***This article is part of a series on employee engagement called Capitalizing on Culture. The series follows Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Trimark Sportswear Group and its quest to improve company culture.

Week five: Handling resistance to cultural change

There's plenty of skepticism around the concept of culture change. Some people hear the phrase and think it's just a soft way of saying the boss is making changes and everyone either better get on board or get out.

Story continues below advertisement

But if company leaders are truly aligned in a new vision and committed to the long process of change, experts say, the end result can be good for most everybody.

Debra Horsfield, a senior consultant in the talent management and organization alignment practice at Towers Watson, recalls one client company that was changing its structure and technology and figured, conservatively, that it could take three or four years to get the changes in place. "They spent a huge amount of time doing leader alignment, planning out the communication strategy," says Ms. Horsfield. "They did training to prepare managers to help people get through change and they created venues to get at the technical skill gaps."

Within 24 months, the company was 7 per cent ahead of two of its competitors. "They spent more time on the people end of the focus than they did even on the systems," she adds. "Right from the get-go, everyone was delivering the same message."

But even when leaders have a clear vision of where they want to go, it's challenging to implement it without a little outside help. "A facilitator is there to ask those crazy, off-the-wall, sometimes dumb questions - where are you now, how do you want to move forward? - in a very probing way with no ownership or baggage," Ms Horsfield explains. "Then they come up with action plans, key messages, key strategies around it."

Some organizations may hire a facilitator only to help formulate the vision or message; others may remain clients for years, relying on regular check-ins to keep everyone on track. "We never provide the content, we only provide the process," explains Catherine Parsons Dhamija, senior director of Managerial Design Corp., which is working with Trimark Sportswear Group. "We understand the content, though, because we all understand business."

At Managerial Design, for example, the full process consists of four elements:

Strategic planning: That involves figuring out what the gaps are between where a company is and where it wants to go, then how to fill those gaps and set goals.

Organizational alignment: The next task is to get everyone aligned with the strategy, which may involve changing the tasks they do. Managerial Design does something called a Team Effectiveness Lab, where everyone on a team talks about each person's role, usually over a couple of days off-site. "People are anxious coming into the meetings because they may have overlap or confusion in their role," explains Ms. Parsons Dhamija. "But at the end of the meeting, invariably they are relieved that they are clear about what they have to do." The lab is also about the dynamics of the team. "All that stuff comes into play, which makes it incredibly interesting as we try to help them," she adds. "Because nothing is black and white."

Managing for results: Once alignment is achieved, there needs to be a regular structured check-in process, which could be weekly or quarterly, whatever works for the company. Some clients continue these meetings for years. "Things change, people change, so it's never the same meeting twice," she says. "The only thing that doesn't change is the leader we work with."

Continuous improvement: With the company leaders, facilitators continue to look for new and better ways to do things. "We don't know the answers," says Ms. Parsons Dhamija. "The people in the room know the answers. We provide a great process that we know will work and get great results."

The cost depends on how big the company is and how far its leaders want to go with consultants. "It can be everything from over-the-shoulder advice and planning right through to turnkey," says Ms. Horsfield, though she cited, as example, one U.S. retail organization that spent about $2.5-million on system design and implementation. The company spent 35 to 40 per cent of that amount over and above on getting everyone ready and on board.

"One of my clients calls us the secret sauce," says Ms. Parsons Dhamija. "I've never, in 10 years in doing this, had someone come back and say that wasn't worth it."