Ever taken the job nobody else wanted?

It was announced a few days ago that Charles Scharf, current CEO of Bank of New York Mellon and former CEO of Visa has been named the new CEO of Wells Fargo.

Whew.  After WF’s recent press clips and its numerous scandals and screw-ups, I don’t know whether Mr. Scharf deserves congratulations or condolences. He’s taken a job that, according to numerous reports, no one wanted.  It’s not that Wells Fargo isn’t a great company.  It is, but its challenges are enormous.

Wells Fargo has been troubled. That’s not to denigrate the tens of thousands of outstanding employees who work hard, operate ethically, and do right by their customers and their colleagues.  But, like a lot of great companies that have gone astray, they’ve had a serious run of high-profile problems.

Scandals. Cultural problems that led to crisis. Massive government scrutiny to the extreme. Terrible headlines and actions that have led to their own customers losing some trust.

Peter Drucker famously said ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’.  In my view and in my personal experience, bad cultures and the people responsible for making them bad can eat the careers of those who try to reform them. The troublemakers can fight back and when they do, watch your back.

What are the important things to do–whether you’re Charles Scharf or you’re taking on your own company’s cultural overhaul?

Here are 12 steps you need to consider when taking on a broken culture:

  1. Assess the problems independently and ‘trust, but verify’.  Know that any work shown on day one may be filled with finger-pointing observations from some of the problem children.  Do your own investigative work and trust your own instincts.
  2. Build allies and coalitions for the battle ahead.  I know you’re in charge, but know that you’re in a war.  That means landmines are everywhere and not everyone wants you to return from the field of battle.  Also, in most wars, there’s a resistance and it’s often tough to know who is leading it. Someone in the leadership circle may want your job and welcome your demise–the old saying of ‘Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean I’m not being followed’ applies here.  Even some of those who helped hire you may go soft and want to revert back to the ways of the old regime.  Find out who your friends are–quickly.
  3. Once you’ve determined all the problems, acknowledge them…first, do it internally. Acknowledging the problems to your employees will begin to build trust–something that will be a key to any success you will have.   Also, alerting your board of directors to the problems provides both transparency and a paper trail.  Courage within an organization is sometimes hard to find when tough challenges exist and you need to paint the picture of the magnitude of the challenge you face.
  4. Educate and Get Your Employees Behind Your Vision of the New Culture. Make it a blockbuster experience–one that every employee wants to see. You’re now in the ‘changing hearts and minds’ business.  This is where you can both build a firm foundation for the future and also find out who is not on board with the new direction.  It’s not a one-shot deal with cultural education, so ensure that all departments and facets of the organization are on board and instilling the proper values within the company.
  5. Don’t delegate the role of cultural leadership.  Setting the tone on culture is the job of leadership.  Make it a huge part of your job and focus. Don’t outsource it and don’t make it appear that HR is the cultural guide. The buck stops with you and employees need to see that if anything is to change.
  6. Instill and require accountability. And from now on, there’s one set of rules.  In a culture, hypocrisy kills.  End any internal practices that allow for different sets of rules for different people in your organization.  If you do this one thing, you’ll gain hero status.  But it means doing something big that not every leader is willing to do: fire a friend or a highly productive employee if they’ve been a part of the problem. Sometimes it’s necessary.
  7. Seek and encourage employee feedback.  A culture that encourages feedback builds employee trust and spikes productivity and innovation.  Embrace it.
  8. Get rid of the problems.  I wrote an article recently about Papa John’s Pizza and the mistake they made by hiring a scandal-ridden #2 in their company to replace their even more scandal-ridden founder and CEO.  If you need to clean house, do it.  I talk extensively about what the stakes are when organizations don’t stand up to their problems in my book, The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures.  As a leader, you will risk your own career as well as your window of opportunity for success if you don’t make the hard decisions to remove your roadblocks to success.
  9. Do something big.  Look closely at Cumulus CEO Mary Berner’s actions when she took over Cumulus and it’s then-toxic culture.  She saw a huge disconnect between upper management and the rank and file employees at their radio stations around the U.S.  A symbol of that disconnect was the corporate jet that execs would fly in.  To show she meant business about fixing the culture and sending a message to everyone, Berner sold the jet! Find the corporate jet in your organization and send the message that the days of ‘business as usual’ is over.
  10. You’re now a marathon runner. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.  And it won’t end until you leave this job. Get in shape for a long-run effort, as cultures aren’t changed instantly.
  11. Be visible.  As my friend Jon Rennie writes in his book ‘I Have the Watch’, leaders must be visible.  It’s a simple principle, you need to be seen for people to observe you. Give them the opportunity to see you–and your values–in action.
  12. Booster shots.  From the start of your cultural transformation process to your last day, ensure that your employees learn what’s expected and what’s acceptable.  Through education and through exhibiting those values.  This step never stops and it’s the most powerful of all leadership moves– perseverance.

Everyone should root Charles Scharf on–for the employees of Wells Fargo, for its shareholders and its employees.  But also for every other leader who takes on tough but necessary challenges.

Pete Havel is the author of The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultureswhich is available on Amazon and through his website at www.arsonistintheoffice.com. He serves as a consultant, speaker, and trainer for organizations needing bold cultural transformation. He can be reached at pete@petehavel.com or 214-244-7906.


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