A Lesson from RTI International: How to Leverage Influencers to Drive Cultural Change

It can be tough getting people to change — especially when you’re talking about getting them to buy into change in the workplace.

Fabled automaker Henry Ford, a man who was always driving change, knew this all too well. In fact, he liked to say, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

But Henry Ford never had to deal with smart phones, social media, or the ever-changing nature of the 21st Century workplace.

Laura Peterson is Senior Director of Global Talent Development at RTI International, a not-for-profit global research firm, and she knows a little bit about driving change, too. In fact, she recently talked about the importance of using influencers to help drive workplace change at last Fall’s FuelX New York Career Experience Conference.

Leveraging weaknesses into strengths

Her first insight? It’s that she’s not really a human resources leader even though she spends a lot of her time getting her fellow employees to change how they do things. Laura said:

“What you should know is that I am not an HR person and I never was an HR person until I joined RTI a few years ago. I am actually an OD (organizational development) person with a consulting background. What you’ll notice is that we really focused hard on how do we make people want to do this versus how do we do this to people?

Influencers RTI International Fuel50

We’re a highly relational organization that works by consensus. That has always been everyone’s complaint — “Oh, we have to get everyone’s approval.” You have to get everyone to say “yes,” and you know what? That’s a weakness that you can leverage as a strength. So how do you get everybody on board who are the influencers? Find them, make them your friends, talk to them all the time.”

Workplace influencers can have a powerful impact on the entire organization, but too many businesses either don’t really utilize them, or, don’t know how to get the most out of them because they don’t really have a strategy for how to use them.

As Laura points out, RTI International has seriously thought through both of these issues. As she describes it:

“We call these people — our influencers — our unicorns. Every single major initiative that we push out has influencers, our unicorns. … So, we create this cross functional team of unicorns to help us think about the intersection between the business and what we want to do.

Influencers RTI International Fuel50

So it wasn’t, “Hey, knock, knock, knock. HR has got another great initiative. We’re going to push this out on you.” It was really focused on, “Hey, this influencer said it’s awesome. You want in? I hear it’s going to be great.” It’s focused more like that. We use analytics. We sought out first some class solutions like Fuel50. We use rapid design and prototyping.”

The power of influencers in changing your culture

“We also use a ton of evaluations because we have so many scientists who are great at creating evaluations. We post people every time they touch anything of ours. We ask them three questions every time we do an annual employee survey, and we do quarterly surveys internally. We also have standing focus groups on all our programs. We ask a lot of questions. People like to be asked a lot of questions in our group.

Influencers RTI International Fuel50

We always do a pilot before we go live, and this was a huge shift for us. We work with the willing, which means if we’ve got people who are like, “No, that’s garbage. We’re not doing that.” Well, you don’t have to do it because we don’t have a mandate culture. If you don’t want to do leadership development, if you don’t want to do career pathing, if you don’t want to do gigs … then don’t do it. You’re going to want to do it though but don’t do it, and in fact, I refuse for you to even be in it, which is also a really great way to get people to do stuff. “Wait, no. What’d you say? I want to do it now. C’mon.”

At RTI International, as Laura points out, the focus is on the influencer/unicorns being the organization’s platoon leaders in helping to lead organizational change. It’s a different approach than what you find in most companies but, as Laura notes, this kind of approach seems to be clicking at RTI. Here’s how she describes it:

“Once we created the philosophy, we really pushed on the culture. This was a three-month conversation of culture change. It started at the top, and then I used my unicorns and deployed them across the organization to start fueling up from the bottom.

RTI International Fuel50 FuelX

The biggest place we did this was in our employee resource groups. So, for us, our employee resource groups are like the Women in Leadership Group, the Black Employee Resource Group, the Pride Group, the Asian Group. I mean, there’s a group for everyone, and those groups probably have the most engaged employees.

So, we had unicorns in all those different groups talking to those folks in all of their meetings. So, you should think about NOT putting it in the corporate newsletter that no one reads unless your name is on it. And NOT putting it on the internet site that no one goes to because they don’t have time. But, make sure you are really leveraging the channels where people were active and where those unicorns were talking … that was our main focus.”

RTI International Fuel50 FuelX

Focusing on the power of influencers, and even the decision to call them “unicorns,” shows how seriously the organization at RTI is about leveraging influencers and using their insights and abilities to grow the culture from the ground up.

It’s something that a lot of companies talk about doing, but few are able to execute it very well. At RTI International, they seem to have found a unique but powerful approach that other organizations would do well to study and learn from.

FuelX Career Experience Conference

Early-bird registrations are now open for FuelX London (23 March 2020). Don’t miss the chance to join us and Global HR Industry Analyst Josh Bersin for this exciting FuelX event. Spaces are limited, register now!

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