41 - Metanoia

Culture Change Starts With You

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… and why you can only create culture change once you’ve had metanoia – a change of heart and mind that leads to behavior change.

I have just shared a framework for how you can encode your company with a telos (a purpose-for-others) – and bring it to life through the actions of the people who make up the organization. To recap, bringing a telos to life will require a company to:

1) Tap into the desire or aspiration of its employees.

Real employee engagement around a purpose that is unimportant or demotivating is unlikely.

A telos based on authority structures or traditional “carrots and sticks” is sheer folly and assures that the vital source of energy to activate it will be lacking. At best, a telos without aspiration will be lived out inconsistently.

Battleford Bank, which promised to be, “your neighborhood bank,” needed to pay attention when its employees were inspired by an idea to truly provide banking services for everyone in the neighborhood and not just wealthy high-yield clients.

2) Make choices and fundamental strategic decisions that manifestly demonstrate an unswerving commitment to the telos.

“The art of strategy is expressed in the grim realism of choice.”

Every telos begets a constantly evolving set of choices about how it might be achieved. Strategic plans and actions must match the promises of the brand and the aspirations of its people through the organization’s culture.

A music festival founded, “to celebrate and preserve classical string music for future generations,” must not allow itself to be held captive by the revenue-generating potential of a summer schedule heavy in pops concerts instead of the classical performances that will deliver on the festival’s intention.

3) Embody the telos so that it becomes an everyday standard.

If the purpose is not visibly embodied, it is merely a fantasy, even a lie. A telos can only be brought to life through personal, human actions.

The everyday standard of behavior is created by leaders who live out the purpose. Titles don’t make leaders, followers do, and followers will emulate what they see.

The manager of a call center, the largest operated by a company whose stated purpose was to “keep families safe and connected”, knew that the strategy decision handed down by her bosses would compromise the company’s stated purpose. She knew she was in a position to influence – and even lead – others both above and below her in the org. chart. Was a negative culture shift underway, and could she courageously confront it?


By nature, a company telos goes beyond a simple statement or a declaration of intent. A telos is a promise that must be lived out, a promise that compels a distinct set of corollary beliefs and actions. Encoding a company with telos is really about culture change, because it is a matter of moving the culture of the organization to take its aspirations seriously enough to live them out. The “living out” happens day-to-day by people who are often known by titles like employee, manager, owner, or CFO. They are people like you.

If encoding an organization with telos and bringing it to life is a phenomenon requiring cultural change, then what causes cultural change and how it comes about is something we should explore.

What Causes Culture Change?

“To fix this organization, you just HAVE to have culture change,” stressed the advisor on the radio, as she began to prescribe the remedy for an organization whose stated mandate and values had just been very publicly contradicted by one of its most prominent employees.

“And how does that come about?” the reporter asked

“That is a very good question,” replied the pundit, followed by a blank silence. Seeming to decide that she was not up to the tussle of unpacking the means to create such change, she opted to stick with the imperative, and finally broke the silence with, “The culture must shift!”

The reporter, wisely it seems, abandoned that inquiry and moved on to other questions, leaving behind a yawning gap of insight.

Allow me to try to fill some of the void…

Culture Change Starts with You

The uncomfortable reality is that organizations cannot simply shift on their axis to create culture change and widespread behavior modification. Rather:

Culture change is a 1-to-1 phenomenon that occurs person by person when individual hearts and minds change.

Smokey the Bear has been teaching us this for generations — “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” he says, in a not-so-subtle callout to the key dynamic levers of culture change and widespread impact: you and I.

So, perhaps counter-intuitively, if you are a leader and instigator who wants your company to live out a purpose, your real task is to incite and encourage a personal transformation for your colleague at the adjoining desk and for the one you bump into each morning on the way to get coffee. It’s this 1-to-1 spread of change (what the internet calls “viral”) that begins to incite the faceless majority toward an incremental shift.

What Causes People to Change?

If a culture change and behavior adjustment happens person to person, and shifts when individual hearts and minds change, then the real question we must address is, “what causes people to have such a change of heart and mind that their behavior shifts sufficiently enough for others to notice?” Herein lies the mystery.

The ancient Greeks gave us a word to describe the heart-shift of a single person: metanoia.

Metanoia quite literally refers to, “a change of mind or an after-thought.” One writer has referred to it as “experiencing a radical and counter-cultural paradigm shift of identity.” Often, personal crisis, loss, an unexpected experience, or relentless disquiet leads to this fundamental shift in beliefs and priorities. From that, a new pattern and intent of action can emerge.

All lasting behavior change originates from metanoia, which is what has occurred when our hearts and minds change. Every person out there – you included – who will inspire culture change and lead corporate cultures to live out purpose will have experienced some form of metanoia, perhaps even long ago, that causes them to lead others toward belief in the purpose and the choices and actions it will require.

Therefore, over the next few posts, metanoia is a phenomenon I’d like to explore with you further, and I’ll share stories and a framework that will help us understand this concept more clearly.

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