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5 questions with Michelle Euzet

26 November 2019
Michelle Euzet is an expert in true and sustainable corporate cultural change. On the one hand, she acts as an initiator – holding keynote speeches, creating concepts and releasing publications – and on the other, as a facilitator – by providing consulting, business coaching and mentoring services. The Caribbean-born Frenchwoman’s career is characterised by the leading positions she has held in the central Marketing departments of the B2B corporate groups ZF Friedrichshafen AG and Jungheinrich AG. She held posts in those companies as Head of International Change Projects or as a Line Manager all the way up to the Senior Management team for just shy of 20 years.

An appropriate corporate culture is increasingly considered to be one of the most important digital transformation success factors. Is corporate cultural change absolutely indispensable?

Studies unanimously show that the digital transformation cannot succeed without a corresponding culture being introduced. But discussions surrounding corporate culture aren’t a new phenomenon; companies have been determining, communicating and providing training in their corporate values for years or even decades … yet many employees are reporting on appearance and reality. In the context of digitalisation, the cultural change that is so often initiated is now inevitably vital for survival, making it actually indispensable in many companies. Cultural change ultimately has to succeed!

Corporate culture is a lively, highly tangible concept that isn’t reflected in dogmatic statements, but rather in day-to-day business: it’s about appreciation and value creation. Culture develops per se and is subject to how both the company and its environment evolves. It would be simply fatal in our ever faster changing world to hold onto the illusion that cultural change will ever be completed. That’s why organisations need a permanent body that constantly monitors, actively promotes and takes responsibility for the development of corporate culture in a positive sense. Nothing less than companies’ mobility and thus future viability are at stake. This is what my structured support of cultural change focuses on.

What common mistakes do companies make when changing their culture? Where do you run into problems?

In some companies, I miss the business leaders’ ‘genuine desire’ to dig down into the nitty-gritty: While half-hearted, superficial cultural work may appear symbolic and be worth communicating, it does not lead to true and sustainable cultural change. The decision to transform a culture needs to have significance as a strategic corporate goal; after all, it has far-reaching implications for day-to-day business.
A lack of consistency and perseverance are other things I’ve noticed: While employees are taught corporate values in campaigns, training sessions and workshops, they experience arbitrariness on the part of their hierarchy. However, leadership culture is the most effective lever for bringing about cultural change. Tolerating destructive behaviour practised by individual managers discredits cultural work in the workforce’s minds. Attitude is disproportionately rewarded.

Both points conceal an increasingly difficult definition of the role of Human Resources (HR): on the one hand, it is the messenger bringing the ‘good news’ with regard to corporate values and, on the other, it is the enforcer of arbitrary personnel decisions made by individual managers. Not only does responsibility without powers reduce effectiveness; it damages the credibility of cultural work too.

In the keynote speech you held at the previous Bethmann Bank Forum (or the Feminess Conference), you recommended that companies appoint a cultural change officer. What are the advantages of doing this, and what qualities should this person have?

Cultural change requires a paradigm shift: away from pure responsibility for processes to responsibility for results! ‘Kultur-Revision ©’ [‘Cultural Auditing’] is an administrative department that reports directly to the Company Management team and thus sets a striking example: What were formerly superficiality and arbitrariness give way to relevance, motivation and aspirations. ‘Kultur-Revision ©’ is responsible for transforming corporate culture, has earmarked powers vis-à-vis third-party departments and works in close cooperation with the HR departments, the works council and ‘culture agents’ represented at all levels of the hierarchy.

Appointing the right people to ‘Kultur-Revision ©’ is absolutely vital: The candidates combine strategic thinking and pragmatism, are emphatic, by no means dogmatic and enjoy a high level of acceptance among employees and managers. Highly collaborative, integrative and sympathetic, they situationally see themselves as coaches or mentors, but are assertive and aware of their mandate and powers.

Values that are written down and values that are applied in practice in companies are often poles apart. How can we solve this problem and achieve more authenticity?

Let’s start by honestly communicating the ‘reason why’ behind the cultural change we’re striving for; while staff satisfaction is vital on the road to success, the goal is to secure the company’s continued existence. For far too long, HR measures were ‘sold’ to employees as an almost altruistic gift.

Then the company should openly admit to itself that not all the selected values are 100% applied in practice absolutely everywhere yet. Dogmatic statements along the lines of ‘We don’t think in silos’ or ‘We live and breathe diversity’ are counter-productive when they’re simply debunked by everyday life. In contrast, a powerful commitment to greater collaboration or diversity, accompanied by goal-oriented cultural work that’s noticeable in day-to-day business, shows that a stance is being taken. Five principles serve as a guideline for selecting, planning and implementing measures, namely: transparency, authenticity, consistency, effectiveness and measurability. Constantly comparing the cultural work against these principles gives it a sense of purpose, traction and staying power.

Far too often, the symbolic power or communication value take centre stage; for instance, when business leaders are praising agility but are still insisting on detailed reports. Authenticity needs a backbone!

What first step would you recommend that a company facing cultural change take?

The first step towards cultural change is a clear commitment; the only way for something to succeed is for people to have honest intentions from the start. Self-reflection by the business leaders in a broader sense clarifies motivation, relevance and aspirations: Why are we dealing with culture as a topic? How important is the topic to us from an emotional and economic standpoint? What happens if we don’t do anything? How far are we personally willing to question ourselves? What can’t happen? How will we know that it was worth it?... Every change has its price. Taking this first step determines the yardstick and pain thresholds, plus expectations and desires. In my work, formulating a commitment is the first phase of a five-phase model that leads towards true and sustainable cultural change.

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