Movement: A CEO’s secret weapon for cultural transformation


In large organizations, it is culture that determines how people do things. Culture is invisible, yet its effect can be seen and felt in every aspect of an organization. Culture is king. And how you foster culture matters.

In our work, we’ve discovered that one of the surest ways to achieve culture change by applying the principles used by successful societal movements. Movements like #BLM and #MeToo galvanize people to bring about change by rallying them around a shared higher purpose. Similarly, within organizations, leaders can bring about culture change by rallying their people around a shared purpose. Our client Mahindra did this with its successful “Rise” movement. Verizon is in the process of bringing about a powerful cultural change with its “Forward together” movement.

Of course, when discussing movements, we’re not saying there’s a single way to change an organization. But we do believe that activating purpose through movements is a better way.

As a leader of a large organization, demanding compliance is your prerogative, but if you create a movement in which people feel like they are the artists of a shared vision, you’re much more likely to galvanize the whole system you’re looking to transform.

So, how do you ensure your movement is successful? In our work of creating movements for clients over the years, we’ve identified a number of factors that are hallmarks of robust culture-change movements.

Leadership sets – and lives – the vision

Movements are not a set-it-and-forget-it exercise because, as movements take hold, they grow and evolve. In order to be sustained, the CEO and other C-suite leaders need to be stewards of the vision.

We’ve observed that leaders can’t ask for a change of their employees without doing that work themselves. If you, as a leader, desire to have great impact and influence, you have to realize that you are the message. In order for real transformation to occur and be sustained, it must happen simultaneously within individual leaders, between leaders, and at critical seams of the organization that supports the desired transformation.

The purpose comes from within

Many purpose statements are too theoretical and hard to understand for the average person. But movements are not simply a series of predefined steps you follow to get people to do what you want; they have to relate to some truth that exists in the company. In other words, they have to be authentic.

As Suzanne Tosolini of the Jim Stengel Company said to us, those looking to instigate cultural transformation can focus too squarely on values in isolation of the hard purpose discovery work. But purpose, she says, guides those values and subsequent behaviors, which results in values that not only have staying power, as they are rooted in history and reality, but will also be more inspiring internally. Arguably the bigger role of purpose is culture transformation, not external activation. If the purpose is activated within a company, it will ultimately inevitably be activated externally.

Layers of leadership are empowered

We have believed for a long time that the success of a movement inside an organization is dependent on crystallizing an idea that is rooted in the culture of the company but connected to an idea on the rise in culture. Moreover, it needs to live and breathe among the C-suite, but also the top executives of the company, which requires training and coaching. But more than this, it needs to live and breathe from the middle–out and the bottom–up.

The change starts small

“Start small to grow big” has been one of our mantras for years. We’ve found that while ambitions may be big when embarking on a new corporate purpose journey, culture change or launching a movement, the reality is that it’s essential to start with small groups, not the entire organization at once.

“Cascades” author Greg Satell echoed this when we spoke to him, noting that in his study of societal movements, often the worst thing you can do early on is to go big by doing something like sparking a mass protest. “This invites your most ardent critics to come out and take you on publicly,” Satell said. Starting small, with the group or groups of people who already support your cause, and then have them spread it to others who are like-minded, is much more often the key to success.

It’s communicated through story and with emotion

Over hundreds of cases and challenges, we’ve learned that the power of the movement happens through emotional messaging. Disseminating a movement through an organization is an emotional rather than rational exercise; it’s much more about heart than head. But even more, it needs to be designed to galvanize your people.

When we began working with LifeBridge Health, the easiest solution to unifying the disparate cultures of its multiple health care organizations would have been to explain to all stakeholders what they had in common and why it made sense that they were one. But in truth, that had already been done, and it had failed to engage people. It was only when we rallied people around the “Care Bravely” movement through emotional communication and storytelling that employees saw their shared purpose and were galvanized to participate.

Temple University professor Charles Dhanaraj explained this to us by saying that “you don’t drive purpose by a statement; you drive purpose through narratives. When the stories come down and become part of folklore, people get it. That has to happen internally as well as externally.”

Creating a movement around a shared purpose has the power to galvanize people. It motivates them at an emotional level. Much more than simply explaining to your people the culture change you want to see, it engages them in it. Ultimately it can give your organization reason for being more meaningful to the rank and file employee. So let go of top down mandates as you think through culture change, and embrace the power a grassroots movement can bring to your organization and the world.


This extract is from “Activate Brand Purpose” by Scott Goodson and Chip Walker ©2021 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

Scott Goodson is the founder and CEO of StrawberryFrog and the co-author of “Activate Brand Purpose.” He has worked with some of the world’s most iconic companies including Google, Emirates Airlines, Heineken, Coca- Cola and Walmart. He invented the concept of “Movement Thinking,” an approach that uses the principles of societal movements to solve marketing and leadership challenges. Scott has lectured on the subject at Harvard Business School, Columbia, Cambridge, TEDx, on BBC World Service, NPR, CNN, and has appeared in numerous national and international media outlets.

Chip Walker is the head of strategy and a partner at StrawberryFrog and the co-author of “Activate Brand Purpose.” He’s recognized for his expertise in brand creation and re-invention and has led the charge in transforming brands such as Goldman Sachs, Lexus and Bank of America. Chip is a frequent speaker and his writing and opinions have appeared in Adweek, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, CNBC and other media outlets.

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