There are not many companies that are not currently facing changes. The climate, the scarcity of natural raw materials, digitalization, changes in working life and their combined impact ensure that every company needs to consider changes in their business operations and operating models. Whenever business operations face changes, the corporate culture must also change.
The business operations of Neste started to change when, some ten years ago, we decided to stop being only an oil refiner and become also a producer of renewable products. First, we focused on building new business, such as making investments and building our supply chain and organization. We noticed fairly quickly that new products and services cannot be developed, marketed and sold like before. Leadership and the corporate culture needed to change to respond to the new challenges.
Some four years ago, we made the decision to actively develop our corporate culture together with our personnel. We still have a long way to go, but we can already share some pointers we have learned along the way:
1) Culture cannot be forced to change
If there is one thing about leading a cultural change that I would like to point out, it is this: culture cannot be forced or controlled. Culture is enabled by people and everyday actions. A change comes one act at a time through changes in our behavior. Of course, this means that there is a lot of work to be done but, then again, leading the change will also be less vague than how it is often described. If we are determined and move forward one step at a time, we can produce results and make a change.
2) Engage the entire personnel
The culture should not be changed if it is not strategically important. The upper management needs to understand its significance and commit to leading the change by example. Otherwise, nothing will change. However, practical work needs to be carried out together with the personnel. At Neste, we asked our entire personnel to respond to a questionnaire and challenged them to consider what we should change. On the basis of these responses, we prepared the Way Forward operating method which we follow in everything we do – every single day. Our employees also set concrete goals for themselves regarding something that they will stop and something that they will start.
3) Speak in an understandable way
Just like in any other change, a story is also significant in a cultural change. Why is the change necessary? Only when we understand why the change is needed can we be committed to it and start to change our actions. In addition, it is important that the target state is communicated clearly to the personnel. What will our operating model look like? When will it be in place? As the business world emphasizes financial indicators, many still require more human criteria. For example, we defined our target state like this: Our aim is to have a more profitable, a more customer-focused, and a safer company where the personnel enjoy their work and feel well. The success of a change can only be identified by asking the personnel.
4) Plans and determination
Experts say that a change in culture takes roughly seven years. This is a long time but, luckily, the first signs of success can be seen much earlier. Even though these are a cause of celebration, we need to finish what we have started. Determination is the cornerstone of a cultural change. We need to keep the flame alive, even if we were exhausted by endless repetition. A new "normal" cannot be established overnight. Although a cultural change is a different type of project, it also requires good old systematic engineering. New operating methods need to be integrated into all management processes, ranging from training to induction and from performance appraisals to strategic communications.
5) Make all successes visible to everyone
Long-term indicators of a strategic change in culture include business profitability, customer satisfaction, personnel satisfaction and safety. These are, of course, affected by many other factors, and it can be difficult to give a number to the importance of personal changes. That is why we should get the most out of every step forward, no matter how small, and communicate them to the entire company. For example, we have exposed Way Forward individuals and teams who have shown the right kind of attitude in their work. Once a year, we celebrate the Forward day when we all have fun together.
As I said earlier there are not many organizations that are not talking about a cultural change. Many have already started, while others are still thinking or unable to decide how to get moving. However, I would like to encourage everyone to give a push to a change and give it everything they got – one act at a time. Seeing the first small successes in the corridors, hearing them in the cafeteria or finding them from key figures is incredibly rewarding.