Can’t Change Your Company’s Culture? Create a Leadership Subculture Instead

Become a better sales coach and sales manager today.

Many managers who try to initiate positive change in their company wind up feeling dejected, demoralized, and disheartened. Rather than trying to change your company’s culture in the short term, create a subculture instead. Here’s how.

Excerpt from Keith Rosen’s upcoming book, Coachquest.

I’m a lover of words, taxonomy, and semantics. Call it an occupational hazard (or a blessing). As an author and a wordsmith, I truly believe that reality is created in the language we use. Therefore, when you change the language, you have the power to change your thinking, which in turn, creates new and better results. Here’s how one group of senior leaders experienced this very powerful universal law.

During a recent workshop in Tampa, Florida where about 80 senior sales leaders of a Fortune 50 company were there to learn what they can do to further impact their team and influence their organization by effectively coaching their sales teams, peers, and cross functional teams. As expected, I was challenged around whether or not a manager truly has the power to impact a culture to the point where they can effectively coach their team in a sustainable way, especially in an environment where they would be in the minority of leaders attempting to do so.

Can You Truly Change a Metrics Driven Culture?

Their concern was, how effectively will their coaching be over the long term if their boss and the overall culture of the organization is not a coaching culture but an analytics, metrics, result driven culture that values performance over everything else, including their people; whether they admit it or not?

Demoralized, dejected, and discouraged, these managers who truly want to initiate positive change feel helpless. They believe they have no influence over their company culture; a belief that’s so deeply rooted in their thinking that consequently, there’s nothing they can do to make the positive changes that are desperately needed. So, instead of trying to become the change they want to see, they try to work around the system or put up with the toxicity or negativity that the company continues to breed, often falling victim to the very culture they want to change.

How very interesting. Think of our global society for a moment. Pick any country on the planet and consider the cultures that exist and even co-exist amongst each other within an overarching larger culture?

Now consider your company. Regardless of the size of your company, managers struggle to wrap their head around what they can do to measurably impact their work environment.

And this frustration typically manifests itself in a comment from a manager that sounds like, “Keith, I get that coaching works. I mean, you just put us through a powerful simulation that demonstrated what could be possible when we change how we engage with each other. So, I’m a huge believer in the power of coaching. But you have to understand our culture and what is most important to my boss, and my boss’s boss, and the senior leadership team in this company; it’s get the results or die trying.

“So, coaching is great during good times but it gets tossed out the window during a heated performance review or when your team is 30% down from your sales targets and you’re a month away from closing out the quarter. At that point all I’m thinking is, my scorecard isn’t looking very green and that’s going to affect my career. I mean, we work for one of the largest companies in the world. We are a result driven, metrics driven organization as you eluded to. And while I’d love to see this change, to date, we’re not measured around how effective we are as coaches but around our KPI’s, commitments, and sales numbers.”

I’ve heard this a couple of times.

And I am truly sensitive to this and deeply empathize with these managers. As much as I may understand their situation and how they can perceive this as their truth, as a coach, I’m not serving anyone by jumping on the bandwagon of despair and limiting thinking, nor telling people what they already know.

However, I do truly understand and deeply respect the feeling that, regardless of the company you work for, trying to change a culture can often feel like trying to quickly turn a battleship, especially if you’re a large global sales organization. Instituting any type of transformational change can feel very overwhelming, risky, and time consuming, especially when there are sales goals that need to be achieved – now.

Create a Subculture Instead

And then the idea just came to me, right from my heart. I didn’t plan on saying this, nor was it in my presentation. I turned to the entire team of senior leaders and asked, “What if you create your own subculture instead?”

Being in a room with some very intelligent and experienced people, I needed to quickly back up my statement. So, before I went deeper to share this as a possibility, I wanted to make sure I got my facts right. So, we all pulled out our phones and checked out how Merriam-Webster defined of the word, subculture to ensure the accurate definition, use, and relevance to this conversation.

Here’s how they defined the word, subculture.

Subculture: “A group that has beliefs and behaviors that are different from the main groups within a culture or society. An ethnic, regional, economic, or social group exhibiting characteristic patterns of behavior sufficient to distinguish it from others within an embracing culture, company or society.

Hmm, so far, it sounded as if I was on to something. We then jumped over to

There, they defined subculture as, “The cultural values and behavioral patterns distinctive of a particular group in a society. A group within a society that has its own shared set of customs, attitudes, and values, often accompanied by jargon or a different way of communicating. A subculture can be organized around a common activity, occupation, age, status, ethnic background, race, religion, or any other unifying social condition.

This definition helped further reinforce the next question that I pose to every manager who authentically wants to make an impact and foster positive change. I responded to their concern by asking the question that very few to none are able to answer on their own.

“So then, if creating the type of subculture you want is truly a possibility, then how do you change a culture? How do you develop and transform talent?”

The answer? One person at a time. One conversation at a time.

Regardless of the company you work for, look at your team for a moment and ask yourself, “Who created the culture and environment that exists within my team?” You did. You created that environment. In every conversation and during every interaction. Whether it’s during a meeting, a one to one conversation, a text, IM, or email. Because in every interaction, you are doing one of two things. You are building trust or you are eroding trust. You are building and developing people or you are eroding them.

And don’t lose sight of the fact that it is not only your responsibility to create that desired coaching culture, or subculture; the positive environment that can co-exist and thrive within a larger culture; it is entirely in your power to create the subculture of champions you want.

Now in an ideal scenario, the entire company would shift to creating a most positive culture where they authentically put their people first before the results. But until that happens, your team, department or division can be the voice and model for what is possible, regardless of what is going on around you or throughout the overall culture. From there, either the subculture you create spreads organically throughout your organization or you continue to do what great leaders do. That is, insulate your team from the negative influences and pressures from the top. Either way, you’re in a win-win situation.

And let’s be clear, your job description hasn’t changed. What has changed is the way you engage with your direct reports, peers, and customers every day. Regardless of the culture you work within, how you communicate and support your people is always entirely in your power.

The Subculture Is You

Honoring this philosophy and opening up your thinking to create a subculture creates the organic changes and the type of atmosphere and environment that you and your team desperately want and need to thrive. Because regardless of your culture, your people interact with you every day. And how does that translate into the impact you can make? In essence, you’re the culture, or, at least, you’re the subculture. Therefore, you are in full control around creating the subculture you want on your team. The good news is, this is all in your power because you control how you communicate, respond, work with, and engage with each person on your team, including your peers, cross functional teams, and customers.

Think of it this way. It doesn’t matter the train you get on and whether or not the conductor of the train is a leader whose style is different than your own. As they lead you down the path to achieve your business objectives, keep this in mind. When you get on that train, you get to choose your seat and your view. That’s why ultimately, the culture is you.