Cultural Transformation Can be a Rocky Road

Cultural transformation is not an overnight event. The word ‘transformation’ means, “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” So, cultural transformation is a change or shift in an organization or a team. The road to such shift is not simple, easy, or always smooth.

Recently, I watched, First Man, a 2018 film starring Ryan Gosling in the role of Neil Armstrong. I was not very familiar with the journey leading up to the point that Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins embarked on the Apollo 11 spaceflight.

As a nation, we were so proud that they reached the moon, and we all look at that point in time with great pride. We remember Armstrong’s first words as he stepped on the moon, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It all seemed magical.

What many do not remember is that Neil Armstrong, along with many others, embarked on multiple dangerous test flights and enormous amounts of training. People lost their lives while aiming for this spectacular feat.

While I was watching this movie, I thought about how this journey was a lot like that of attempting cultural transformation. Below are how I see the similarities:

Fear can be pervasive.

While watching this movie, the fear in the minds of the astronauts and those on the ground was palpable. The film’s director wanted us to see how Armstrong tossed back and forth in his mind about the possibility of failure and the unknown. This fear was more obvious as the crashes and accidental deaths increased.

Organizational leaders are often fearful of embarking on cultural transformation. There are many unknown factors at play. Will they lose key employees, or customers in the process? The answer might be yes and no. Should the answer stop your organization from pursuing this shift?

Risks can be high.

Can you imagine the risks associated with going to the moon? There were the possibilities of electrical failures, fires, falling debris, explosions, communication failures and much more. The higher the risk the rockier the journey. Nonetheless, it doesn’t make the journey less necessary.

Organizational leaders must consider the risks of attempting to change culture. Despite the risks, the rewards can be great.

57% of employees cite a positive workplace culture as the main contributor to meaningful work.

TINYpulse 2018 Employee Engagement Report

When employees feel like the work that they do is meaningful, they are more willing to go over and above to achieve business results. The benefits from their increased emotional investment make cultural transformation worth the risk.

Mistakes are inevitable.

After watching, First Man, I was dumbfounded by the mistakes that were made prior to the actual historical spaceflight. It was not a seamless process. The mistakes cost lives and millions of dollars.

Many organizational leaders are taken aback by the potential for mistakes along the cultural transformation journey. This may stop or dissuade many a leadership team. Irrespective, mistakes are inevitable. Rapid iteration is a key part of any transformation. Iteration implies a shorter evaluation process. Any type of innovation invites mistakes. That is how we learn and grow. Don’t let the fear of making mistakes stop the process.

Obstacles are everywhere.

As in all things, obstacles to achieving anything are everywhere. It is how we see them, how we attack them, how we embrace them, that makes all the difference!

Before the Apollo 11 flight, Neil Armstrong and many other astronauts experienced barriers to getting to the successful flight. From a fire in the spaceship, to crash landings, and to negative public perception, they persisted nonetheless.

When we embark on lofty goals that benefit many, obstacles will be everywhere. What will we do with them? How will we use them?


I love this quote from John F. Kennedy when speaking at Rice University following the successful landing on the moon,

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and to measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

JFK at Rice University

This highlights the fact that any journey worth taking is worth pursuing with fervor. Cultural transformation can, indeed, be a rocky road.  There are risks, fears, mistakes and obstacles along the way. Nonetheless, organizational leaders who bring out the best of what their people have in search of that better culture are going to fully experience transformation. Don’t do it, because it is easy, but because doing the hard thing will create a culture where all employees will feel respected, valued and heard. That is worth the rocky journey.


Heather Younger
Heather Younger
Heather Younger gets it. As a best-selling author, international TEDx speaker, podcast host, facilitator, and Forbes Coaches Council coach, she has earned her reputation as “The Employee Whisperer”. Her experiences as a CEO, entrepreneur, manager, attorney, writer, coach, listener, speaker, collaborator and mother all lend themselves to a laser-focused clarity into what makes employees of organizations and companies – large and small - tick. Heather has facilitated more than 150 workshops, reaching +100 employers and their employees. Her motivation and philosophy have reached more than 20,000 attendees at her speaking engagements on large and small stages. Companies have charted their future course based on her leading more than 100 focus groups. In addition, she has helped companies see double-digit employee engagement score increases through the implementation of her laws and philosophies. She has driven results in a multitude of industries, including banking, oil & gas, construction, energy, and federal and local government. Heather brings a tenacious and inspirational outlook to issues plaguing the workforces of today. Her book “The 7 Intuitive Laws of Employee Loyalty” hit the Forbes Must-Read list and is a go-to source for HR professionals seeking insight into their organization's dynamics. Heather’s writing can also be found on her blog at EmployeFanatix, as well as articles in Forbes, Huffington Post, Thrive Global, American Express Open Forum, and more. Coupled with her Leadership with Heart podcast, weekly videos, and employer newsletters, Heather stays connected to organizations long after she leaves the stage or conference roomWhen all the emails are returned and the mic is turned off, and Heather acts as co-manager of her busy household in Aurora, Colorado with her husband, where they oversee their four children.

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  1. I consider the corporate culture as a dialectical intertwining of history, strategy and daily practice. A culture, therefore, that
    it is not only a historical fact, the result of a past of successes which has now become immutable, but which is also a planning activity, reflective and voluntary, which can give rise to iterative experiences, capable of transforming into meanings, systems of meaning, values ​​e
    cultural norms. Ultimately, it is a culture in continuous training, because there is always some kind of learning about how to relate to the environment and to manage internal affairs. It’s here
    which also shows the dual role played by culture in the enterprise: an internal function or relationship of integration and socialization and an external function or relationship of distinction and legitimation. In both of these functions, culture carries out a work of selection, in order to preserve both the stability of the business and the adaptation to the external environment, always preserving the core of its identity.
    It is essential to identify a value paradigm of change, which is recognizable, shared and universally recognized.
    The success of the cultural and organizational change is based on the mobilization of high energy levels, and therefore on the ability to make the energy and motivation of people active within
    organization. A cultural change, therefore, can only take place through an operation of “contagion” and involvement, which requires the development of a strong innovative leadership on the part of the heads of the organization who must lead the
    change, capable of mobilizing in every individual all the energy that can express, which is closely related to the initiative and a sense of responsibility towards the organization to which it belongs.

  2. Love your article Heather. It takes couragious leadership to break free of the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset and be willing to do the hard things it takes to effect change. In my experience it can be done even in government work once leaders accept what they cannot change and take steps to do what they can. Here’s to more leaders willing to take the risk!

  3. Great article, Heather! Only you could weave the lessons from First Man into a piece about cultural transformation. You’re so spot on about “doing the hard thing that will create a culture where everyone feels respected, valued and heard.”
    BOOM! There it is! Thank you for sharing your gifts!