12 things I’ve learnt about culture change over the last 12 months

Yesterday, alongside NCVO’s Chair Priya Singh, I spoke at an ACEVO members event about NCVO’s culture change work. At NCVO we’re keen to find opportunities to talk openly about this work and share learning with members and the wider sector. Here I summarise some of the things I talked about yesterday and share what I’ve learnt about culture change as a leader over the last year at NCVO.

1. Culture change is not just the big set piece things.

Yes, processes and practices such as updating our policies, putting in place an equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) learning programme, and setting up an EDI committee have all been of real significance at NCVO. But perhaps most important is the impact of culture change on our day-to-day, how it feels to work at NCVO, the way colleagues interact with each other, the way we make decisions as an organisation, and the way leaders listen to and empower people. This is how change starts to feel tangible and it’s also one of the reasons why real change takes a very long time.

2. Culture change doesn’t have an end point.

This is something our head of people and culture, Janu Miah, has taught us at NCVO. She encouraged us to think more broadly about culture change, with EDI as a crucial pillar alongside things like wellbeing, leadership, values, and how we operate as a hybrid organisation. I think initially we saw our task as delivering an ‘EDI programme’, following the independent report and investigations. I now understand that if we ever get to the point where we think the work is ‘done’, we risk falling behind. We need to continually evolve and challenge how we work so we can be the best we can be for our staff, members, and the sector.

3. Culture change is not a linear progression.

We’ve found that some of the significant milestones in our journey so far have actually set us back a few steps. But then we’ve been able to regroup and move even further forward. It’s not possible to leave one culture behind and magically move into another really great culture. In between subcultures and other issues can develop and these need to be addressed as we continue to move forward.

4. It’s hard to be objective about your own organisation’s culture.

Getting external help means we had a mirror held up to us by someone impartial. I’ve worked with several brilliant EDI consultants over the last few years. An EDI consultant can create a safe space so colleagues can openly share experiences, good and bad, to help build a full picture. This means change begins by really listening to the people who experience the organisational culture. We’ve also had support from a range of organisations and individual consultants delivering different aspects of EDI learning including Challenge, Stonewall, Zara Todd and Gwen Jones.

5. Taking the burden of change off colleagues from marginalised communities is vital.

There needs to be a balance between ensuring that people from marginalised communities are at the centre of EDI work, but also ensuring they’re supported properly and not expected to give their time for free on top of their day job. This is again where external organisations or consultants can help. But internal support can include carving out time for colleagues to step away from day-to-day work so they can focus on culture change work.

6. Finding ways to continually take the temperature of the organisation is important.

Remote working adds another layer of challenge because I don’t have as many chance interactions with colleagues. I’m also conscious of the positional power that being CEO brings and the fact it may mean people don’t feel able to tell me what they really think. We’ve put lots of things in place, such as polls at the start of staff meetings, longer surveys, and I run monthly question and answer sessions for all staff. I’ve also put in place a flatter structure, so leaders see and hear problems more directly via their teams.

My goal is a culture where sharing openly is encouraged as a way for the organisation to learn and improve. It’s also important that the board have a line of sight to the culture of the organisation too, without getting into operational matters.

7. Culture change starts at the top of an organisation.

A phrase that was shared at a recent ACEVO event was that ’culture will only be as good as the worst behaviour leaders will tolerate’. We have committed a lot of time and resource over the last year to developing the leadership team and our ways of working. We’re changing the way we make decisions to empower our teams. We’re taking a values-based approach to addressing organisational challenges and are striving to be open and transparent with the whole team about these.

8. Culture change shouldn’t be treated as a brand or reputational risk.

My background is in communications and everything I’ve ever learnt about protecting an organisation’s reputation has been unlearnt through our culture change work. Rather than trying to control the message, I learnt that our comms had to start from accepting where we are. This meant talking about failures, not trying to paint a more favourable picture of NCVO. I think that authenticity, a lack of defensiveness, genuine apologies and open sharing of learning can go a long way in rebuilding relationships and trust.

9. Embracing discomfort and openness probably shows we’re on the right track.

One of the people who has most shaped my thinking has been Collette Philips who runs Brand by Me and specialises in building brands that drive social justice. She introduces her events as a safe space and a brave space. Of course, there are challenging issues at play when it comes to EDI and culture, and it is critical that leaders take these seriously and respond in a way which shows humility and learning.

Yet it’s easy for this work to quickly turn into situations where leaders feel paralysed by fear of doing the wrong thing. This is where the brave space becomes important, a chance to embrace the discomfort needed to move forward. The work needs to start from the premise that this isn’t about blame but about all individuals taking responsibility for fixing things. There needs to be room for learning and change – both as individuals and as an organisation.

10. Being defensive does you and your colleagues a disservice.

It’s a normal human reaction as a leader to be defensive when you hear bad things about your organisation. But defensiveness will make cultural challenges worse and puts more burden onto staff from marginalised groups. Instead of being defensive, I’ve tried to use this as an opportunity for learning. Over the last few years, I’ve read as much as I can about white fragility, about ableism in workplaces, about the discrimination experienced by trans people, and about allyship. I have the most brilliant EDI coach who challenges and supports me in equal measures.

11. Culture change is about everyone.

It’s easy to think about culture change as something that is ‘done to’ an organisation, perhaps by the people team or an external consultant. Having people and culture change expertise is certainly really important to understand the issues, inform a strong roadmap for change, and to oversee specific parts of the process. Yet culture change means everyone changing how they work and interact as colleagues.

At our away day last week, the whole team came together to mark the end of our first year of culture change by developing a set of cultural commitments to each other and the sector we serve. Collective development and ownership of these commitments is one of the ways we’ve enabled everyone to participate in change.

12. Culture change can be joyful.

Across the organisation, through NCVO’s staff networks and through thinking about different ways of making decisions, we’ve empowered colleagues across the organisation to be leaders. Leadership isn’t just about positions in an organisation, it’s about attitude and actions. It’s been energising to see the initiatives colleagues have led to bring the organisation together.


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Sarah Vibert is the chief executive at NCVO.

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