Question: Use of internal cultural ambassadors

Our 120 people company grew rapidly pre-2009, and now we see that growth coming back.

Due to growth, and high rates of turnover endemic to our industry, we had once decided to select vintaged individuals from different levels of organization, to act as our "cultural ambassadors."

Basically, they act as anchors and spokespersons for their respective teams and functions internally; during company meetings, new hire on boarding, off sites, etc.

However, they are often in conflict with our change agenda, since these individuals are really vested in our current system, and its continuity.

We are looking for best practices to have these cultural ambassadors embedded in our teams, without them being detractors to our change initiatives.

7 Expert Insights

The most recent research has shown that focusing on culture may not be the best way to engage employees and gain their support for the organization.  In many instances, the experience you are having regarding the conflict between culture and change initiatives is common.

By focusing on "climate" of the organization, you bring the "experiencing" of the firm to the present (versus focusing on the past/legacy of "culture".)  Employees report that they have an easier time describing the "climate" of the workplace and relationships than the "culture" of the firm.  Thus changes are easier to fashion and implement.

By re-orienting your approach, you can bring energy and enthusiasm to the organization, especially as it relates to change initiatives/agenda, because the focus is on the future rather than the past -- showing the benefits, in a concrete way, to the employees on the planned change.

Having said that, my observation of firms trying to assign "ambassadors" have not been successful as thought leaders emerge, and are not "selected."

I firmly believe that teams should be represented, and that those representatives should be chosen by their respective team members.  I also believe that powerful, high performing teams are key to long-term success.

If your objective is to reduce turnover in your organization, there are other things you should consider in addition to "culture".  Things like  helping behaviors, loyalty/trust, conscientiousness, team work, self-development and most importantly purpose as prevalent behavioral themes in the organization, as well as the all-important management style are closely related to employee satisfaction,  retention and high levels of performance.

I have reliable tools to measure the level of engagement and dedication of your employees, and to take a temperature reading on their perception of management.  With this information, we can craft an effective, laser-focused approach for the success of your change initiatives.

Culture is the sum of the behaviors driven by the UNWRITTEN RULES. The first step is to get these ambassadors together to make the unwritten rules written. That is, what they are teaching in their stories, mantras and history lessons must be CORE to the company in both past and present contexts.  By making the implicit explicit, you'll discover where those conflicts are and what is truly CORE.

Southwest Airlines has Culture Ambassadors who remember the very short skirts their first flight attendants wore. The PRINCIPLE was innovative marketing, the short skirts had to go because societal views changed. Assigned seats slow boarding time. Southwest has stuck to that principle, but now you can pay for priority BOARDING, which accomplishes the same thing OUTSIDE the plane. Determining what is CORE is critical to using your ambassadors in the most effective way. Make sure the moral of every story is clear and aligned with where you have been and where you are going.

One more thing...a "change agenda"  sounds scary. That is like telling me there is an earthquake coming. I'm not sure if I'll be affected or not but if I am it could be very bad. You might want to consider something more like "Our list of customer focused projects" or "Our new customer experience plan" that makes it clear that you are not changing things because "Management wants a change" but because "We want to provide the best experience for our customers" or a similar message.

Just a quick question...As with countries, any ambassador is a simultaneous representative of all three: past present and future...

So...What has you not clarifying for them their cultural ambassador role as a past/present/future endeavor?

They need to be stewards of the past who need to help others integrate into the present with a willingness to be the cultural ambassadors of change for the future. Without that full perspective they are actually perpetuating their own agenda vs. the company's under the guise of trying to help others stay true to the core values of the company.

If they are so invested in the history then that would be to say they are invested in a past culture vs.. a present time culture, since you mentioned a change agenda as part of the current scenario.  Check with them and challenge them to completely fulfill the role vs. fulfill only the part that suits your agenda.

Kind of ironic that your cultural ambassadors are embracing the wrong (old versus new) culture, don't you think?! But that just makes the shift, when they finally do shift, all the more powerful.

To facilitate that shift, find out what they REALLY think about the new direction, listening for any of the following phrases:

          ✔ "It's not urgent," which suggests that your JUSTIFICATION FOR THE CHANGE is either insufficient, or counter-productive, in some way.

          ✔ "It's not real," which suggests that your COMMITMENT TO THE CHANGE is either insufficient, or counter-productive, in some way.

          ✔ "It's not worth it," which suggests that your WIIFM (What's In It For Me) and  WSIL ("pronounced "whistle" – Why Should I Listen?) is either insufficient, or counter-productive, in some way.

          ✔ "It's not a priority," which suggests that your IMPLEMENTATION PLAN is either insufficient, or counter-productive, in some way.

          ✔ "It's not possible," which suggests the SKILLS, KNOWLEDGE, AND TOOLS needed or available are either insufficient, or counter-productive, in some way.

Or my favorite,

          ✔ "This, too, shall pass," which suggests that the REWARDS, RECOGNITION, AND REINFORCERS are either insufficient, or counter-productive, in some way.

Don't try to explain why they're wrong -- instead, focus on how they're exactly right ... and then address those very issues quickly, thoughtfully, and thoroughly.

Do that and your ambassadors will happily – and diligently – help you make good things happen sooner.

Unfortunately I do not have enough information to be able to give you a good recommendation. Here are my questions:
1. Who selected these ambassadors?
2.How were they selected, i.e. what criteria did you use
3. Who was involved in the selection process?
4.How do other employees view these "ambassadors"?

All of the above is important to know before you make the changes. Please don't start making the changes unless you are clear about the outcomes you want.

In my business career I dealt with culture a lot. It was the culture as it pertains to different countries Philips operated in and I had a role to play as well as the culture between manufacturing, engineering, technicians, staff etc.

If you wish I would be happy to talk to you about everything I said plus more. Regards, Iva Wilson

I would clarify the role and purpose of the "Cultural Ambassador."  I am certain that it is not for them to sign-off on growth initiatives. Perhaps it is in service of  a more fluid two-way communication between employees, teams and the executive team.  Accurate feedback is critical for efficient functioning of any system not the least of which a complex organization.  And having competent voice that can help get "buy in" on the one hand and receive helpful feedback for possible blind spots on the other, is a win-win.

Cultural change is difficult and resistance to change is inevitable. What is shown to be most productive would be employee engagement-as described above. If this position enhances employee engagement then you've done an innovative and productive thing.  And since employee engagement energizes and motivates the workforce, this will hopefully lowers turnover.

As I become more undeniably 'vintaged' with each passing day, I applaud your efforts to honor those members of your company. Your observation that your cultural ambassadors and your change initiatives come into conflict is a caution, however, as Peter Drucker advised, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."

Your lead cultural ambassadors really need to be your CEO and CHRO. The CEO cannot delegate culture because it is the means to organizational performance, and the CEO cannot avoid being accountable for organizational performance. The HR function creates value through people, and the talent, knowledge, behaviors and attitudes of those people constitute your culture. It would seem to honor your cultural ambassadors even more to see they are part of something so important to the leadership of your company.

There is plenty of history describing the dangers of previously successful companies ultimately failing because of an inability to adapt to a changing business environment. It might be helpful to have your leadership engage with your cultural ambassadors in a dialogue regarding preserving the core of the company/culture while adapting to that changing environment - a concept Jim Collins explored in his book, Built to Last. Your ambassadors would seem a tremendous asset in helping to strategically shape change initiatives so they align with your culture rather than seeming to assault it. I suspect your ambassadors would become even more engaged and loyal in the process.