Steven's Blog

Culture Change Manifesto

I define culture as norms of behaviors based on shared beliefs. When a leader says he or she wants to change the culture of his or her company, the ultimate goal is always to change norms of behaviors.

If I want to understand the culture of a company, all I need to do is observe which behaviors are encouraged and rewarded, which are discouraged and penalized, and which are the behaviors to which people are indifferent. I can understand the beliefs that drive those behaviors by asking questions.

In Japan, leaders of companies at times claim that Japanese culture impedes or undermines their ability to create the company culture they want. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Any leader in any country can impose the culture he or she wants for his or her company, no matter the nationality or company history.

This is my culture change manifesto for a global age. Click To Tweet
  1. Japanese culture does not matter. It’s company culture that counts no matter the country. No company culture needs to be shackled to the norms of a country’s culture. Look at Japanese companies like Rakuten, Softbank, Cyberdyne, and Fast Retailing. They are exceptional companies whose cultures defy what many consider Japanese corporate cultural norms.
  2. Cultural sensitivity impedes culture change. It’s cultural sense-making that you want. In being culturally sensitive, you use your understanding of the culture to adapt your behavior to those around you. Cultural sense-making means that you use your understanding of culture to change the behaviors of those around you through your own behavior. Sensitivity is passive, whereas sense-making is active. CEOs like Rakuten’s Hiroshi Mikitani and Fast Retailing’s Tadashi Yanai have created extraordinary company cultures by making cultural sense. You can too.
  3. Forget mindset. Change process first, and mindset will follow if you do it right. Mindset is nothing more than “What works for me, what doesn’t work for me, and what does not matter.” There is nothing more persuasive in changing mindset than trying something new that works and brings success. If you want to change mindset, start with changing process first.
  4. The most successful companies everywhere defy cultural norms, not emulate them. Exceptional companies in the United States, like Apple and Google, have company cultures atypical of companies around them, and even defy cultural norms in the United States. The same is true of Rakuten, Softbank, Cyberdyne, and Fast Retailing in Japan. Excellence is always exceptional.
  5. Behavior change leads culture change, not the other way around. Rakuten CEO, Hiroshi Mikitani, has created a culture of global business by imposing on all staff to use English as lingua franca for the business. Shiseido CEO, Masahiko Uotani, is following suit. The most successful leaders do not wait for culture change. They simply impose the behavior change that makes the culture they want.
  6. Culture change is a strategic top-down initiative. Culture is for a leader, and for the leader alone, to impose from the top. It is not something that can be delegated to HR, or developed by consensus from the bottom up. Doing so makes your business subject to the whims of whatever is prevalent in the environment, which is never optimal nor necessary. You make your culture, or otherwise the culture of others, makes you.
  7. Seek trust first, and commitment to culture will follow. The greatest impediment to commitment is perceived personal risk. Remove risk, and you can accelerate commitment. For example, the most successful CEOs I personally know suspend typical penalties for a temporary drop performance that comes with any change as people adapt. However, they insist on adherence to new behaviors as non-negotiable. Behavior change always leads to culture change, and as people experience success, mindset changes too.
  8. Successful leaders change culture to match their own leadership style, not the other way around. One of the most successful international CEOs I know who has lead companies for his global firm in France, Russia, India and Japan has maintained a consistent leadership style in each country. In the Japan business, shortly after taking the helm, he changed processes, removed bureaucracy, broke down hierarchical barriers, fired non-performing staff, and aggressively hired internationally-minded graduates. He molded the company culture to match his leadership style rather than adapt his style to local culture, as he had done in every other country where he has lead a business and will continue to do so after he moves on.
  9. Cultural affection is no medium of exchange for cultural respect. Any change you want to impose on your company will cause disaffection from at least some staff, and that includes changes that are viewed as violating cultural norms. You can never gain respect for the culture you wish to create through appeasement of naysayers. You will only lose the respect of your most ardent supporters and those who are on the fence. Your most vocal naysayers will never respect you or the culture you want to create no matter what you say or do, no matter how much you acquiesce to their demands. Prioritize the culture you want to impose. Those who are on the fence will go in the direction the wind blows, and your supporters have always been with you to begin with. Let the naysayers adapt or go.
  10. Countries don’t make culture, leaders do, and so can you if you want to. Your peers have already succeeded with resounding success. You can do the same.


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