How to successfully implement a culture change

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Stuart Hurst had an uphill struggle when it came to implementing a cloud technology strategy at his new firm. Here’s how he won over his sceptical colleagues .

Stuart Hurst started at UHY Hacker Young with the goal of bringing cloud technology to the firm. He was optimistic about the work and excited to get stuck in.

But he didn’t bargain for the cultural barriers that he would face. He wasn’t just bringing in new technology – he had to change mindsets and build a team as well.

Building a new culture is no easy task for a CEO, let alone someone in a middle management role, but Hurst has proven that is possible.

Benefits and difficulties

Hurst oversaw the adoption of cloud software at Styles and Co, and expected the process to be much the same at UHY Hacker Young, a much bigger firm.

He also had the buy-in of UHY Manchester’s managing partner, Mark Robertson, which gave him the confidence to take his project forward. “He had hired me, so I had support from the top. The pair of us ran a presentation on day one about what I was there for, so people were aware of what was coming.”

So Hurst decided the best approach initially was to explain the benefits and be upfront about the difficulties – a big change in culture always involves a few hiccups in the early stages. “I said: ‘For the first month, you’ll hate me.’

“Using the cloud, the average 18-hour job comes down to six hours. But, in the first three to six months, it goes in the opposite direction. In my previous company, those tasks went up to 21 hours in the bedding-in phase, because people are getting used to the system and you’re spending a lot of time training. Without a vision for how to progress, I’d have been sacked in those first three months. It’s tough to manage.”

Winning support

When Hurst initially came on board, his team consisted of him and one disgruntled bookkeeper who was extremely suspicious of cloud technology. “It was about reducing her workload. That was my sell,” Hurst recalls.

Having finally won the bookkeeper over, Hurst needed to start changing the rest of the culture, one person at a time. His relentless positivity and enthusiasm for what he was doing were definitely a big help. He was upbeat about accountancy in a way that was foreign to the firm at the time.

“You need to find what will get people excited about a new way of working,” he explains. “Show them how they can see stuff in real time, and how they can spot what’s gone wrong and address it there and then.
It helps to see the bigger picture. Staff realised they wouldn’t just be number-crunching – they’d be doing advisory.

But we’ve always done it this way

All of this isn’t to say that Hurst didn’t meet continued resistance, though – big cultural changes will never be universally accepted. “If I had £1 for each time I heard ‘That’s how we’ve always done it’, I’d be a very rich man,” Hurst laughs. “Transparency is key. You need to share all the successes, as well as all the things that haven’t gone so well.”

The final ingredient for bedding in cultural change is bringing in new people. They will embrace the new culture from day one, and help to spread it.

“The younger generation are great for helping to instigate change,” Hurst says. “They’ve got no preconceptions. It creates a sort of cultural change sandwich when you’ve got partner buy-in and champions at the bottom.
It squeezes the middle.”

A team driving change

Now Hurst has built a dedicated cloud team of 20 people, and they’re all working to drive change. They’ve converted more than 400 clients so far, as the cloud-first approach slowly becomes the norm.

“We’ve gone from a workplace culture akin to [’80s kids’ show] The Raggy Dolls to a motivated, highly efficient team of accountants,” he says. “Staff are so excited about this way of working. They’re no longer just whacking numbers into a spreadsheet. Staff can see everything in real time and connect the dots. Their work has become business advisory.”

In summary

Any big change within an organisation is disruptive at the beginning. But by being clear on the benefits and challenges at every step of the way is a key factor in getting your team to adopt new ways of working.

For more on leadership and instigating change:

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