In my more than 20 years of executive search and consulting on organizational turnarounds, I have seen an important, immutable truth play out over and over.

cultural changeThe organizational culture that a new chief executive officer inherits is the one they must use to get started. The only time you can ignore this rule is if there are dire financial circumstances and meeting payroll and keeping the doors open are the first priority. Leaders ignore that reality at their peril. I have seen more than a few CEOs who have disregarded the inbred cultural reality and the results were not good — for those executives.

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CEOs who have successfully led the cultural change know two things: it cannot be done overnight, and the culture you have on the first day is the one you have to begin with. CEOs do not have to embrace the dysfunction but they do have to use it to begin building a new foundation.

In every organization whether it is a complex healthcare system, corporation or even the federal government, there are always more than a few entrenched Vice Presidents or department directors of “this is the way it has always been.” They are the protectors of the swamp. Some have to go immediately but the remaining obstructionists need to be used to set the table for the slow process of cultural reform. Meanwhile, the CEO must work rapidly to recruit a new team that will embrace change. Overhauling the culture requires integrity, strategy, consistency, empathy, persuasion, time and a lot of hard, at times frustrating, work.

People who try to dictate change through policy or written edicts rarely succeed no matter how noble their goal.

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