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Engaging Senior Leadership in Driving Culture Improvement

Tags:  (2017 Apr 4th - 10:27am)

In the IPMA-HR report, HR2020: Shifting Perspectives—A Vision for Public Sector HR, culture was identified as one of the five essential focus areas for human resources professionals who are committed to leading and influencing transformational change. Along with the areas of leadership, talent, technology and communication, culture was highlighted because improvements in this area can have significant and long-lasting impact.

The culture of the organization is the key factor in determining how, or if, its goals and objectives can be successfully achieved. The HR2020: Shifting Perspectives report describes how the cultures of fully engaged organizations of the future will be guided by three core interdependent values: Caring, Learning and Innovation. 

Caring is associated with developing policies, programs and practices that support the employees’ physical, social, familial, mental and financial well-being, which allow the employees to bring their best selves to work.

Learning is focused around the creation of a well-rounded learning organization that is meaningfully invested in professional development, career agility, and knowledge transfer.

Innovation is the practiced value of creativity, continuous/process improvement, and the incorporation of an agile organizational structure.

Accountability measures should be designed in order for these core values to be accepted, supported and/or funded by both internal and external stakeholders (i.e. taxpayers, voters and other influential constituencies).  As an example, employee engagement is an organizational priority at the County of San Mateo and each department reports on (and publishes) their annual engagement results to the board of supervisors and the public. The engagement results are then analyzed and used by leaders, with HR support, to develop specific improvement plans at the department levels.

In addition to the County of San Mateo example, HR professionals have many opportunities to help leaders at all levels to meaningfully plan for shaping or changing organizational culture.  However, it is important to emphasize that senior leadership has the primary responsibility for making the key decisions that determine what should remain or be improved within the culture they are leading. In order for senior leaders to be effective in driving any type of change, including significant change like improving the culture, it is critical that they be authentic role models, from the very beginning. They need to be genuine, believable and fully bought into the vision of culture improvement they are intending to lead. For instance, if the stated desired improvement is for front-line service providers to be more responsive to clients, leaders must also be responsive to their own employee’s e-mails or requests, etc. Otherwise, any perceived disconnect between the leader’s words and their actions may slow down or even stop any progress toward the change by their followers. For employees to be actively engaged in their work, and remain so, their leaders must also be actively and authentically engaged.

When senior leaders actively endorse – and most importantly practice - new initiatives that drive culture improvement, the effect is positively multiplied. Given that leader engagement has such a tremendous impact on overall employee engagement, it is critical that initial change and improvement efforts focus on senior leadership first. Too often leaders ask their employees to change before they first change themselves. As human beings, the emotional stages of transition and change (denial, resistance, exploration, commitment) also applies to them, and it doesn’t always happen quickly. If the leaders aren’t truly ready for the desired change, they should move forward more slowly.

Leaders should first take the time to fully understand and truly believe why the culture improvements they desire are relevant and necessary to the organization’s success. Only then can they be expected to notice and leverage opportunities to consistently model those new behaviors that reflect and represent the desired culture improvements they espouse. When senior leaders are ready to “walk the talk” they will be much more effective in influencing the desired mindset and behavior change in their employees.

HR professionals can help by supporting senior leadership efforts in the following areas:


Once senior leaders themselves are committed to the culture improvements, they must over communicate the reasons for the changes and acknowledge the impacts of both the positive (gains) and negative (losses) on the organization. Effective leadership communication is frequent, honest and transparent. Being transparent means answering the questions employees are asking. Sometimes it means anticipating questions that have not yet been asked. Reasonable employees appreciate that their concerns are being heard, and/or addressed, even if the response is “we don’t know.” Without information, people will choose their own interpretation of what they think is really happening.

In traditional hierarchies, information sharing is rigidly structured and restricted. That strategy doesn’t make as much sense for organizations today given the wide-ranging impact of technology on the speed of communication throughout the rest of society. Within reason, most organizational information does not need to be treated as closely guarded secrets. HR professionals can assist with the development of clear and appropriate messaging and can help to advise on the most effective forums, methods and even tone. When leaders make communication a priority, and when information is shared liberally, employees can see that the organization cares. They are then more likely to be open to change.


For the engaged leader, driving culture improvement also includes regularly connecting with followers in a focused way that consistently demonstrates and illuminates the desired behaviors and actions. Regular connection with leadership can help employees feel excited about the future of the organization, and their role within it. Leaders should be initiating communication by asking employees what they think about the change and how it might affect them. Most importantly leaders need to listen and pay attention to what they see and hear. When employees believe in the WHY, they are more likely to be committed to the desired changes. In addition to face to face connections, there are many new and evolving opportunities to engage employees in the digital age across numerous platforms that can be orchestrated by HR. Effective two-way communication should be available when senior leaders want to “push” it out, and also when they want to “pull” it towards them in the form of feedback and input.  When leaders authentically connect with employees both intellectually and emotionally, they build trust and send the message that innovative thinking is a truly respected value.


Top performers, in any field, still need coaching. When senior leaders adopt a coaching mindset and make coaching an organizational priority, it accelerates the ability to drive culture improvement. By focusing on the learning and development of employees, leaders can encourage the leveraging of individual strengths that are consistent with the desired culture improvements. Coaching, with feedback, can help employees to understand the beliefs underpinning the changes and learn how to apply the desired actions and behaviors for future success. HR professionals can help with a variety of programmatic solutions to assist leaders in developing the knowledge, skills and abilities to be successful coaches. When coaching is a prioritized approach to leading, learning becomes an organizational expectation that is more easily met.

For the past five years, San Mateo County has taken tangible steps guided by the core values of caring, learning and innovation to enhance the culture of our organization.  HR has supported the engagement of senior leadership in these areas:


  • Developed targeted messaging (including timing recommendations) for culture improvement initiatives including employee engagement, wellness, and performance and learning for department heads and executive leadership to use in communicating to their employees.
  • Development of an Employee Resource Network (Communication hub that includes multiple communication modes such as video, pulse surveys, chat bars, resource links etc.).


  • Organized retreats for leadership to discuss and plan county initiatives and progress measures.
  • Implemented Yammer, an enterprise social network to encourage cross departmental communication and engagement.
  • Lead multi-disciplinary cross departmental teams on all major culture initiatives.
  • Co-presented coaching and feedback skills training for managers and supervisors with senior leaders.


  • Developed and implemented mandatory “Coaching for Performance” training for all managers and supervisors.
  • Incorporated content related to coaching practices into all leadership training curriculum.
  • Identified Executive Coaches and placed them on retainer for leaders when they are needed.
  • Provided in-depth Coaching certification training for key leaders.
  • Incorporated coaching into the performance factors used to appraise the performance for all supervisors and managers.

In order for HR professionals to effectively influence senior leaders to act in the positive ways described above, they will need to earn and maintain their trust. In some cases, this will require the courage to speak the truth to power even though it may create discomfort. When senior leaders fully realize that they need to be actively engaged first, they will have taken the first step needed to move forward with implementing real transformative change. HR professionals can be valuable partners in helping to guide the way.

Donna Vaillancourt is a member of the HR2020 Taskforce, as well as the human resource director for the County of San Mateo, Calif. She can be reached at