Executive Coaching: How to Manage the Culture Warrior

By Sean Abbas on August 2, 2013

Ah, the Culture Warrior…  A person who exists in almost every organization in America and as a topic in many executive coaching sessions.  Most executives and executive coaches struggle with how to manage the Culture Warrior because they are usually a person who has been with you a long time. They have moved from position to position and from department to department. They are nice to their co-workers and know the organization inside and out.  You know they are capable of producing results because you have seen them do it before. Over the last several years however, it feels like they have decided to take an early “working retirement.”

I’ve encountered Culture Warriors throughout my career on a number of occasions.  Our business grew from $1.5 million in revenue to $12 million in revenue.  I was transitioning from being the sales manager to an executive role leading the organization.  We were growing rapidly and we always tried very hard to give opportunities to people from within the organization.  One of our core values was learning, so we focused on giving good people the training they needed and time to grow in to the requirements of their new positions.

It was a strategy that worked very well for us… In most cases.  Along the way we had some good people who did not grow into their positions as we had hoped. They remained nice people, kept a positive attitude and treated their co-workers with respect.  Yet they were damaging our culture because they were not producing acceptable results and everyone around them could see it.  In fact, many times they resisted the changes necessary to grow, keep pace with customer needs, and move our organization forward.


It’s really hard for an executive or manager to communicate the need to produce positive results with Culture Warriors because we like them as people.  If things are going well enough in your business it’s easy not to address how they are undermining growth and hurting your culture.

From my experience, Culture Warriors cause more damage than most executives realize or care to admit.  Managers and employees in your organization are forced to find ways to work around them. Like you, they don’t have the heart to coach the nice guy who’s been around forever and hold him/her accountable for their lack of results.

In executive coaching circles, the Culture Warrior is the root of many issues that appear to be unrelated.  What we normally discuss are the byproducts of the Culture Warrior’s lack of producing acceptable results:

  • We are having a hard time getting this new initiative off the ground.
  • We just gained a large customer, but are having problems meeting their requirements.
  • New products aren’t being developed and we are missing opportunities to grow.

If you are honest with yourself, like the employees, you are trying to work around the Culture Warrior as well.  The issue probably isn’t that the new software system isn’t coming online fast enough. The issue is more likely that someone is standing in the way and keeping the new software from coming online. Too often, the coaching we are looking for and the solutions we come up with do not address the Culture Warrior as the root of the problem.


Do You Have a Culture Warrior?


Here are some characteristics to look for:

  1. Business outgrows a person and their skill set.
  2. They fight change with a smile on their face.
  3.  They attend company functions, often helping to organize them.
  4. They do highly visible things to make themselves appear engaged.
  5. They have usually developed a personal friendship with their manager or the leader.

How to I Manage the Culture Warrior?

Here are some basic steps for successfully managing the Culture Warrior.

  1. Be specific in communicating and measuring their results.
  2. Make sure it’s understood that producing results matters to you.
  3. Make you let them know how much you appreciate their contributions in the past.
  4. Do not be afraid to give consequences for the lack of producing results.
  5. Do not expect others to do their work for them.
  6. If they do not start producing results, make sure they have training available and hold them accountable.


The Wrap

Managing the Culture Warriors in your organization is one of the most difficult things you will do.  People doing executive coaching tell me that it’s an issue they deal with regularly with presidents and CEO’s.  Stop ignoring the difficulty and embrace the challenge.  If you honestly reflect on Culture Warriors in your business, you will realize that they are at the root of many on-going struggles and your organization being slow to adapt.  As an executive, and leader, you need to put your personal feelings for the Culture Warrior aside.  Think of how they are putting your organization at risk, and the 90% of employees they are hurting by limiting opportunities for growth. Those folks are working around your Culture Warrior’s lack of action every day, and as an executive it is your responsibility to address the situation.