Activating Strategies Series #4: Ensure that Behaviors and Culture Support the Strategy

Many leaders try to activate their future state strategies by simply proclaiming what they are and then sitting back and waiting for change to happen. They want everyone else to make the emotional and behavioral changes first. But here’s the truth – it’s never going to happen.

A change in strategy demands more than a big announcement at the company town hall and a follow-up email from the CEO. Real transformation requires a change in the way people think and act.

For senior leaders, strategic changes can often be just intellectual. Of course, the thinking component is essential, but you need to include the human component of how.

Without changing the culture – the beliefs and behaviors of every person in the company, starting with the leaders – the direction of the business is unlikely to change.

Who Goes First?

Senior leaders are often unaware of the importance of changing their own behaviors before they can expect others to do the same. They are waiting for their people to go first, to make changes that they themselves aren’t willing to undertake.

But by their inaction, the senior team has basically granted permission for everyone else to avoid making the behavior changes necessary to bring the strategy to life. And meanwhile, their people are waiting for leaders to tell them what they need to do differently.

Identifying Critical Culture or Behavior Shifts

As part of the effort that goes into getting clear on the strategy and where the organization needs go, along with which priorities will be most important to those efforts, shifts in behaviors, processes, beliefs, etc. should begin to emerge.

But it can’t be assumed that everyone is clear on those shifts. You can’t leave it to chance that your entire leadership team has internalized what needs to change and “how I need to change” in a way that they’re going to be able to lead the way. The strategic plan must also incorporate and evangelize what the organization is purposely doing differently and just like all of the other elements of that plan, leaders must be clear and aligned on those shifts.

“What Does That Look Like?”

Once the desired behaviors are clear, the best way – the only successful way – to get everyone to adopt them is for leaders to model them. This can begin with public accountability. Leaders must create an environment where they showcase the changes, practices, habits, and behaviors that demonstrate early wins of the new strategy. Requiring leaders to “walk the talk” enhances a discipline of sustaining a strategy.

For individuals to understand and embrace the new behaviors, leaders must show people “what it looks like when we do what we say we want to do.” The more real these examples are, the more people will understand how the change could translate into what they could do – and especially do differently. There’s also an opportunity when celebrating early successes to also call out areas that didn’t quite measure up, but where a lesson was learned.

One other key element to note – behavior change happens most successfully by addressing people’s feelings, not their intelligence. Cognitive scientist Howard Gardner tells us that to make people change behaviors, the “change story” leaders tell them must be simple, easy to identify with, emotionally resonant, and evocative of positive experiences.

Set the Standards

Many leadership teams we have worked with have benefited from a set of “behavioral ground rules” or standards that become non-negotiable and are shared by all.

When people adopt new standards, they are actually making a commitment to each other.

In the best organizations, the ground rules become operational, with contracts between people who don’t want to let each other down. This is what links co-ownership of survival or success. Within an organization, this translates into units that hold each other to a standard because they want the performance of the whole company to work.

Without the right behaviors, strategy execution will fail every single time. A company needs to identify the leadership behaviors required to enable strategy execution, and then determine accountability mechanisms, develop new organizational decision rights, assess current cultural realities, and create a plan for cultural shifts.

Want to learn more about teeing up your strategy up for successful activation? Drop us a note at or check out our Root Leadership Alignment solution.

October 13, 2021

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