to one word. Why would you over complicate the conversation with multiple words which can all have multiple meanings? You are much better off only having one word that people can easily talk about. One word can have plenty of meaning. For this site “engaged” meant connected with the strategy, other departments, managers, and each other.

The point is to get your people talking about the culture they need. You want to bring culture out of the sub-conscious and into the conscious mind in a way that everyone can participate in the conversation. It’s only when people are talking about their culture that it can finally take shape.

The end of the story? Mission accomplished. They turned the performance of the site around through a much stronger culture. They are now ready for the next step in their cultural transformation.