The leader’s role in changing culture

Dr. Aretha Pigford, in the forward to Leonard Pellicer’s book, Caring Enough to Lead, describes leadership this way: “Authentic leaders are people who do what they do because of a genuine desire to make things better for others. The fact that a personal sacrifice might be required does not stop them. Simply stated, they care enough to lead.”


Dr. Aretha Pigford, in the forward to Leonard Pellicer’s book, Caring Enough to Lead, describes leadership this way: “Authentic leaders are people who do what they do because of a genuine desire to make things better for others. The fact that a personal sacrifice might be required does not stop them. Simply stated, they care enough to lead.”

Caring may be the most underutilized and underappreciated of all leadership traits. It’s unfortunate that more leaders don’t realize the impact that can come from caring about their team members. In particular, if a leader hopes to change the culture of an organization, caring is a great place to start. About 10 years ago, the University of Pittsburgh realized that it needed one such cultural change in some of its auxiliary service areas. Specifically, housing, dining, and the ID center at that time, were struggling with customer service, efficiency, productivity, and morale. I was hired to change the direction of the organization and knew that a cultural shift was necessary. This article is a brief summary of some of the key decisions and actions that our leadership team implemented to orchestrate a turnaround in these auxiliary areas at Pitt.

Three things became apparent to me almost immediately upon moving into the auxiliary services area: The department suffered from a lack of open and honest communication; there was no clear mission or guiding principles, so the team really didn’t know our reason for being, and we had some really good people who wanted to do well, but were unclear about the expectations or did not have the resources to succeed. All of these things gave me hope that we could get the department onto the right course with some effective leadership from our management team.

One of our first actions was to put together a cross-functional group that brought together team members from all parts of our department – union employees, managers, support staff – and ask them to develop a mission statement and values to help focus our department. This group worked with our Human Resources Organization Development unit to collectively agree on it. We printed the mission and values on posters to hang in lunchrooms, by time clocks, and in offices, and we produced pocket cards that employees could carry with them. The values they agreed on – accountability, customer focus, integrity, respect, and teamwork – were perfect for us and set the tone for the cultural shift that was needed. These values still guide us today.

The group also developed a slogan to capture our reason for being in a more succinct form. “Working to make school a little more like home” is our mantra, and we use it often to remind us of our most important priority.

Perhaps more important than even the mission and values, this working group also helped with our communication issues. Having members from all areas of our department work together on this mission and values project set a tone for the type of communication we would now expect. Our goal was to create a collaborative environment where management and union employees worked together and were united in a common cause. This working group made a symbolic statement to the entire team that this would be how we communicate going forward.

I believe it is critical for a leader moving into a new area to over-communicate. It is common for employees to be nervous when a new leader comes in, and over-communication helps to alleviate their anxiety. This abundant communication also allows the new leader to convey expectations, values, and beliefs that are critical for changing a culture. As such, I took advantage of every opportunity I could to communicate with the team. We started “quarterly coffees” where employees could bring any issues they wanted to address and any time I knew we were gathering the entire team or even a smaller unit, I was there to talk openly with them.

I also met with every individual on our team one-on-one. It took me about a year to meet with all 150 people, but it was an important part of our changing the culture. I would have the meetings in my office and many employees commented that they had never been to the “boss’s office.” Their statements were testament to the division that existed between labor and management. I started all of these meetings by asking the employees to tell me a bit about themselves. When they jumped immediately into talk of work, I would say we’ll get to work in a minute; tell me about your family and what you like to do. Eventually, we would get to work discussion where I would collect their ideas on how we could make the department better. Focusing the start of the discussion on who they were, who their families were, and what they enjoyed, sent a message that I care about them, not just about the work they do. These meetings played an important role in what now has become a great success story. They provided me with an opportunity to communicate clearly and directly the expectations of our department. I looked every employee in the eye and told them the most important thing we do is take care of our students. The meetings also allowed me to show that I care and that my relationships with our team members were going to be based on openness, honesty, and trust. These meetings helped form the foundation of trust that is so critical to cultural change. Lastly, I came away with a long list of ideas that could help our department improve. Many of these things were “low hanging fruit” that we could address right away, which also gave me the chance to show that I listened to them, we valued their opinions, and would take action on their ideas.

These meetings also helped me to realize that we really had some great individuals on our team who were very caring and committed people. Most of them wanted to do well; they wanted to work in a successful department and to be proud of the work they do. But many of them realized we were not a cohesive team and we were underperforming.

When a unit is underperforming, many leaders are tempted to make sweeping personnel changes, but prior experience in turnaround environments taught me that often times it is not the people who are the problem. Most people want to succeed and do well. The problem often lies in unclear expectations or a lack of resources and support. Part of our problem was that we did not set clear expectations, nor did we measure our performance to see how we were doing in relation to those expectations.

To address this, we pulled together another cross-functional working group to select a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). I knew that this would send a significant ripple through the organization as we had never tracked accountability to the level of detail allowed by a CMMS. To avoid excessive pushback, I wanted union employees to be an integral part of the selection process and their involvement on the working group helped get buy-in to this major change for our team. The group selected a CMMS and we began implementation immediately. Today we use our CMMS to report monthly on our Key Performance Indicators and we sit down to review these reports as a group. We evaluate our performance and take actions to help us serve our customers more efficiently and effectively. This data also allows us to celebrate when we exceed expectations and these celebrations have been a critical part of improving morale and changing the culture.

I am proud of our union crews, in particular, because they are the ones who had to adapt the most to the new processes involved with the CMMS implementation. They supported the changes and now we are a much more accountable and efficient operation because of their willingness to adapt and change. Ten years ago we had a paper system that allowed for very little monitoring and measuring. Today, our team members carry tablets and receive and respond to work orders in the field, providing our customers with a whole new level of service.

When I moved into auxiliary services, after spending 11 years in collegiate athletics, I knew very little about housing, dining, and the like, but I was confident I could lead a cultural change. I believe that organizations tend to emulate their leaders and, as such, I had to model the behaviors and values that I wanted our organization to adopt. I needed to live the values we agreed upon, but I also needed to show the individual team members that I cared about them. I needed to build trust or the team would doubt my motives and actions. Communication was a critical part of this trust building process. But I think the most important questions you can ask yourself as a leader are: Do you do what you do because of a genuine desire to make things better for others? Are you willing to make a personal sacrifice to make things better for others? If so, then you can change a culture because you truly care enough to lead.


Dr. Jim Earle
Dr. Jim Earle is the assistant vice chancellor for business at the University of Pittsburgh, overseeing areas that include housing, dining, the ID Center, and campus store operations. He is also an author, speaker, and leadership development coach. His book, 100 Yards of Success: Leadership Lessons from College Football, was released in 2013 and highlights 100 leadership lessons learned during 11 years working in the Pitt Athletic Department in various capacities.

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