Every organization has a culture. Sometimes workers are frenzied and feel like they are always under pressure to accomplish whatever goals have been set for them. Folks might describe the environment as a “pressure cooker.” Perhaps you’ve worked in such a place.

At the other end of the culture spectrum is the laid-back office. Goals may be set, but top management makes sure that employees know that a work–life balance is expected. The work gets done, but employees appreciate the low-key expectations. Or, if top management is not paying attention, goals are not met as employees do whatever they want.

Let’s think about the shifts in business culture when a change is made in senior positions.

I knew an organization that had this happen. The previous president and his top staff had been very hands-off. They were long-serving employees of the organization and ran it as it had always been run. No one expected much in terms of accomplishments or new ideas, so there weren’t many. At some point, the organization’s board realized that, by keeping the top guy in place, they were contributing to the situation. So they had him leave.

What to do now? Does the board promote from within? If they do, it’s likely that, since the previous guy had surrounded himself with yes-men, nothing much will change. Perhaps incremental progress will occur, but the board wanted more.

They decided to go outside the company for a new president. Of course, when this happens, many of the long-serving employees are going to be uncomfortable or fearful as they contemplate changes. As well they should be.

So the board went searching for someone they felt would bring not only change, but a culture shift. After months of searching, they identified a somewhat unconventional candidate. He had completed a distinguished career in another industry and had retired. But he was known in the geographical area as a “get it done guy” and that’s what the board decided they wanted.

As you probably know, industries vary widely. The new president—we’ll call him Bob—was likeable, and early on the folks in his new organization thought they had dodged drastic changes. But for the first couple of months, Bob was on his listening tour. He was smart and knew he needed to learn a ton about both the organization and the industry. At some point, Bob unveiled his plans for the organization. And they weren’t status quo plans.

The employees were in disbelief that anyone could expect them to do all of the things on Bob’s list. They realized they were going to have to work harder than ever. The gravy train was coming to an end.

Can you imagine how this went down? In this organization, Bob was tasked by his bosses, the board, with doing more. Taking his marching orders very seriously and having had success doing it throughout his career, he began raising expectations. He ruffled the feathers of a variety of stakeholders.

Less than two years into his tenure, Bob quit. It turns out too many stakeholders complained about him to the board and he felt like he wasn’t supported enough to accomplish the tasks he and the board had agreed were necessary. As he had retired before, he decided he didn’t need the headaches, so he retired again.

Now what’s the board to do? They ended up hiring someone who smoothed stakeholders’ feathers and did not expect much more out of the staff than had been expected for the past decades. And this president has lasted at least a decade.

There are several lessons here. First, enacting too much change too soon in a laid-back culture generally cannot happen. Culture change is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes years to change culture and sometimes various employees must depart, too. The board probably understood the culture, or at least it should have. Putting a change agent like Bob in the position was guaranteeing failure.

Second, when people are hired to do a job, they must be supported if they are to have a chance to meet goals. This board did not support Bob, but the second president they hired was given low expectations, making it easier for them to support him.

Going from one extreme to the other in changing culture quickly is going to create problems every single time.

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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