Five Key Principles to Create a Culture Ready for Transformation

In a recent North Highland sponsored survey, more than 200 business leaders in the UK and US were asked about their business transformation experiences. The most common roadblock to transformation was identified as ‘lack of cultural buy-in at all levels of the organization.’

Even if you work in an organisation where your culture sets you apart, you’re not immune to these challenges.

Our world is speeding up, changing and transforming at an ever-increasing pace. We face ambiguity, volatility and uncertainty on a daily basis. Customers expect to receive individual experiences, employees want to shape their own destiny on their own timescales, and our world is increasingly digital and data-driven by default. The organisations that thrive are either the ones that are new and can build experiences that directly meet today’s needs or the ones that are focusing on transforming to stay relevant, current and competitive.

If you wait for your culture to change organically, you’ll be too slow. You need to approach your culture with the same discipline and commitment that you would use to make operational changes.

So, how do you create a culture fit for the future? A culture that can continuously change and transform? A culture that is agile, adaptable and flexible? You need to break down internal siloes, focus on how you engage with people (customers, employees, partners, shareholders, investors), and make it safe to take risks and try new ideas.

We’ve identified the five key principles necessary in order to create a culture that is ready to transform:


You break down the traditional siloes when you create connection and a culture of togetherness:

  • Set a clear, ambitious near-term direction (your aspiration) that your leaders commit to and your teams fall in love with.
  • Have high quality interactions (promote trust, be open, learn to give and accept feedback and manage conflict).

Co-creation will put culture before strategy. If we focus on strategy first, we hope for a cultural shift. By co-creating and working together from the outset, we directly influence mindset and behavioural change.


You drive your own change when you are deeply and personally motivated:

  • Allow time and encourage conversations for everyone to find the part of the aspiration that’s relevant to them.
  • Talk about this when you hold your one-to-one meetings, as well as your usual conversations about day-to-day operations.

Meaningful organisational change doesn’t happen until we’re focused on changing ourselves.


Being recognised for your contributions creates a bond of trust with each other and that trust yields improved business performance:

  • Get used to recognising others and be ok with vocalising your appreciation to the individual and the team.
  • Don’t hold back on telling others when you value their input.

Neuroscience shows that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal, and public. Public recognition not only uses the power of the crowd to celebrate successes, but also inspires others to aim for excellence.


Operational excellence is critical to our success today. However, to be successful tomorrow you must spend time thinking and planning for what might come next:

  • Great ideas come from unlikely places and promote inspiration and energy. Allow and build space to innovate. Make it ok to take risks and create an environment that is continuously learning.
  • Bring diversity of expertise and experience into the room. The next generation understands the future better than you do.

The ability to achieve significant, non-linear change starts with the realisation that time is a continuum. The future is not located on some far-off horizon, and you cannot postpone that work of building it until tomorrow. To get to the future, you must build it day by day.


People are hard wired to absorb stories, symbols and images and these need to appeal both our emotions and our intellect:

  • When you finish a meeting, ask your teams to construct the narrative that they will take away to talk to others about.
  • Ask them for the facts that support this narrative.

Why did the whole of America get behind Kennedy when, in 1961, he announced that the US could put a man on the moon (and return him safely to earth) before the decade was out? He painted a future that the country wanted to be part of, he made it a timebound aspiration, he called on a multitude of stakeholders to work together (scientists, governments, technologists, engineers, servicemen, civil servants), and prioritise this over other activities they were planning. He asked for his citizens to make the decision. He was specific about how much it was going to cost ($9 billion over the next 5 years – approx. $73 billion today) and he talked about Alan Shepard (the first US astronaut in space). He told a story that we still remember today.

Now, you may be looking at each of those and thinking that none of that sounds so hard and wondering why you don’t do all of these already? In fact, you may already be trying some of them out. If you are, remind yourself of their importance when operational tasks threaten to overload you and you put off creating a narrative at the end of the meeting and instead opt for an action list. Remind yourself that it’s ok to disagree with a colleague but you need to tell them and talk it through and not save it up to complain about to someone else later. You need to remember to invite a range of experience and expertise into the room to talk about new ideas. You need to make space to generate new ideas and take risks.

Use your time wisely now to build your culture today that will live on well into your future.


1. "The Neuroscience of Trust", Paul J Zak; "Harvard Business Review"

2. "The Three Box Solution", Vijay Govindarajan; "Harvard Business Review Press"